Neuroscience and Sexism

What quantum mechanics is to the New Age movement, neuroscience seems to be to sexism: Neuroscienctific terminology can be used to lend false credibility to sexist arguments. Like: men’s and women’s brains are so different that their traditional roles are based in the neurological firing of our brains. Cordelia Fine wrote an interesting – and upsetting – article taking apart the “findings” from neuroscience popularized in recent books (thanks to the Feminist Philosophers for blogging on Fine’s article!). Here are some excerpts from Fine’s excellent article (please see her article for all citations):

Unfortunately, scientific accuracy and commonsense are often casualties in the ugly rush to cloak old-fashioned sexism in the respectable and authoritative language of neuroscience. [...] Most lay readers, of course, have neither the background nor the resources to question the many inaccurate and misleading claims made about gender differences in the brain. There is also recent evidence that neuroscientific explanations enjoy a special “seductive allure”. [20] People’s capacity to spot the unsatisfactory nature of circular psychological explanations is significantly reduced when impressive-sounding neuroscientific terms are introduced. [...] What, exactly, is the draw of gender stereotypes dressed up as neuroscience? For men, perpetuation of the idea that they lack women’s hard-wired empathizing skills is a small price to pay for licence to lay claim to more valued and potentially profitable psychological advantages. [...] For women, a possible explanation of the appeal of neurosexism lies in the palliative system justification motive, “whereby people justify and rationalise the way things are, so that existing social arrangements are perceived as fair and legitimate, perhaps even natural and inevitable.” [11] Jost and colleagues have found that lower status groups have a remarkable capacity to rationalize what goes against their self-interests, internalize limiting stereotypes, and find legitimacy in the very inequalities that hold them back. [...] And as Cameron [5] has noted in her popular critique The myth of Mars and Venus, the effect, and also perhaps the appeal, of the idea of “timeless, natural, and inevitable” differences between the sexes is that it “stops us thinking about what social arrangements might work better than our present ones in a society that can no longer be run on the old assumptions about what men and women do.” Popular neurosexism permits us to sit back and relax, with its seemingly neat explanation of our social structure and personal lives. The answer, ‘Oh, it’s the brain,’ offers a tidy justification for accepting the status quo with clear conscience. [...] There is evidence that accounts of gender that emphasise biological factors leave us more inclined to agree with gender stereotypes, to self-stereotype ourselves, and for our performance to fall in line with those stereotypes. [...] Nineteenth century medical opinion proposed that girls who overtax their brains might never reproduce. Twenty-first century neurosexism warns that women who reproduce risk overtaxing their brains. It is, perhaps, a little less progress than many working mothers would have hoped for.

Fine calls this neurosexism: Sexism that appears to get the stamp of approval and scientific support from the hot new field of neuroscience. And it seems to be working: One of the books Fine mentions is on the New York Times bestseller list (#15) and has been translated into other languages. Is this a new version of a backlash or just the same old backlash in new clothes?

While there are differences between male and female brains – after all our bodies aren’t the same – look at the conclusions some of these authors come to, as quoted by Fine:

Levy [author of The Essential Difference] adds, “[t]his is no basis for equality. It is not an accident that there is no Nobel Prize for making people feel included.”

Freud said that women couldn’t be lawyers because they didn’t experience the Oedipus complex and thus never developed a super-ego. It is sad that almost 70 years later, we’re still bombarded with scientific-sounding nonsense that perpetuates gender stereotypes, cements the status quo, and leaves us all without alternatives for new gender roles that let us integrate all parts of who we are, whether they are “traditionally” male or female.






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Neuroscience and Sexism — 11 Comments

  1. Pingback: Which Flavor of Sexism is YOUR Favorite? « Sex with Timaree

  2. Dear Women_And_Men_Are_More_Alike_Than_Different! – It looks like your multi-part comment is out of order. If you can let me know what order the posts should be in, I can reorder them.

  3. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. By Anne Fausto-Sterling. New York: Basic Books, 2000, 473 pages.

    Spanish Translation: Cuerpos sexuados. Editorial Melusina: Barcelona, Spain, 2006.
    Professor Fausto-Sterling’s most recent work, entitled Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality, was published by Basic Books in February 2000. It examines the social nature of biological knowledge about animal and human sexuality.

    Sexing the Body received the Distinguished Publication Award in 2001 by the Association for Women in Psychology. In 2000 it was chosen as one of the Outstanding Academic Books of 2000 by CHOICE Magazine, Published by the American Library Association. It was also co-winner of the Robert K Merton Award of the American Sociological Association Section on Science, Knowledge and Technology.

    From the back cover:

    “Why do some people prefer heterosexual love while others fancy the same sex? Do women and men have different brains? Is sexual identity biologically determined or a product of social convention? In this brilliant and provocative book, the acclaimed author of Myths of Gender argues that the answers to these thorny questions lie as much in the realm of politics as they do in the world of science. Without pandering to the press or politics, Fausto-Sterling builds an entirely new framework for sexing the body-one that focuses solely on the individual.”

    r e a c t i o n s

    “A fascinating and essential book, at once vigorous, erudite, amiable and sly.”
    - Natalie Angier

    Anne Fausto-Sterling’s book, Myths of Gender: Biological Theories About Men And Women appeared in a second edition in 1992 which includes two new chapters on brain anatomy, sex differences and homosexuality.

