Our Obsession with Gender Stereotypes

Why are we so obsessed with claiming “biological” differences between men and women?

I get so grumpy and tired talking about this topic, but I’m going to suck it up and deal with it for this post. Another book has been released claiming to demonstrate, using “hard science,” that behavioural differences between men and women are innate. Disclaimer: I have not read the book, only the above article, which was written by the same author, Lewis Wolpert.

If I was worried that this article would prove, once and for all, that I am biologically inferior to my brother and my boyfriend, I needn’t have. Wolpert’s piece is mercifully/worrisomely free of “hard science.” He begins his investigation into gender differences with a discussion of newborn babies. Female newborns, he writes, are more sensitive to touch, spend more time looking at faces and less time looking at mechanical mobiles, and are more likely to cry if frightened in a strange room than male newborns. He argues that such early differences must be attributed to genetics, since socialization hasn’t had a chance to occur.

Perhaps, but what exactly can we conclude from these data? So what if girl babies spend, on average, more seconds looking at faces than boy babies? Or that boy babies spend more seconds looking at mechanical mobiles? It is an absurdly enormous leap to extrapolate from these data to adult capabilities. Now, you may point out that this article doesn’t make any direct extrapolations. Of course, because the extrapolation is implicit. We compare faces and mobiles because we want to establish that females are biologically suited to be caregivers, and men are biologically superior at driving cars. If we didn’t care about making these extrapolations, we’d be asking ourselves whether girl babies look for longer at grapes than at apples. Or at fingernails than at knees. Or something.

How anyone could make this extrapolation with a straight face is baffling. How on earth could you meaningfully predict an entire gender’s capacity for the act of caregiving – in reality an incredibly complex set of different behaviours that vary enormously from culture to culture, from family to family – from how many seconds they spent looking at a face as a newborn? Wolpert is probably right that these newborn behavioural tendencies are innate, but they’re not particularly interesting. The interesting stuff comes later on.

In a section on “Empathy and Aggression,” Wolpert quotes a theory that the male brain is hard-wired for “systematizing,” and the female brain for empathy. A systemizer will, apparently, prefer to read about computers and science, and an empathizer will prefer to read about romance and fashion. I understand the link between empathy and romance, but what does fashion have to do with empathy? If fashion were considered a masculine hobby, we’d probably be arguing that there’s something inherently “systematizing” about putting together a nice outfit. Or, that men are better at fashion because of their superior visual-spatial skills. But fashion is considered a feminine thing, so we’re saying that it’s somehow related to empathy.

Stereotype after stereotype is trotted out, rarely accompanied by evidence supporting a biological origin. Wolpert claims that men “excel” at mental rotation and “females struggle.” Women are more likely to get panic attacks, but they suck at map-reading and parallel parking; they laugh a lot, but they don’t make others laugh (mind-blowing, when you consider who sets the agenda for what counts as “funny”). And then along comes this gem:

“Women do better on precision manual tasks involving fine motor co-ordination, such the assembly of circuit boards in a factory, which may be a result of foraging skills that evolved long ago.”

Wow. Surely he was having a giggle to himself while writing this. If ever there were an innateness argument for keeping women in low-paying, degrading work, this is it. Also, I have never foraged for food, so please correct me if I’m wrong – but I doubt that plucking blackberries from a bush requires more than the most basic motor control.

In the midst of all these tired stereotypes, there are a few little hints of science. Firstly, Wolpert claims that females with elevated testosterone levels tend to be better at systematizing and less empathetic. Maybe this is true. Maybe there is a link between testosterone levels and “systematizing” – although “systematizing” sounds to me like a complex set of various traits and behaviours that have been grouped together, rather than a narrow, isolable characteristic. Secondly, it is true that psychological research has shown some gender-specific differences in mental rotation ability. When tested, males score on average up to one standard deviation higher than females. 

