It's official, men and women ARE from the same planet
Scientists would have us believe that men and women are so different they could hail from different planets.
But a new book claims the difference between the genders is down to the way we are brought up.
It says the idea we are hard-wired at birth, as promoted by 1992 bestseller Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, is outdated...
Instead, we are steered towards gender-defined skills by parents and teachers. According to the book, Delusions of Gender, by Cordelia Fine, a Melbourne University psychologist, there are no major neurological differences.
It seems most unlikely. Our daily experience suggests that there are some sex distinctions which run deep. Earlier this year, for example, I announced to a Year 8 class (14-year-olds) that I had some baby photos and asked if they'd like to see them. An enthusiastic chorus of "yes" came spontaneously from the girls, but the boys just looked at me blankly. It's difficult to believe that such an immediate, unrehearsed response could arise just from intellectual conditioning.
So why would Cordelia Fine assert that there are no major hard-wired differences between the sexes? One of the glories of the internet age is that you can easily do some research of your own on such matters. I looked up Cordelia Fine and discovered an article she wrote setting out her ideas.
It turns out that she is a feminist with standard, orthodox ideas about autonomy. Like most liberal moderns, she believes that autonomy is the aim of life. She rejects the traditional maternal role of women as being non-autonomous and therefore (in her eyes) low status. She wants to transform traditional roles so that women are careerist and men participate equally in the "inferior" domestic and maternal tasks. This shift toward a single unisex role for men and women represents gender equality for her.
So she worries about trends in science which are revealing neurological differences between men and women. She thinks that these scientific findings might lead people to accept sex distinctions as natural and inevitable. Such an attitude she labels "neurosexism".
She wants to continue to believe that sex distinctions are social constructs which can be entirely overcome. This puts her at odds with scientific research showing that there are differences in the functioning of the male and female brain.
But do people accept the unisex ideal? In her article, Cordelia Fine admits that research shows that people drop the unisex ideal once they've had children. Why would women in particular do this? According to Cordelia Fine, it's because a belief in innate differences makes it easier for women to accept their "inferior," non-autonomous motherhood role:
If a frazzled mother can tell herself that her hard-wired powers of female empathy uniquely position her to intuit that the red-faced, cross-patch baby wants to get down from the highchair, then there’s no need to feel cross that she’s the only one who ever seems to notice. If she can take seriously Brizendine’s claim that it is only when the children leave home that “the mommy brain circuits are finally free to be applied to new ambitions, new thoughts, new ideas” she may feel less resentful that the autonomy to pursue a career unhindered, a freedom still taken for granted by her partner, is now no longer extended to her.
And what if women feel torn trying to combine career ambitions with motherhood? The answer, asserts Fine, is not to accept limitations, but to change social arrangements - by which she means loading more work onto the shoulders of men (whom she treats with some contempt). For instance, in response to one (female) neurobiologist she writes:
Brizendine promises her female readers that “understanding our innate biology empowers us to better plan our future.” It may startle some readers to learn that family friendly workplace policies are not the solution to reduced maternal stress and anxiety, and that fathers who do the kindergarten pick-ups, pack the lunch-boxes, stay home when the kids are sick, get up in the night when the baby wakes up, and buy the birthday presents and ring the paediatrician in their lunch hour are not the obvious solution to enhanced maternal ‘brainpower’.
(Predictably, Brizendine never even hints that the overwired working mother consider the simplest antidote to the ill-effects of going against her ‘natural wiring’: namely, giving her partner a giant kick up the neurological backside.)
She seems to think that aggressively placing extra demands on hard-working family men is a viable way forward.
I don't believe that sex distinctions are entirely due to hormones, genes or brain structure. Our behaviour as men and women is also influenced by the culture of relationships (i.e. by what is selected for in relationships) and by ideals of masculinity and femininity promoted within a society.
But I wouldn't want to be taking Cordelia Fine's position that there are no significant neurological distinctions between men and women. I doubt if that will be borne out by further scientific research.
Nor would I want to share her politics. Feminists sometimes claim that they are all for choice for women. But Cordelia Fine is yet another feminist who ends up pushing one option alone. Because she sees autonomy as the great prize, and careers as the way to get autonomy, she treats the motherhood option as an inferior, low-status pursuit associated negatively with oppression and inequality.
In the Cordelia Fine version of life, women get to have children but they don't get to identify positively with the motherhood role. Motherhood becomes something dangerous to women, a potential hindrance to the important things. It therefore loses its standing as a legitimate choice.
Is it any wonder that so many women drop their belief in Cordelia's version of "egalitarianism" once they have children?