    In Myths of Gender, Biology Professor Fausto-Sterling examines numerous scientific claims about biologically-based sex differences between men and women. Is there evidence–biological, genetic, evolutionary or psychological–to support the notion that our brains differ physically and that this, in turn, causes behavioral differences between the sexes? At once a scientific and a political statement, Myths of Gender seeks to reveal the politics involved in science.

    “In this book I examine mainstream scientific investigations of gender by looking closely at them through the eyes of a scientist who is also a feminist… This book is a scientific statement and a political statement. It could not be otherwise. Where I differ from some of those I take to task is in not denying my politics. Scientists who do deny their politics–who claim to be objective and unemotional about gender while living in a world where even boats and automobiles are identified by sex–are fooling both themselves and the public at large.”

    -Anne Fausto-Sterling, “The biological connection: an introduction,” Myths of Gender.

    Evelyn Fox Keller writes that the book “demonstrates in case after case the inadequacy of the evidence, and the abundance of alternative explanations, and the presence of circular reasoning…”

    Writing in the New York Review of Books, Stephen Jay Gould called it “A fine contribution to the empirical literature on human gender differences…a courageous book”, while Robert Attenborough, in a review of the book for Nature wrote “This book is closely and intelligently argued, well documented factually and carefully referenced…”

    Myths of Gender: Biological Theories about Women and Men, 2nd edition (with two new chapters). New York: Basic Books, 1992

    Myths of Gender: Biological Theories about Women and Men, New York: Basic Books, 1985

    German translation: Gefangene des Geschlechts? 1988

    Japanese translation: 1990

    Brown University // Providence, Rhode Island 02912 // 401.863.1000
    Last update: 8/20/2007

  4. Psychology Matters Homepage

    Think Again: Men and Women Share Cognitive Skills
    Research debunks myths about cognitive difference

    What the Research Shows

    Are boys better at math? Are girls better at language? If fewer women than men work as scientists and engineers, is that aptitude or culture? Psychologists have gathered solid evidence that boys and girls or men and women differ in very few significant ways — differences that would matter in school or at work — in how, and how well, they think.

    At the University of Wisconsin, Janet Shibley Hyde has compiled meta-analytical studies on this topic for more than 10 years. By using this approach, which aggregates research findings from many studies, Hyde has boiled down hundreds of inquiries into one simple conclusion: The sexes are more the same than they are different.

    In a 2005 report, Hyde compiled meta-analyses on sex differences not only in cognition but also communication style, social or personality variables, motor behaviors and moral reasoning. In half the studies, sex differences were small; in another third they were almost non-existent. Thus, 78 percent of gender differences are small or close to zero. What’s more, most of the analyses addressed differences that were presumed to be reliable, as in math or verbal ability.

    At the end of 2005, Harvard University’s Elizabeth Spelke reviewed 111 studies and papers and found that most suggest that men’s and women’s abilities for math and science have a genetic basis in cognitive systems that emerge in early childhood but give men and women on the whole equal aptitude for math and science. In fact, boy and girl infants were found to perform equally well as young as six months on tasks such as addition and subtraction (babies can do this, but not with pencil and paper!).

    The evidence has piled up for years. In 1990, Hyde and her colleagues published a groundbreaking meta-analysis of 100 studies of math performance. Synthesizing data collected on more than three million participants between 1967 and 1987, researchers found no large, overall differences between boys and girls in math performance. Girls were slightly better at computation in elementary and middle school; in high school only, boys showed a slight edge in problem solving, perhaps because they took more science, which stresses problem solving. Boys and girls understood math concepts equally well and any gender differences narrowed over the years, belying the notion of a fixed or biological differentiating factor.

    As for verbal ability, in 1988, Hyde and two colleagues reported that data from 165 studies revealed a female superiority so slight as to be meaningless, despite previous assertions that “girls are better verbally.” What’s more, the authors found no evidence of substantial gender differences in any component of verbal processing. There were even no changes with age.

    What the Research Means

    The research shows not that males and females are – cognitively speaking — separate but equal, but rather suggests that social and cultural factors influence perceived or actual performance differences. For example, in 1990, Hyde et al. concluded that there is little support for saying boys are better at math, instead revealing complex patterns in math performance that defy easy generalization. The researchers said that to explain why fewer women take college-level math courses and work in math-related occupations, “We must look to other factors, such as internalized belief systems about mathematics, external factors such as sex discrimination in education and in employment, and the mathematics curriculum at the precollege level.”

    Where the sexes have differed on tests, researchers believe social context plays a role. Spelke believes that later-developing differences in career choices are due not to differing abilities but rather cultural factors, such as subtle but pervasive gender expectations that really kick in during high school and college.

