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.

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Learning Languages

I have taken up Japanese lessons. They take place in a tiny classroom, just the three of us students and one very sweet teacher. Everything, except the odd word, is in Japanese, which is how I like language lessons to be conducted. Straight away you’re using the language as a tool, which makes it meaningful and therefore memorable.

When I was at Oxford I learned a lot of Japanese vocabulary and basic sentence structures from friends, so going into these classes I felt quite confident, although I didn’t know how to read or write at all. Now, after a couple of lessons, I’m starting to get the hang of reading hiragana. It is lovely going to Japanese class. Because it’s a skill that I began to acquire in Oxford, it feels like a link with my old life there – but not in a wistful, nostalgic way, rather in an energizing, onwards-and-upwards kind of way.

I’m gradually building up my bank of languages. I have French, hesitant German, and beginner-level Arabic; now Japanese. My degree at Oxford was in linguistics, so languages are one of my main passions. I particularly love analyzing the way sounds work in languages (phonetics and phonology). As I move into teaching, I hope to apply my linguistic knowledge to help second-language learners.

On the topic of learning languages, I have recently begun an online course in computer programming. I’ve always felt it was a gap in my knowledge, and I’m excited to be slowly rectifying that. For my first project, I made a little game in which animated clouds, carrying the words from the first line of Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud”, whizz about the screen, and need to be clicked in the correct order. Simple, yes, but it was satisfying to see the game run smoothly and at a perfect pace. I look forward to getting better and better, more fluent in these new languages.

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Oxford

I made it to Oxford. I lived in that beautiful city for a year, and only recently came home. After years of dreaming, I finally made it.

It was full of imperfections, of course, like anything real. There were things I didn’t do well, did with the wrong attitude, or did too hurriedly. There were things I stressed over far too much. But ultimately I approached the experience with love and gratitude.

I am proud of my achievements while simultaneously recognizing that I couldn’t have got there without the support of people around me. I am proud of the fact that I achieved high grades for my masters, and even prouder of the fact that I took advantage of so many opportunities, and never stopped exploring excitedly. I didn’t let the disappointments and frustrations dim my love for the place and the experience.

I hope to honour my time at Oxford by attaining the highest levels of achievement over the next few years. And by lending support wherever I can – academic, moral, and financial – to ensure others are able to enjoy this experience too.

View of Christ Church from Christ Church Meadow

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Piano Lessons

I’m back to blogging. I think what I find the most difficult about the whole exercise is working out why I am doing it – if I’m writing for myself, or for an audience. I will try to continue to be true to my aim of simply writing about what I enjoy writing about. This blog may become more of a diary at points, although I’m sure it will remain focused, to a large extent, on books. A spin-off blog about language and the brain may follow (probably not until next year). If I am accepted into Oxford or Cambridge, I will certainly start blogging about my experience living a childhood dream. Will I transform this blog into the Story of a Nerdy Australian who is Accepted into Oxford? Will I start a new blog? I like things to be clean and neat. It might be too messy to continue this blog if my motivations for writing change. Or should I embrace the mess?

If you haven’t already, I recommend that you read “Piano Lessons” by Anna Goldsworthy. I didn’t think it could be possible for a memoir about growing up in suburban Adelaide to be so absorbing. I read very few memoirs, so perhaps this is just what a good memoir is meant to be like, but I found it incredibly… inspiring. It sounds terribly clichéd when I write it, but I was genuinely moved and often astonished to learn that the incredibly successful and talented protagonist experienced major setbacks in her quest to become a professional musician. Sure, famous writers and actors and scientists experience failure and rejection along the way, but musicians? Reading this book revealed to me that I had always viewed musically-inclined individuals as somehow inhabiting a separate, superior plane to the rest of us, a plane where piano exam reports come stamped with guaranteed A+s, where brains do not tick over furiously during a performance; a plane devoid of ostentatious attempts to prove oneself. I learnt so much about the world of music, and what it has to offer those who devote their lives to it. The juxtaposition of the everyday and the sublime was beautiful and incredibly moving. And boy, can she write.

Other things I have read recently: “The Eyre Affair” by Jasper Fforde. Very entertaining, and wonderful escapism. I loved immersing myself in this alternate reality where the whole world takes literature so very seriously. Several New Scientist articles. Am now reading a book on English by David Crystal.