But to argue that such data show that men “excel” at mental rotation and women “struggle” is disingenuous. Some men excel at mental rotation. Some women excel at it. Some men struggle, and some women struggle. Most people of either gender are ok at it, but not excellent. On average, men perform more highly. Wolpert might be trying to pithily summarize this research into his men-excel women-struggle dichotomy, but this is damaging and just plain misleading. Unfortunately, it is precisely this damaging message which filters down to women and girls every day.

Which brings me to this article’s greatest flaw.

Wolpert’s arguments are typical of innateness arguments in downplaying the enormous influence of social factors. Women are told, time after time, both implicitly and explicitly, that we are biologically inferior to men on a number of tasks. We are told it implicitly by the toys we’re bought as children. Through movies and TV shows that perpetuate the stereotype of the ditzy female technophobe. When people around us roll their eyes at “female drivers.”

We are told it explicitly by our university lecturers, who tell their female students not to worry if they struggle on a particular mental rotation task – their brains aren’t hardwired for it. This actually happened to a close friend of mine, now a highly successful materials engineer. She told me that when the lecturer made that announcement, several female students spent only a few minutes attempting the task before giving up and leaving.

No shit they did. Psychological research has demonstrated time and time again the incredible power of expectation. Tell girls that they’re innately worse than boys at a task, they’ll probably perform poorly at it.  I would assume that this effect is particularly powerful when the person delivering the message is in a position of respect and authority – although the study above shows that even a comment from a stranger can have a profound impact.

These messages that women receive – both implicit and explicit – have two effects. Firstly, as mentioned above, they directly tamper with a woman’s belief in her ability to perform a task. They create a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. They are also incredibly offensive and irritating, to the point that the irritation alone can impact performance. Secondly, these messages lead to behaviours and tendencies that themselves serve to stretch open the gap between male and female performance. When little boys absorb the message that they are good at sports and computers, they are more likely to choose these as hobbies from a young age. Which in turn, surprisingly enough, leads to increased competency as adults.

Perhaps there is a correlation between testosterone level and the ability to program a computer. The point is that any such correlation would pale in significance when compared to the relentless cultural forces working to impress upon men and women what they can and can’t do. It would certainly pale in comparison to the university professors telling the next generation of female scientists in no uncertain terms that they are inherently, irredeemably, biologically inferior to their male counterparts.

Some people struggle to understand the power of these cultural forces, which is probably why innateness arguments are so attractive. So I’ll use an analogy to make it simpler. Imagine two children are born, two brothers, for argument’s sake. Brother 1 is born with a slightly greater muscle mass than Brother 2. But Brother 2 is told by his parents that he is strong. He is encouraged to play sports and, when he is old enough, to go to the gym every day to increase his muscle mass – to take advantage of his natural gift. Brother 1 is told that he was born with a genetic condition that makes him weak. There’s no point playing sports, he is told – he wouldn’t enjoy them anyway. He should try to pursue a career that doesn’t involve physical strength.

Brother 1 had the biological advantage at birth. But when interviewed as adults, who is stronger? Perhaps boys are born with certain genetic advantages over girls, and vice versa, but it is socialization that shapes their abilities as adults.

Contrary to what Dr Wolpert thinks, there isn’t a PC brigade intent on shutting down research into biological differences between the sexes. Go ahead, do all the research you like. It’s not very interesting, but if you want to do it, go ahead. Just remember to be honest, and intellectually rigorous. Don’t state that men outperform women on certain tasks without explicitly recognising the enormous impact of socialization on these differences.

But perhaps the book is much better than the article, and does deliver a much more even-handed point of view. Perhaps, in his book, Wolpert does actually back up his claims with research. Perhaps he was just constrained when writing this article by a particularly incompetent editor. I will give him the benefit of the doubt – I am, after all, a woman, and therefore by nature empathetic.


About A Book and a Half

I'm a teacher based in Melbourne, Australia. I blog about reading, writing, teaching, learning, and exploring.
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