If you thought sexism was a thing of the past, then think again says psychologist and writer, Cordelia Fine. In this often highly amusing talk, she argues that the notion that there is an immutable biological difference between the male and female brain is just another form of sexism: neurosexism. And Cordelia's on a mission to discredit the science behind it.
After her excoriating attack, Cordelia goes on to warn of the dangers such ideas can have on the path to greater equality between the genders.
Cordelia Fine appeared at the 2010 Festival of Dangerous Ideas, presented by the Sydney Opera House and St James Ethics Centre. The discussion was chaired by Edwina Throsby.
Dr. Cordelia Fine is an academic psychologist and writer. She is the author of A Mind of Its Own: How your brain distorts and deceives, and writes regularly for the press. Her second book, Delusions of Gender: How our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference has recently been published.
Cordelia studied Experimental Psychology at Oxford University, followed by an M.Phil in Criminology at Cambridge University. She was awarded a Ph.D. in Psychology from University College London.
She is currently a Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Agency, Values and Ethics at Macquarie University, and an Honorary Research Fellow at the Department of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne. Cordelia lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband and two sons.
Vali Nasr is Senior Adjunct Fellow on the Middle East for the Council on Foreign Relations.
Additionally he is Professor of Middle East and South Asia Politics and Associate Chair of Research at the Department of National Security at the Naval Postgraduate School.
In language, a grammatical category contrasting distinctions of sex or animateness. Gender marking may be natural, with linguistic markers of gender corresponding to real-world gender, or purely grammatical, with markers of gender in part semantically based and in part semantically arbitrary. In languages with grammatical gender, nouns are partitioned into sets. Membership of a noun in a set may be expressed by its form and/or by the forms of other parts of speech controlled by the noun. Closely related to gender systems in language are class systems, as in Bantu languages, in which the number of sets into which nouns are partitioned is much larger, with distinct categories for things such as plants, animals, and tools, though, as with nouns in Romance and Germanic languages, assignment of most nouns to classes is semantically arbitrary.
Cordelia Fine makes some thought-provoking points in this conference, and articulates the need to question unfounded conclusions quite well.
That said, I find her seemingly dogged insistence about NOT finding any difference between male and female brains or naturally innate abilities between them puts me on intellectual guard a little. She attacks rushed conclusions and incomplete research with a scathing tongue, offering much sarcasm and wit. That's well and good, but I come away from her presentation with the idea she's on a mission of enforcing political correctness in the scientific community to see absolutely no difference between males and females, and that feels a little overstretched and belabored to me.
Hardwired sex differences in the brain may be "dangerous" ideas. They may be impolite. They may be subject to much conjecture and further research. But this in and of itself isn't to say that there aren't any differences between males and females, on average. Ms. Fine goes on to say empathetic vs systemic male/female claims are "spurious and legitimate sexual stereotypes," but there is research that concludes otherwise—at least the "spurious" part. As for legitimating stereotypes, well, that's really a matter of personal choice, I think. We all can choose to simply be grown-ups, swallow our pride and need for everything to be equal and unoffensive, and look at the possibility that male and female brains, like male and female bodies, may very well be and most likely ARE different.
The Spanish Journal of Psychology seems to think so (2009, Vol. 12, No. 1, 76-83) In a longitudinal study in adolescence, researchers did find a greater female empathetic response.
Are we to believe this study is invalid as well? Apparently, María Vicenta Mestre, Paula Samper, María Dolores Frías, and Ana María Tur are misleading us too with "spurious claims."
I'm aware there are celebrity authors out there that like to tickle public opinion with sensational and ungrounded facts not yet supported by science, but that is not to say that science doesn't find certain realities about the human condition that doesn't march in perfect step with our intellectually polite world.
For the record, I'm male. I don't feel offended that a woman in general may have greater empathetic abilities than I. I'm open to hearing the evidence, and the counter-evidence that refutes it, if there really is any outside of "this is a dangerous idea." I think accepting the possibility of truth where it might not be the most polite or convenient for us is the real goal we all should be striving for if we are to consider ourselves intellectually responsible beings.
This is what Larry Summers said that everyone freaked out about :
It does appear that on many, many different human attributes-height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability-there is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference in means-which can be debated-there is a difference in the standard deviation, and variability of a male and a female population. And that is true with respect to attributes that are and are not plausibly, culturally determined.
If one supposes, as I think is reasonable, that if one is talking about physicists at a top twenty-five research university, one is not talking about people who are two standard deviations above the mean. And perhaps it's not even talking about somebody who is three standard deviations above the mean. But it's talking about people who are three and a half, four standard deviations above the mean in the one in 5,000, one in 10,000 class. Even small differences in the standard deviation will translate into very large differences in the available pool substantially out.
I did a very crude calculation, which I'm sure was wrong and certainly was unsubtle, twenty different ways. I looked at the Xie and Shauman paper-looked at the book, rather-looked at the evidence on the sex ratios in the top 5% of twelfth graders. If you look at those-they're all over the map, depends on which test, whether it's math, or science, and so forth-but 50% women, one woman for every two men, would be a high-end estimate from their estimates. From that, you can back out a difference in the implied standard deviations that works out to be about 20%. And from that, you can work out the difference out several standard deviations. If you do that calculation-and I have no reason to think that it couldn't be refined in a hundred ways-you get five to one, at the high end.
Now, it's pointed out by one of the papers at this conference that these tests are not a very good measure and are not highly predictive with respect to people's ability to do that. And that's absolutely right. But I don't think that resolves the issue at all. Because if my reading of the data is right-it's something people can argue about-that there are some systematic differences in variability in different populations, then whatever the set of attributes are that are precisely defined to correlate with being an aeronautical engineer at MIT or being a chemist at Berkeley, those are probably different in their standard deviations as well. So my sense is that the unfortunate truth-I would far prefer to believe something else, because it would be easier to address what is surely a serious social problem if something else were true-is that the combination of the high-powered job hypothesis and the differing variances probably explains a fair amount of this problem.
It seems a fair hypothesis based upon evidence and not particularly sexist.