    In a 1999 study, Steven Spencer and colleagues reported that merely telling women that a math test usually shows gender differences hurt their performance. This phenomenon of “stereotype threat” occurs when people believe they will be evaluated based on societal stereotypes about their particular group. In the study, the researchers gave a math test to men and women after telling half the women that the test had shown gender differences, and telling the rest that it found none. Women who expected gender differences did significantly worse than men. Those who were told there was no gender disparity performed equally to men. What’s more, the experiment was conducted with women who were top performers in math.

    Because “stereotype threat” affected women even when the researchers said the test showed no gender differences – still flagging the possibility — Spencer et al. believe that people may be sensitized even when a stereotype is mentioned in a benign context.

    How We Use the Research

    If males and females are truly understood to be very much the same, things might change in schools, colleges and universities, industry and the workplace in general. As Hyde and her colleagues noted in 1990, “Where gender differences do exist, they are in critical areas. Problem solving is critical for success in many mathematics-related fields, such as engineering and physics.” They believe that well before high school, children should be taught essential problem-solving skills in conjunction with computation. They also refer to boys having more access to problem-solving experiences outside math class. The researchers also point to the quantitative portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), which may tap problem-solving skills that favor boys; resulting scores are used in college admissions and scholarship decisions. Hyde is concerned about the costs of scientifically unsound gender stereotyping to individuals and to society as a whole.

    Sources & Further Reading

    Hyde, J. S., & Linn, M. C. (1988). Gender differences in verbal ability: A meta- analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 104, 53-69.

    Hyde, J.S., Fennema, E., & Lamon, S. (1990). Gender differences in mathematics performance: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 107, 139-155.

    Hyde, J.S. (2005) The gender similarities hypothesis. American Psychologist, 60(6), 581-592.

    Spelke, Elizabeth S. (2005). Sex differences in intrinsic aptitude for mathematics and science?: A critical review. American Psychologist, 60(9), 950-958.

    Spencer, S.J., Steele, C.M., & Quinn, D.M. (1999) Stereotype threat and women’s math performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 4-28.

    American Psychological Association, January 18, 2006

    Learn more about EDUCATION, TESTING AND ASSESSMENT or GENDER ISSUES
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  5. PSYCHOLOGY MATTERS
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    Men and Women: No Big Difference
    Studies show that one’s sex has little or no bearing on personality, cognition and leadership

    The Truth about Gender “Differences”

    Mars-Venus sex differences appear to be as mythical as the Man in the Moon. A 2005 analysis of 46 meta-analyses that were conducted during the last two decades of the 20th century underscores that men and women are basically alike in terms of personality, cognitive ability and leadership. Psychologist Janet Shibley Hyde, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, discovered that males and females from childhood to adulthood are more alike than different on most psychological variables, resulting in what she calls a gender similarities hypothesis. Using meta-analytical techniques that revolutionized the study of gender differences starting in the 1980s, she analyzed how prior research assessed the impact of gender on many psychological traits and abilities, including cognitive abilities, verbal and nonverbal communication, aggression, leadership, self-esteem, moral reasoning and motor behaviors.

    Hyde observed that across the dozens of studies, consistent with the gender similarities hypothesis, gender differences had either no or a very small effect on most of the psychological variables examined. Only a few main differences appeared: Compared with women, men could throw farther, were more physically aggressive, masturbated more, and held more positive attitudes about sex in uncommitted relationships.

    Furthermore, Hyde found that gender differences seem to depend on the context in which they were measured. In studies designed to eliminate gender norms, researchers demonstrated that gender roles and social context strongly determined a person’s actions. For example, after participants in one experiment were told that they would not be identified as male or female, nor did they wear any identification, none conformed to stereotypes about their sex when given the chance to be aggressive. In fact, they did the opposite of what would be expected – women were more aggressive and men were more passive.

    Finally, Hyde’s 2005 report looked into the developmental course of possible gender differences – how any apparent gap may open or close over time. The analysis presented evidence that gender differences fluctuate with age, growing smaller or larger at different times in the life span. This fluctuation indicates again that any differences are not stable.

    Learning Gender-Difference Myths

    Media depictions of men and women as fundamentally “different” appear to perpetuate misconceptions – despite the lack of evidence. The resulting “urban legends” of gender difference can affect men and women at work and at home, as parents and as partners. As an example, workplace studies show that women who go against the caring, nurturing feminine stereotype may pay dearly for it when being hired or evaluated. And when it comes to personal relationships, best-selling books and popular magazines often claim that women and men don’t get along because they communicate too differently. Hyde suggests instead that men and women stop talking prematurely because they have been led to believe that they can’t change supposedly “innate” sex-based traits.

    Hyde has observed that children also suffer the consequences of exaggerated claims of gender difference — for example, the widespread belief that boys are better than girls in math. However, according to her meta-analysis, boys and girls perform equally well in math until high school, at which point boys do gain a small advantage. That may not reflect biology as much as social expectations, many psychologists believe. For example, the original Teen Talk Barbie ™, before she was pulled from the market after consumer protest, said, “Math class is tough.”

