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The Approaches that Downplay Legitimate Gender Differences

For example, Fine proposes that neuroscientific studies exposing the differences between the sexes should not be biased towards the hypothesis that male and female biology differs.”

Historically, feminism has been defined as the social or political position that advocates for gender equality, from an economic or social perspective. Feminism bases itself upon the idea that our society is built to indulge a male point of view. In this view of society, men hold the majority of decision-making power and are in a privileged position, while women are largely excluded. Although feminism was born in the 19th century as an equalizing movement (and different waves of feminism had distinct objectives), the name associated with this movement takes on a well-defined gender connotation (i.e. in opposition to a patriarchal social structure). However, in addition to feminism being a purely political or social concept, many contemporary debates concerning feminism rest on discussions of biology and neuroscience. 

In partial opposition to “equality” feminism, difference feminism, a type of genderism (genderism refers to the view that there is a distinct difference between men and women), is based on the assumption that men and women naturally differ from each other—and that gender is not necessarily a social construct. Although difference feminism gained popularity during the 1980’s and 1990’s, it has been recently criticized by various modern feminists. For example, Judith Lorber  explains that categorizing the division between men and women is imprecise, if we consider that individuals of both sexes can sometimes feel more like members of the opposite sex than their own. This position is similarly found in the LGTBQ community, which considers genderism a binary and arbitrary vision that does not take into account the different facets of gender, as well as its intrinsic fluidity. As has been well-documented, according to some authors, such as Anne Fausto-Sterling, gender is a social and cultural construct and not a biological feature.

Most notably, in her 2010 book Delusions of Gender, the philosopher and psychologist Cordelia Fine suggests that there is no biological difference between the male and female brain. Instead, she asserts that the differences are essentially produced by education and dictated by the cultural beliefs of the societies in which we live. Her vision is opposed to the idea (which  she calls “neurosexist“) that there is empirical evidence to back the claim that the male and female brains differ in their respective functioning. The basic idea is, therefore, that, theoretically, a newborn boy and a newborn girl could receive a “female” or “male” cognitive imprinting depending on the education received—or the surrounding culture. 

In an article for The Guardian, Fine suggests that studies reporting gender differences in spatial processing (i.e. the ability to process spatial vision) should consider the individuals’ life experiences—and how this influences observed differences.

Fine’s arguments are potentially greatly relevant to the academic world. For example, Fine proposes that neuroscientific studies exposing the differences between the sexes should not be biased towards the hypothesis that male and female biology differs. In an article for The Guardian, Fine suggests that studies reporting gender differences in spatial processing (i.e. the ability to process spatial vision) should consider the individuals’ life experiences—and how this influences observed differences. Presumed biological differences, for Fine, could be due to environmental or psychological factors, rather than due to characteristics predetermined by genetics.

Although it is technically impossible to discern between these two potential causes for differences, Fine’s approach, though commendable because it is indeed scientific, does not consider that differences between women and men are anchored to biological sex. Differences, in reality, may be genetically predetermined or, as is more reasonable, resulting from both genetic and environmental phenomena. Physical characteristics, which unquestionably differ for genetic reasons (think of physical strength or height, for example) might also be the “prehistoric” causes of differences in education or culture. This means that, because of our physical differences, the history of human education and self-perception has proceeded in such a way that our thinking has been shaped in a categorized, gender-based manner. These cognitive differences collide with (and are indistinguishable from) the original genetic causes that predetermine who we are.

A patriarchal society is, itself, the result of the division of labor between men and women, exacerbated in prehistoric humans by physical differences. This society has evolved over time into a modern one, where there is no longer a need for the prehistorical reality in which men used to offer food and protection to women, who had the distinct task of caring for offspring. This vision became antiquated when humans began to build complex societies. However, some features have persisted into the modern era. 

