Sunday, 19 September 2010

Delusions of Gender?

Oh Daddy passed an article from the Guardian on to me that he thought I'd be interested in. At Uni I love to research topics on gender. Written by Cordelia Fine, daughter of the author Anne Fine, the article raises a few points to whet out appetites for Cordelia's new book Delusions of Gender.

Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus...right? Everybody knows that women's brains are wired differently from men's. It's why so few women do well in math. It's why women gravitate toward dolls and tea sets as young children, and why they're so much better at understanding other people's emotions. It's why they're so good at housework! (Men are more wired to focus on one task — like arithmetic.) At least that's what a host of recent studies in the field of neuroscience have argued. Well, apparently not.

I was amongst the masses who was under the impression that some gender differences were scientific fact. In my research on autism, I've read a lot about how boys and girls brains are wired differently, how levels of testosterone between the genders dictates brain function and how autistic children have more testosterone in their bodies. Dr Simon Baron-Cohen (yes of the Ali G family) leads the way on this topic. Dr. Baron-Cohen suggests that low levels of testosterone result in a female, “E type” brain (for empathy); medium levels yield a balanced brain; and high levels a male, “S type” brain (for systemizing). Medium levels account for the fact that some girls are systemizers and some boys are empathizers. Dr. Baron-Cohen’s lab conducted research on infants who averaged a day and a half old, before any unconscious parental gender priming. Jennifer Connellan, one of Dr. Baron-Cohen’s graduate students, who conducted the study, showed mobiles and then her own face to the infants. The results showed that among the newborns the boys tended to look longer at mobiles, the girls at faces.  Thus proving this gendered difference. In the last week, debate has raged about this topic and a host of TV programmes have been aired prompting this 'scientific' fact.

Gareth Malone (a choraanimateur, singer and presenter!has been telling his probably very relieved audience that the reasons boys do poorly at school is because their brains are wired differently and that UK education is geared towards female students. But in my humble opinion, this TV programme will do more harm than good to UK education, if they don’t get over the idea that this sort of learning is good for boys ONLY. The rather odd premise of Malone’s ‘Extraordinary School for Boys’ is that disengagement from school is a problem that only afflicts men – the girls (whom we barely see) are presumed to be totally absorbed in whatever they’re being taught inside the classroom. The reason for this, we are told, is that schools are designed for the way that girls learn, but don’t take into account the way that boys learn. After we watched the show, my partner pointed out just how silly this notion is: the UK  education system came into being in order to train young MEN for jobs in the brand-new industrial economy. At that time, women weren’t even allowed into most professions. School was literally ‘designed for boys’. The basic structures of school have barely changed since then. So, when school is boring, it’s boring not because was designed ‘for girls’, but because it was designed for the nineteenth century.

Cordelia Fine, a research associate and the author of "A Mind of Its Own" (also about brain science), discovers that, far from supporting the existence of vastly different male and female brains, much of the research on the topic is not only deeply flawed, but dangerously misleading. Women aren't worse at math (as Fine proves in the book, bad neurological research is one of the reasons women are still struggling to catch up in the field), and girls' preference for girlish toys probably has more to do with social expectations than what's in their skulls. Fine's book is a remarkably researched and dense work that, even while tackling highly complex subject manner, retains a light, breezy touch.

You can read an interview with the author here, where she explains the point and inspiration for her book. One particular question that was posed is of particular concern to me as it's something that has been on my mind of late:

Parents who try to raise children in gender-neutral environments are often horrified when, despite their best intentions, their daughters are drawn to Barbies and their sons are drawn to violent toys. If there are no hard-wired differences between the sexes, why does this happen?
I spend a lot of time with parents, and you see egalitarian-minded parents try hard to rear their children in a non-gendered way. Then you see their children defy them. The fact is, babies are born into a world in which sex is the most important and obvious social division. It's constantly emphasized through segregation, through dress and so forth. Babies are born to parents who have a host of assumptions and expectations about gender, whether or not they consciously endorse those expectations. Studies have shown that parents have a tendency to see boys as more boyish and girls as more girlish than they actually are.

Once the children reach the age of 2, which is the age they discover which side of this gender divide they're on, all bets are off. Parents may prefer that girls not play with Barbies and boys not play with guns, but by that age children know what tribe they belong to, and will want to be part of it.

So if its not society that is foisting gendered stereotypes on to children, its the parents, if not the parents, its the educational system. So I would like to know exactly what Dr. Fine reckons one has to do to raise a child with no enforced gendered difference. It sounds impossible and a bit odd. Are we destined to produce gender neutral children? What the hell is gender neutral? Surely to use the word gender and neutral in the same sentence is a bit of an oxymoron? I'm off to buy the book tomorrow. What do you think?

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