    As a result of stereotyped thinking, mathematically talented elementary-school girls may be overlooked by parents who have lower expectations for a daughter’s success in math. Hyde cites prior research showing that parents’ expectations of their children’s success in math relate strongly to the children’s self-confidence and performance.

    Moving Past Myth

    Hyde and her colleagues hope that people use the consistent evidence that males and females are basically alike to alleviate misunderstanding and correct unequal treatment. Hyde is far from alone in her observation that the clear misrepresentation of sex differences, given the lack of evidence, harms men and women of all ages. In a September 2005 press release on her research issued by the American Psychological Association (APA), she said, “The claims [of gender difference] can hurt women’s opportunities in the workplace, dissuade couples from trying to resolve conflict and communication problems and cause unnecessary obstacles that hurt children and adolescents’ self-esteem.”

    Psychologist Diane Halpern, PhD, a professor at Claremont College and past-president (2005) of the American Psychological Association, points out that even where there are patterns of cognitive differences between males and females, “differences are not deficiencies.” She continues, “Even when differences are found, we cannot conclude that they are immutable because the continuous interplay of biological and environmental influences can change the size and direction of the effects some time in the future.”

    The differences that are supported by the evidence cause concern, she believes, because they are sometimes used to support prejudicial beliefs and discriminatory actions against girls and women. She suggests that anyone reading about gender differences consider whether the size of the differences are large enough to be meaningful, recognize that biological and environmental variables interact and influence one other, and remember that the conclusions that we accept today could change in the future.

    Sources & Further Reading

    Archer, J. (2004). Sex differences in aggression in real-world settings: A meta-analytic review. Review of General Psychology, 8, 291-322.

    Barnett, R. & Rivers, C. (2004). Same difference: How gender myths are hurting our relationships, our children, and our jobs. New York: Basic Books.

    Eaton, W. O., & Enns, L. R. (1986). Sex differences in human motor activity level. Psychological Bulletin, 100, 19-28.

    Feingold, A. (1994). Gender differences in personality: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 429-456.

    Halpern, D. F. (2000). Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities (3rd Edition). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, Associates, Inc. Publishers.

    Halpern, D. F. (2004). A cognitive-process taxonomy for sex differences in cognitive abilities. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13 (4), 135-139.

    Hyde, J. S., Fennema, E., & Lamon, S. (1990). Gender differences in mathematics performance: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 107, 139-155.

    Hyde, J. S. (2005). The Gender Similarities Hypothesis. American Psychologist, Vol. 60, No. 6.

    Leaper, C. & Smith, T. E. (2004). A meta-analytic review of gender variations in children’s language use: Talkativeness, affiliative speech, and assertive speech. Developmental Psychology, 40, 993-1027.

    Oliver, M. B. & Hyde, J. S. (1993). Gender differences in sexuality: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 114, 29-51.

    Spencer, S. J., Steele, C. M. & Quinn, D. M. (1999). Stereotype threat and women’s math performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 4-28.

    Voyer, D., Voyer, S., & Bryden, M. P., (1995). Magnitude of sex differences in spatial abilities: A meta-analysis and consideration of critical variables. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 250-270.

    American Psychological Association, October 20, 2005

    For more on GENDER ISSUES, click here.

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    © 2009 American Psychological Associatio

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    Psychology?

    by Sandra E. Hockenbury Psychology 2002 – 690 pages

    Page 417

    Male and female brains are much more alike than they are dissimilar. Given that,
    how well justified do you consider the conclusion that subtle brain …
    About this book – Add to my library – More editions

  7. Below is an email I wrote to Oxford University Gender communication professor Deborah Cameron author of the great important book,The Myth Of Mars and Venus Do Men and women Really Speak Different Languages?.

    Dear Deborah,

    I recently read your great important book, The Myth Of Mars & Venus. I read a bad review of the book, The Female Brain on Amazon.com US by psychologist David H.Perterzell.The Science Journal Nature also gave it a bad review.

    I also thought you would want to know that John Gray got his “Ph.D” from Columbia Pacific University which was closed down in March 2001 by the California Attorney General’s Office because he called it a diploma mill and a phony operation offering totally worthless degrees!

    Also there is a Christian gender and psychology scholar and author psychology professor Dr. Mary Stewart Van Leewuen who teaches the psychology and Philosophy of Gender at the Christian College Eastern College here in Pa. She has several online presentations that were done at different colleges from 2005- the present debunking the Mars & Venus myth.

    One is called , Opposite Sexes Or Neighboring Sexes and sometimes adds, Beyond The Mars/Venus Rhetoric in which she explains that all of the large amount of research evidence from the social and behavorial sciences shows that the sexes are very close neighbors and that there are only small average differences between them many of which have gotten even smaller over the last several decades which she says happened after 1973 when gender roles were less rigid and that genetic differences can’t shrink like this and in such a short period of time, and that most large differences that are found are between individual people and that for almost every trait and behavior there is a large overlap between them and she said so it is naive at best and deceptive at worst to make claims about natural sex differences. etc.