In the modern West, the first and second wave feminist movements of the 19th and 20th centuries greatly helped to reduce the gap between men and women in the political and social sphere. In law, the gap between women and men in the West has been consistently closing when it comes to legal rights (e.g. voting, divorce). However, other differences remain. As such, many modern feminists aim to close the gap between the number of women and men represented in positions of government authority—or between the number of male and female professors in an academic institution. However, feminism should tend more towards genderism, not in a binary sense, but in an egalitarian sense, focusing on the edification of both genders. This would mean shifting the focus towards having equal opportunities, rather than towards representative identity. Whether differences between men and women are genetic or not—or whether they are due to our educational history—it is utopian and incorrect to think that they can be eradicated. As such, a representative difference feminism should be concerned with reducing wage differences between men and women who occupy a similar job position—or dealing with the reduced job opportunities that women can have, compared to men. Solving these problems would be desirable and would end the lingering remnants of a pre-social tradition characterized by patriarchy.

With that said, the idea that men and women can think in precisely the same way is incorrect from an evolutionary point of view. As we have discussed above, the thesis supported by Cordelia Fine is absolutely reasonable; however, a possible application of her concept is problematic. Let us assume that we can actually educate our children to be neither male nor female. Even if this were feasible or desirable for a person, he or she would still have to live in a human society that has evolved in relation to basic realities. 

We start from an assumption: men and women can and must have the same opportunities to make a career. However, when a woman becomes a mother, the amount of work she can do outside the home obviously decreases, at least temporarily. This is a matter of basic reality, and we know empirically that infants (and later, children) benefit overwhelmingly from the presence of their mothers in the early stages of life, from breastfeeding to bonding. As such, it is not unreasonable to expect the male parent to guarantee the well-being of the family unit by continuing to work for a living and carrying out other household tasks. However, this can also apply to a non-traditional family, with two fathers or with two mothers. Obviously, furthermore, a mother, who planned to return to work, might prefer to spend as much time as possible with her young daughter or son and end up never returning to the workplace. 

Although many equality feminists might bemoan a reality where there are more male governors or business leaders, sometimes these distributions arise quite naturally from scenarios such as described above. It is not wrong to want to step back from one’s career to take care of one’s children. As such, much of modern equality feminism, which pushes men or women to desire for more, is a structural anachronism that does not like the concept of nature but prefers that of an anthropic society. It is nature—as much as anything else—that sets limits on men and women. 

Breastfeeding and deciding to spend more time with one’s children should not be a cultural construct to be destroyed, particularly in service of ignoring differing preferences between women and men for a what a productive, rewarding life looks like. The fact that men and women can think differently (and want to act differently), based on either who they are, the society they live in, or the inescapable interplay between the two ought not be condemned. Feminism, as is conceived of by thinkers like Fine, should push to obtain equal opportunities between the two genders, without necessarily opposing their intrinsic differences. Only in this way can a woman freely decide about her life, without either patriarchal or feminist influences. Only in this way can a woman decide which life path to take, if and when to have children, and if and when to aspire to become a famous scientist, a marketing leader, or a professional sportswoman.

Federico Germani is a geneticist and molecular biologist at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. He is the founder and director of Culturico. He can be reached on Twitter @fedgermani 

One thought on “The Approaches that Downplay Legitimate Gender Differences

  1. Prof. Germani,
    Perhaps you will write to Dr. Fausto-Sterling (who apparently insists that male and female brains are exactly the same) and tell her about the 2010 study in Behavioral Neuroscience that found that three weeks before giving birth and 3 months after giving birth the brains of all mothers changed. All of these altered brain areas involved caring for infants.
    You should also tell her about a 2016 study from Nature Neuroscience led by Prof. Hoekzema which also found that portions of the female brain grow and shrink before and after pregnancy. In Dr. Hoekzema’s own words “The hormone fluxes of pregnancy are simply so massive that they must change the brain.” Hoekzema also found that pregnancy does not alter men’s brains at all.

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