November 28, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

"In the darkness of the womb our brains are soaked in a cocktail of sex hormones." Bentley Crudgington reviews a book on the complexities and science of gender.

delusions_of_gender_web_girlYou may have heard that gender inequalities are a natural part of the human condition. Once you understand the science you too will agree. In the darkness of the womb our brains are soaked in a cocktail of sex hormones which ‘hardwire’ gender into our neurons. All proceeding actions are just a consequence of this, it’s pre-defined, it’s science! But as Cordelia Fine says in her introduction “If only it was that easy” and just like gender, this book is complicated.

Delusions of Gender does not read like a popular science book but more an impeccably researched thesis with manifesto tendencies. The overall feel is more of a meta-analysis and the dense referencing can make some sections rather fragmented. The moments of sardonic humour are more from eye rolling at the ridiculous and out-dated theories on gender rather than from the writing itself.

Where this book excels is in the author’s insightful and critical thinking. Research methods, definitions and context are all unpicked to show how a gender bias is introduced before the ‘science’ has even happened.

One example is 3D rotation, the ability to identify a matching pair within a panel of similar rotated objects. In the standard test, 75% of those scoring above average are male. If participants are told they are being tested for their engineering skills then this percentage increases. However if they are told that it was to assess interior design or needlework skills, then on average females outperform males on the test: the ‘real science’ behind sex differences disappears.

Systematically showing experimental flaws and challenging assumptions made in the research is great but repeatedly annihilating the same assumption serves little purpose. If Fine discussed fewer examples in more depth, maybe they would stick longer in the mind and make it into everyday conversations.

This book does have some biases of its own which is understandable given that the impact of gender inequalities is more detrimental to women than men. However the words sex and gender are used almost interchangeably and most examples are heteronormative.

After reading this book, you will certainly become more aware of both conscious and unconscious gender biases and how manipulating and insidious gender stereotypes can be, which can only a good thing – you will just have to work for it.

Bentley Crudgington is a second year PhD student studying Virology