    She says he claims Men are From Mars & Women are From Venus with no emperical warrant and that his claim gets virtually no support from the large amount of psychological and behavioral sciences and that in keeping in line with the Christian Ethic and with what a bumper sticker she saw said and evidence from the behavioral and social sciences is , Men Are From,Earth ,Women Are From Earth Get Used To It. Comedian George Carlin said this too.

    She also said that such dichotomous views of the sexes are apparently popular because people like simple answers to complex issues including relationships between men and women. She should have said especially relationships between them.

    Sociologist Dr.Michael Kimmel writes and talks about this also including in his Media Education Foundation educational video. And he explains that all of the evidence from the psychological and behavioral sciences indicates that women and men are far more alike than different.

    Yet Dr.Mary Stewart Van Leewuen says that there are no consistent large psychological sex differences found.

    I have an excellent book from 1979 written by 2 parent child development psychologists Dr. Wendy Schemp Matthews and award winning psychologist from Columbia University, Dr.Jeane Brooks-Gunn, called He & She How Children Develop Their Sex Role Idenity.

    They thoroughly demonstrate with tons of great studies and experiments by parent child psychologists that girl and boy babies are actually born more alike than different with very few differences but they are still perceived and treated systematically very different from the moment of birth on by parents and other adult care givers. They go up to the teen years.

    I once spoke with Dr.Brooks-Gunn in 1994 and I asked her how she could explain all of these great studies that show that girl and boy babies are actually born more alike with few differences but are still perceived and treated so differently anyway, and she said that’s due to socialization and she said there is no question, that socialization plays a very big part.

    I know that many scientists know that the brain is plastic and can be shaped and changed by different life experiences and different enviornments too and Dr.Mary Stewart Van Leewuen told this to me too when I spoke to her 10 years ago.

    Also there are 2 great online rebuttals of the Mars & Venus myth by Susan Hamson called, The Rebuttal From Uranus and Out Of The Cave: Exploring Gray’s Anatomy by Kathleen Trigiani.

    Also have you read the excellent book by social psychologist Dr.Gary Wood at The University of Birmingham called, Sex Lies & Stereotypes:Challenging Views Of Women, Men & Relationships? He clearly demonstrates with all of the research studies from psychology what Dr.Mary Stewart Van Leewuen does, and he debunks The Mars & Venus myth and shows that the sexes are biologically and psychologically more alike than different and how gender roles and differences are mostly socially created.

    Anyway, if you could write back when you have a chance I would really appreciate it.

    Thank You

  8. Readers of this essay may well ask what an academic psychologist is doing invading territory normally reserved for scholars closer to C. S. Lewis’s own field of literary criticism or for theologians
    and philosophers. The short answer to that question is that Lewis had a lot to say over his lifetime about three topics of interest to me: science, social science, and gender. The longer answer to that question is more autobiographical.
    In my Canadian Protestant childhood—as in C. S. Lewis’s, a generation earlier in Protestant Belfast—church was still a vehicle of respectability and upward mobility, perhaps especially for my parents,
    who were schoolteachers and first-generation urban transplants from humble rural backgrounds. In such a setting, it was expected that teenagers would be confirmed in the church, but it never was made very clear how seriously—other than as a rite of social passage—they should take the professions of faith they were urged to make. Predictably, this led to resistance and accusations of hypocrisy from some adolescents, including myself, as I vacillated between thinking that church membership would demand too much of me and suspecting that it would demand too little.

    But in the end, like the adolescent
    C. S. Lewis, “I allowed myself to be prepared for confirmation, and to make my first Communion… eating and drinking to my own condemnation” (Lewis 1955, 130), metaphorically crossing my fingers behind my back while going through the motions of professing faith.
    You will not be surprised to learn that such superficial churchianity did not survive—either intellectually
    or morally—my transition from high school to an elite public university. I had wanted to study psychology ever since my middle-school days, but by the time I entered university in the early 1960s, academic psychology was suffering from what might be called a bad case of physics envy. In its eagerness to be accepted as a legitimate “science” it had embraced what philosophers call the Unity of Science thesis—namely, that there is only one method that all genuine sciences employ, and that method consists of giving causal, deterministic explanations that are empirically testable. By this standard, if psychology aspired to be a “real” science it would have to become as much like experimental physics as possible. As a methodological corrective to certain past, ill-supported pronouncements about human behavior and mental life (including many from Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis) this was not an entirely bad move, but methodological correctives seldom stay within their original limits. They more often become full-blown—but usually unacknowledged—metaphysical world views, especially in times of great social change when older belief systems are being unreflectively marginalized in the name of progress.

    This is in fact what was happening during my undergraduate days. We were being taught as apprentice logical positivists to regard “facts” and “values” as quite distinct. Facts—based on input

    Trinity 2007

    Opposite Sexes or Neighboring Sexes?

