Guest Column with Cordelia Fine

December 10 / 50

Dr Cordelia Fine is an academic psychologist, writer and an Honorary Research Fellow at the Department of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne.  Her first book, A Mind of Its Own: How your brain distorts and deceives, was one of twelve books long-listed for the UK Royal Society Science prize 2007. Her latest book, Delusions of Gender: How our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference was short-listed for the prestigious 2010 John Llewellyn Rhys Book Prize.

There are already so many books about gender, why would anyone want to write another one? There are many good reasons not to – yet I’m still glad that I did.

One reason not to write a book about gender is that it’s often depressing. For as long as there has been brain science there have been – in retrospect – misguided explanations and justifications of sex inequality. Women are intellectually inferior because their noses are at the wrong angle, because their skulls are the wrong shape, because their brains are too small.

Again and again, as both science and society progress, these hypotheses eventually find themselves hurled on the scientific scrap-heap. But no sooner is one neuroscientific explanation of sex inequality felled than another is there to take its place. Lingering on well past their scientific best-by dates, these ideas become part of cultural lore, and reinforce social attitudes about men and women in ways that hinder progress towards greater sex equality.

It’s still happening.

A second good reason not to write a book about gender is that it is an invitation to be framed and defamed. Write a book like mine and, inevitably, someone will cast you as that most unalluring character: the strident, wishful-thinking feminist in relentless pursuit of a barely veiled political agenda.

At best, this is just tiresome and silly. One journalist appeared to be able to discern these qualities in me without even needing to read my book. Mistakenly assuming that I think genes have no role to play in development, she proclaimed me a “nurture-fascist” – a description only my children are entitled to use of me (and that’s only when I’m wiping their noses against their will).

But at worst, the dismissal of criticisms as political is a distraction from what is important – improving the quality of the science. I don’t object to the conclusions of certain scientists working in this area because they are not politically correct – I object to them because they are not scientifically correct. 

One final reason not to write a book about gender is that it makes you a rather difficult person to be around. I suspect, for example, that it isn’t much fun to be married to someone who eyes the unwashed dishes in the sink with a steeliness that can only be achieved by someone who has spent a week researching gender inequality in domestic labour.

Despondent, defamed, difficult. So why am I still glad that I wrote the book?

One reason is the emails and comments I have received from readers, telling me that the book has changed the way they see things, or has given them the confidence to challenge sexism in their workplace or social group.

But most of all, I’m pleased to have contributed to the recent cavalcade of books challenging neurosexism. Although such books have been needed many times in the past and will no doubt be needed again in the future, at a time when progress towards sex equality is stalling in many areas, they are also needed right now.

This is an edited version of the speech Cordelia Fine gave at the launch her book at the Melbourne Business School on 30 November.

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