An agenda with gender.

In 2010, I was living 100km north of Tokyo with my partner, and my mother-in-law sent us a care package from home. Included within this box of parochial delights and Australian paraphernalia was a book by Cordelia Fine, called ‘Delusions of Gender‘. It threw me for six.

156177_10150089481086405_2451210_nAs a zoologist who’d witnessed so many differences between males and females across hundreds of species, and who had assumed a huge amount of it was genetically determined or at least, significantly genetically influenced, this book challenged me. In a good way. It became one of the big defining steps in me wanting to further the feminist cause, and tackle the misconceptions that were continually being perpetuated by all sorts of people (myself included only days earlier).

It wasn’t that Fine argued that there were no differences at all between males and females. It was instead that she questioned the long-accepted and assumed reasons for why those differences have occurred, and interrogated the scientific literature behind them. It was brilliant, funny and yet confronting to see how much weak or even blatantly biased science had continued to occur in this area of psychology. She again touched on some of these major points in a more recent article in The Conversation, where she explained how scientific research itself can be ‘neurosexist’ – that is, subtly reinforcing and strengthening gender stereotypes in the experimental design and measurement – which then leads to researchers essentially getting the results they always expected to see, and often omitting key variables or influencers in their sample population. Not all of it is deliberate or malicious in intent but irrespective of intent, the fallout is significant.

For a female who works in science, and has to regularly encounter salient norms around the ‘female ability (or perhaps rather inability) to be a good scientist’ – strengthening these types of unhelpful stereotypes is both unethical and harmful, especially to the many who later fall victim to the prejudice and bias that can arise.

To illustrate this more explicitly – there is such a thing as ‘priming‘ gender in people. It could be done overtly or subtly, but priming makes people aware of their gender, and then aware of their gender’s stereotypical abilities or inabilities. It’s been demonstrated that people adjust their perception of themselves to better fit that stereotype, and subsequently adjust their performance in tests to then match that stereotype.

In the case of assessing emotions, the perpetuated myth is that women are better. In fact, there’s no differences between genders in how good we are at this. It gets more interesting though when you prime the subjects you’re testing (i.e. remind them of their biological sex and its associated stereotype) – and suddenly that’s when the differences start to show.

You can even go further than just making them aware of their gender:

  • Tell participants that ‘women generally perform better on these tasks’ – and they do.
  • Tell participants that there’s no difference between sexes, and then there isn’t. When you pay participants for every correct answer, men are curiously suddenly VERY good at being emotionally sensitive – and equal to women in their abilities.
  • Tell the male participants that emotional sensitivity makes them very attractive to women, and they do even better than the other conditions.

Similarly – for tasks that have been stereotypically associated with male skill (e.g. visual spatial rotation tasks) the same effect happens in the other direction. Tell men that this skill is linked more typically to ‘female/feminine’ jobs and their abilities decline. Ultimately I came away with a very healthy skepticism of terms like ‘hardwired differences’ especially when used in relation to differences in men and women (and even moreso when it is used in mass media reporting on such studies).

As a species we like to fit in. We behave in the way expected of us – to be normal or typical in our behaviour. Even if we think we are really independent in our thought, the results actually show otherwise – we’re hilariously fickle and ultimately like being part of the pack – however the pack is being defined in that period of history, or even in that minute as those studies showed. It amuses me that one of the most fixed things about us is our ability to be fickle and change. Whilst that might be frustrating at times – especially when you’re a female in a profession dominated by men, or suffering at the result of these stereotypes in any situation – it is also a liberating thought. We have a huge capacity to change, to adjust our thoughts and performance, and challenge those norms.