    C.S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, and
    the Psychology of Gender
    Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen

    Gender and Modern Social Science

    C. S. Lewis was no fan of the emerging social sciences. He saw practitioners of the social sciences mainly as lackeys of technologically-minded natural scientists, bent on reducing individual freedom and moral accountability to mere epiphenomena of natural processes (See Lewis 1943 and 1970 b). And not surprisingly (given his passion for gender-essentialist archetypes), aside from a qualified appreciation
    of some aspects of Freudian psychoanalysis (See Lewis 1952 (Book III, Chapter 4) and 1969). “Carl Jung was the only philosopher [sic] of the Viennese school for whose work [Lewis] had much respect” (Sayer 102).

    But the social sciences concerned with the psychology of gender have since shown that Sayers was right, and Lewis and Jung were wrong: women and men are not opposite sexes but neighboring sexes—and very close neighbors indeed. There are, it turns out, virtually no large, consistent sex differences in any psychological traits and behaviors, even when we consider the usual stereotypical suspects: that men are more aggressive, or just, or rational than women, and women are more empathic, verbal, or nurturing than men. When differences are found, they are always average—not absolute—differences. And in virtually all cases the small, average—and often decreasing—difference between the sexes is greatly exceeded by the amount of variability on that trait within members of each sex. Most of the “bell curves” for women and men (showing the distribution of a given psychological trait or behavior) overlap almost completely. So it is naïve at best (and deceptive at worst) to make even average—let alone absolute—pronouncements about essential archetypes in either sex when there is much more variability within than between the sexes on all the trait and behavior measures for which we have abundant data.

    This criticism applies as much to C. S. Lewis and Carl Jung as it does to their currently most visible descendent, John Gray, who continues to claim (with no systematic empirical warrant) that men are from Mars and women are from Venus (Gray 1992).

    And what about Lewis’s claims about the overriding masculinity of God? Even the late Carl Henry (a theologian with impeccable credentials as a conservative evangelical) noted a quarter of a century ago that:

    Masculine and feminine elements are excluded from both the Old Testament and New Testament doctrine of deity. The God of the Bible is a sexless God. When Scripture speaks of God as “he” the pronoun is primarily personal (generic) rather than masculine (specific); it emphasizes God’s personal nature—and, in turn, that of the Father, Son and Spirit as Trinitarian distinctions in contrast to impersonal entities… Biblical religion is quite uninterested in any discussion of God’s masculinity or femininity… Scripture does not depict God either as ontologically
    masculine or feminine. (Henry 1982, 159–60)
    However well-intentioned, attempts to read a kind of mystical gendering into God—whether stereotypically
    masculine, feminine, or both—reflect not so much careful biblical theology as “the long

    arm of Paganism” (Martin 11). For it is pagan worldviews, the Jewish commentator Nahum Sarna reminds us, that are “unable to conceive of any primal creative force other than in terms of sex… [In Paganism] the sex element existed before the cosmos came into being and all the gods themselves were creatures of sex. On the other hand, the Creator in Genesis is uniquely without any female counterpart, and the very association of sex with God is utterly alien to the religion of the Bible” (Sarna 76).

    And if the God of creation does not privilege maleness or stereotypical masculinity, neither did the Lord of redemption. Sayers’s response to the cultural assumption that women were human-not-quite-human has become rightly famous:
    Perhaps it is no wonder that women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man—there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as “The women, God help us!” or “The ladies, God bless them!; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being
    female; who had no axe to grind or no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is not act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel which borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about women’s nature. (Sayers 1975, 46)
    It is quite likely that Lewis’s changing views on gender owed something to the intellectual and Christian ties that he forged with Dorothy L. Sayers. And indeed, in 1955—two years before her death, Lewis confessed to Sayers that he had only “dimly realised that the old-fashioned way… of talking to all young women was v[ery] like an adult way of talking to young boys. It explains,” he wrote, “not only why some women grew up vapid, but also why others grew us (if we may coin the word) viricidal [i.e., wanting to kill men]” (Lewis 2007, 676; Lewis’s emphasis). The Lewis who in his younger years so adamantly had defended the doctrine of gender essentialism was beginning to acknowledge the extent to which gendered behavior is socially conditioned. In another letter that same year, he expressed a concern to Sayers that some of the first illustrations for the Narnia Chronicles were a bit too effeminate. “I don’t like either the ultra feminine or the ultra masculine,” he added. “I prefer people” (Lewis 2007, 639; Lewis’s emphasis).

    Dorothy Sayers surely must have rejoiced to read this declaration. Many of Lewis’s later readers, including myself, wish that his shift on this issue had occurred earlier and found its way into his better-selling apologetic works and his novels for children and adults. But better late than never. And it would be better still if those who keep trying to turn C. S. Lewis into an icon for traditionalist views on gender essentialism and gender hierarchy would stop mining his earlier works for isolated proof-texts and instead read what he wrote at every stage of his life.

    Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen is Professor of Psychology and Philosophy at Eastern University, St. Davids, Pennsylvania.

