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Debunking all that is sugar and spice and everything nice

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Coming off the back of the post-feminism of the Noughties, one neuroscientist has thrown the spotlight back on gender inequality and the way we perceive social standing in a seemingly egalitarian society. Cordelia Fine, author of Delusions of Gender: the real science behind sex differences, argues that while society has made developments in equality in leaps and bounds over the last century, we have entered into even more dangerous thinking of gender, somewhere even harder to eradicate – the subconscious.

The book, which Fine says took two years to write with “some extra thinking time on top of that”, investigates the current ideologies of gender differences and pulverises the common notion that they are based on inherent nature and biology.

An advocate of feminism long before the book was published in 2010, Fine found the assumptions of gender unsettling at a young age.

“I had my inner spitter when I was a child reading some of those sexist assumptions from Enid Blyton,” she says. Then “it was more that sort of feminist ire being rekindled after becoming a parent … My interest in the topic was really piqued by reading a popular book for parents that I read as a parent rather than as an academic and then becoming disturbed by how the neuroscientific information was being misrepresented.”

However, she is quick to clarify that she is not arguing that no differences exist between the male and female brains – rather that the science on which current beliefs are based is unfounded.

“The claim is very often made that science has shown that male brains are hardwired to be good at understanding the world and female brains are hardwired to be good at understanding people and therefore we shouldn’t expect much greater sex equality than what we’ve got now but science has not shown that. The scientific evidence is surprisingly flimsy,” she explains.

Hidden discrimination

Fine says we’ve hit a plateau in reaching gender equality, due in part to the subliminal nature of discrimination nowadays.

“We sort of have a veneer of gender egalitarianism,” she says. “There’s this impression that everything’s fair now and that sort of fails to appreciate the fact that sexism and stereotypes are still influencing us but it’s sort of gone underground.”

And while women have certainly covered a lot of ground in the last century, this new challenge could prove even more difficult.

“Unconscious sexism and sexism that’s unintentionally done is much harder to detect and also much harder to rail against,” says Fine. “Discrimination is probably taking the form of death-by-a-thousand-cuts kind of thing. One small bias and perception on decision-making, any one instance might be small, but if you add them up over the course of a lifetime, then that can really add up.”

So has feminism become even harder to define or even action upon because we don’t know what we’re fighting?

“Extensively we do have equal pay for equal work and we do have the Sex Discrimination Act and there’s no kind of legal or institutional injustice to sort of collectively fight against so in a way I suppose it does become a bit more difficult.” 

Fighting against the silent enemy

Without any legal or physical injustice to rally against, what is the next step towards reaching gender inequality? Fine says the process will be difficult, admitting she doesn’t “have any magic”.

“When I first started to write the book, I did have this idea that the last part of the book would be a list of suggestions … Through the course of researching the book, I realised how complex and interacting all the different factors are.”

Fine says the first step is an awareness that current gender research is flawed and an understanding of how and why we make decisions and form opinions of people.

“Our behaviour is influenced by factors that we’re not aware of including the person’s gender,” she says. “Being a bit aware of how these things can influence us is probably beneficial and I suppose trying to eliminate the scope for letting it influence us as much as possible.”

One example she uses in her research is the idea of shifting criteria – that people unintentionally shift job criteria of what they consider important to favour the better candidate and the preference can often be influenced by gender.

“One strategy might be to, before you have your interviews, say ‘What are we looking for and how do we rate the importance of these different criteria?’ Then that would reduce the scope for unconsciously favouring the male candidate, for example,” she says.  

One step forward

In opening up old myths for discussion and debunking the fallacies of gender associations, Fine has accomplished stage one of re-realising the sex equality debate. But where to from there?

“Start a revolution,” she laughs.

While she admits progress won’t be instantaneous, real change will come from continuously challenging the status quo.

“What’s encouraging is to look back on the ideas of the past and the fact that they do seem so ridiculous,” she says. “What’s being stressed now will probably come up against the same amused sense of view that the ideas of a hundred years ago.”

The trick is to approach the current information with a neutral mind and to take any definitive claims with a grain of salt.

“There are certain things that can be done within the neuroscientific community and the media and how the information gets produced and interpreted and presented to the public,” she says. “But no, I don’t think there’s any shortcut to changing peoples hearts and minds unfortunately.”

As for the silver lining, with academics the likes of Fine continuing to challenge what is accepted, change will undeniably come in time.

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Published on: Saturday, January 22, 2011

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