    This essay originally was presented as the Tenth Annual Warren Rubel Lecture on Christianity and Higher Learning at Valparaiso University on 1 February 2007.
    The Cresset
    Bibliography
    Evans, C. Stephen. Wisdom and Humanness in Psychology: Prospects for a Christian Approach. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989.
    Gray, John. Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
    Hannay, Margaret. C. S. Lewis. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981.
    Henry, Carl F. H. God, Revelation, and Authority. Vol. V. Waco, Texas: Word, 1982.
    Lewis, C. S. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol. III. Walter Hooper, ed. San Francisco:
    HarperSanFrancisco, 2007.
    _____. The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1964.
    _____. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol. I: 1905–1931. Walter Hooper, ed. San Francisco:
    HarperSanFrancisco, 2004a.
    _____. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol. II: 1931–1949. Walter Hooper, ed. San Francisco:
    HarperSanFrancisco, 2004b.
    _____. “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,”[1952] Reprinted in Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, ed., Walter Hooper, 22–34. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.
    _____. “Priestesses in the Church?” [1948]. Reprinted in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper, 234–39. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970a.
    _____. “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,”[1954]. Reprinted in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper, 287–300. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970b.
    _____. “Psychoanalysis and Literary Criticism,”[1942]. Reprinted in Selected Literary Essays, ed. Walter Hooper, 286–300. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1969.
    _____. [N. W. Clerk, pseudo.] A Grief Observed. London: Faber and Faber, 1961.
    _____. The Four Loves. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1960.
    _____. Till We Have Faces. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1956.
    _____. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. London: Collins, 1955.
    _____. Mere Christianity. London: Collins, 1952.
    _____. That Hideous Strength. London: John Lane the Bodley Head, 1945.
    _____. The Abolition of Man. Oxford: Oxford University, 1943.
    _____. A Preface to Paradise Lost. Oxford: Oxford University, 1942.
    The Cresset
    _____. Perelandra. London: The Bodley Head, 1942.
    Martin, Faith. “Mystical Masculinity: The New Question Facing Women,” Priscilla Papers, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Winter 1998), 6–12.
    Reynolds, Barbara. Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul. New York: St. Martins, 1993.
    Sarna, Nahum M. Understanding Genesis: The Heritage of Biblical Israel. New York: Schocken, 1966.
    Sayer, George. Jack: C. S. Lewis and His Times. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988.
    Sayers, Dorothy L. “The Human-Not-Quite-Human,”[1946]. Reprinted in Dorothy L. Sayers, Are Women
    Human?, 37–47. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1975.
    Sayers, Dorothy L. Gaudy Night. London: Victor Gollancz, 1935.
    Sterk, Helen. “Gender and Relations and Narrative in a Reformed Church Setting.” In After Eden: Facing the Challenge of Gender Reconciliation, ed., Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, 184–221. Grand Rapids:

    Eerdmans, 1993.
    Copyright © 2007 Valparaiso University Press http://www.valpo.edu/cresset

  9. http://ec.europa.eu/research/research-eu/women/article_women16_en.html. I

    Special issue – April 2009
    Home
    NEUROBIOLOGY

    The brain, caught between science and ideology
    Catherine Vidal, neurobiologist and Research Director at the Institut Pasteur (FR), does not limit her activities to her fundamental work, in particular on pain, memory and neurodegenerative ailments. This brain specialist also devotes her time to popularising science and to the relations between science and society.

    Catherine Vidal – “As it develops, the brain integrates outside elements associated with its owner’s personal history.” © CNRS

    Let’s start with a very direct question: is the brain sexed?

    The scientific answer is, paradoxically, yes and no. Yes, because the brain controls the reproductive functions. Male and female brains are not identical, in every species, including our own, because sexual reproduction involves different hormone systems and sexual behaviours, which are controlled by the brain.

    But the answer is also no, because when we look at the cognitive functions, it is cerebral diversity which reigns, independently of gender. For thought to emerge, the brain needs to be stimulated by its environment. At birth, just 10 % of our 100 billion neurons are inter-connected. The 90 % of remaining connections will be constructed progressively depending on the influence of the family, education, culture and society. In this way, during its development, the brain integrates external elements associated with its owner’s personal history. We call this cerebral plasticity; which is why we all have different brains. And the differences between individuals of one and the same gender are so great as to outweigh any differences between the genders.

    In fact, behind your question is the fundamental problem of the degree to which behaviour is innate and to which it is acquired – an essential question that philosophers and scientists have been debating for centuries. This remains an ideologically-charged subject, which the media adore.

    Absolutely. The media often echo works that argue that cerebral specialisation differs between male and female. They say, for example, that language functions are undertaken by both hemispheres only in women’s brains. What do you say?
    The theories on the hemispheric differences between the sexes in language appeared over thirty years ago. They have not been confirmed by recent brain imaging studies which allow us to see the living brain at work. These theories are often based on observations carried out on very small samples – often a dozen people. People continue to quote these studies whereas contemporary scientific reality is very different. Meta-analyses, which draw conclusions from all the experiments published in scientific literature and cover several hundred men and women, show that there is no statistically significant difference between the sexes in the hemispheric distribution of language zones. This is explained by the fact that the location of these language zones differs considerably from one individual to the next, with this variability being more important than a possible variability between the sexes.

    Another proposed idea is that the male brain is more suited to abstract reasoning, in particular mathematics.

    These conceptions have no biological foundation. This is illustrated by two major studies that were published last year in Science. A first investigation took place in 1990 in the United States, involving a sample of 10 million pupils. Statistically speaking, boys did better than girls in maths tests. Certain people interpreted this as a sign of the inaptitude of the female brain in this field. The same study, commissioned in 2008 (1), this time shows girls scoring as well as boys. It’s hard to imagine that in less than two decades there has been a genetic mutation to increase their aptitude in maths! These results are due simply to the development of the teaching of science and the growing gender mix of scientific fields. Another study (2) carried out in 2008 on 300 000 adolescents, in 40 countries, has shown that the more the socio-cultural environment is favourable to male-female equality, the better the girls score in maths tests. In Norway and Sweden, the results are comparable. In Iceland the girls beat the boys, while the boys outperform the girls in Turkey and Korea.

    One argument that is frequently advanced to explain unequal performances in maths is that men succeed better in three-dimensional geometric-type tasks. What is this idea based on?
    Experimental psychology does indeed show that men often perform better on tests on the mental representation of three-dimensional objects. But one forgets to mention the influence of the context in which these performance differences take place. If, before carrying out this test in a classroom, pupils are told that this is a geometry exercise, the boys will generally get better results. But if the same group is told that this is a drawing test, the girls will perform as well as the boys. These experiments clearly show that self-esteem and the internalisation of gender stereotypes play a decisive role in the scores obtained in this type of test.

    In the end, what are the challenges for research on the differences between men’s and women’s brains?

    It is fascinating to look for the origins of these differences beyond the simple description of them. These origins are to be found in biology, but in particular in history, culture and society. One major advance of neurobiological research has been a revaluation of the extraordinary plastic capacity of the brain. It is not justifiable to invoke biological differences between the sexes to justify the different distribution between men and women in society.

    But this ‘biologising’ vision continues to satisfy people as providing a sort of scientific justification for the existence of manifest inequalities. In this way people use the theory of evolution to explain that men find their bearings better in space because, in prehistoric times, they went hunting mammoths while the women remained in the cave looking after the children. This scenario is totally speculative – no one was there to see whether it really happened like that. Any prehistory specialists will tell you that no document – fossils, cave paintings, graves, or the like – reveals any details of the kind on the social organisation and division of labour among our ancestors.

    How do you explain the renewed interest in these questions over the past 20 or so years?
    First of all by the fact that these studies are easily taken up by the media – an aspect to which the publishers of scientific journals, including the most prestigious, are unfortunately sensitive. Second, by the development of cerebral imaging technologies which initially gave new life to the old theories on the inequality between men and women explained by the differences in their brains. But the more cerebral imagery progresses the more we observe, as I said, the major role of the plasticity of the brain and the variability of its functioning from one individual to another, independent of gender.

    I find it regrettable that studies of doubtful scientific value continue to be so widely echoed. But other things are there to make me optimistic. The fact that the 2008 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine rewarding the discovery of the AIDS virus was awarded jointly to Luc Montagnier and his main female collaborator, Françoise Barré-Sionoussi shows that mentalities are changing. Formerly only the head of the laboratory was rewarded… Think back here to Rosalind Franklin, the British biophysicist who played a key role in elucidating the double-helix structure of DNA and whose work was taken over by James Watson and Francis Crick, the winners of the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine in 1962. We are seeing a real awareness of women’s role in research. But this evolution is slow. And belief in change is, alas, stronger than change itself…

    Interview by Mikhaïl Stein
    C.Guiso et al., Culture, Gender and Math, Science (2008), 320: 1164-1165.
    J.S. Hude et al., Gender Similarities Characterize Math Performance, Science (2008), 321 : 494-495.

    TOP

    Find out more
    Selected publications by Catherine Vidal

    Sexe et pouvoir, with Dorothée Benoit-Browaeys, Paris, Belin, 2005. Translated into Italian, Japanese and Portuguese.

    Féminin/Masculin: mythes et idéologie, Paris, Belin, 2006.

    Hommes, femmes: avons-nous le même cerveau?, Paris, Le Pommier, 2007.

    Cerveau, sexe et liberté, DVD Gallimard/ CNRS, col. «La recherche nous est contée», Paris, 2007.

  10. Thanks for your comment, Tom! I am not quite sure I understand the logical fallacy you are pointing to. Are you suggesting that Fine is saying because there’s been sexism in the past, this must be sexist? It would be great if you could clarify that!

  11. Hi Rachel,

    This is a most intriguing topic, one which you know I am very interested in. The comment you reproduced, however, did not seem to be a real critique to me. Indeed, it incorporates a fundamental logical fallacy: drawing a parallel from present to past (e.g. “Beethoven was scorned by many leading lights of his time, therefore much contemporary classical music resisted now will ultimately take its place in the repertoire.”) I hope we can do a ~walk and talk~ on this topic or an Arts & Letters Salon brunch…

    TOM

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