Movies I have seen recently: Life of Pi. I loved the book when I read it several years ago, and the movie didn’t disappoint. It was beautifully shot, and more poignant than the book (from what I can remember – like I said, I did read it several years ago). The Hobbit. I adore the Lord of the Rings and so was happy to immerse myself in this fun romp through Middle Earth, but of course it has nothing on the LOTR trilogy, which so beautifully balances the fantastic with the slow-burn pace of the quest at its heart: the two little hobbits who defy all odds to bring the ring to Mount Doom. The Hobbit, by contrast, was downright unbelievable at points. At one stage the band of twelve dwarves somehow managed to fight off an entire civilisation of goblins. I thought Peter Jackson was very careful to avoid such scenarios in the Lord of the Rings, and I was grateful for it. I suppose, though, that the Hobbit is a children’s book, after all.

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Enigma Variations

When I was in high school, I played the lead role in a play about the life of Lawrence of Arabia. The music we used to start and end the performance was the ninth and most famous of Elgar’s Enigma Variations – the Nimrod variation. I often become attached to the music I use for a play (to this day I cannot listen to the Sibelius we used for Arms and the Man without crying). In my mind the music blends and becomes irrevocably associated with the story of the play, with the life of my character, and with the joyous, fleeting camaraderie amongst the cast. The inner life of the music is exposed; it becomes heavy, rich with meaning and memory.

I heard Nimrod on the radio a couple of days ago, played on the organ, and I remembered how beautiful it was. Each of Elgar’s fourteen variations was inspired by a different person he knew; Nimrod was inspired by a close friend of the composer’s, whose last name – Jaeger (“hunter”) – lends the variation its title. When Elgar was beginning to despair of his ability to compose, and was wallowing in the idea of quitting composition altogether, Jaeger gently but forcefully encouraged his friend not to give up. You can hear it. You can hear in the music the stirring lift of encouragement, but it is not an idealistic encouragement; its melancholy speaks of there being no easy answers, only a choice, the better choice courageous but hardly certain. I can hear in the music the two friends contemplating the act of composition as something that will occupy Elgar for the remainder of his life. It constitutes the journey towards the end. Even more clearly, now that I know what to look for, I can hear the second movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique sonata, which Jaeger apparently hummed to Elgar during their pivotal discussion. You can listen to a beautiful version of Nimrod here, and a lovely rendition of the famous sonata movement here. The former is conducted and the latter played by Daniel Barenboim, which is why I chose that particular version of the Beethoven even though the video is preceded by an ad.

This is the kind of thing that fascinates me about literature and all art: the rich interconnectedness of it all. Beethoven’s delicate creation re-emerges in a different era, in a different human’s personal world, to capture a different plight. Inter-textual references in literature are (for the most part) more than just an author’s attempt to look erudite; they are a mark of our shared existence. I find it endlessly fascinating that if Homer had never written his great epic, there would have been no Aeneid; if Virgil had never written the Aeneid, Bernard Shaw’s delightful play Arms and the Man would not exist; and if I had not performed that play in my final year of high school, I would not be the person I am now. Art shapes our world, and it connects human experience. Without it, I imagine, we would be wandering solipsistic creatures, far lonelier than we are now.

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This Secret Garden

I started reading This Secret Garden by Justin Cartwright tonight. I picked it up one day when I was working at a bookstore that was in the process of going out of business; I found it in a bargain bin during my shift and hid it, before purchasing it on my break. It’s a book about Oxford – supposedly about the city, but Cartwright’s account is self-confessedly centred on the university. And why wouldn’t it be? The author admits that in his mind, the two are inextricably intertwined.

Oxford is simultaneously a real, tangible, bricks-and-mortar place as well as an ideal. Cartwright writes at length about famous alumni and their work, testament to the fact that the accumulated creative output of its people is as much a part of this entity called ‘Oxford’ as the vaulted-ceiling dining halls of the colleges. He also discusses the tension between the Oxford “myth” and reality, and whether insiders or outsiders have a better grasp of what Oxford’s true worth is.

I am not able to add any astute observations to the debate as I have never been to Oxford, or spent enough time in Britain to understand its cultural status in that part of the world. I come from a country where a handful of university colleges try to emulate Oxbridge to the point that one is obliged to speak of “coming up” to or “going down” from college. When I was forced to adopt this kind of language as a first-year, it felt hopelessly contrived; and yet I wonder, is saying grace in Latin any less pretentious in a dining hall at Balliol College, than it is on a sweaty February evening in Australia? Or does the latter situation merely bring the wankery home more forcefully? Like Justin Cartwright, I am unashamedly sentimental about Oxford University. Like Cartwright, I place immense value on an institution that, at least in theory, propounds the good of knowledge for its own sake. What’s more, I see in places like Oxford and Cambridge a respect for knowledge so intense that it seems to spill over into the very stonework that houses the classrooms where such knowledge is transmitted and developed, and into the gardens that spread from beneath the windows: here in the physical artifact, the glory of learning manifesting itself as beauty.

At its heart, the book is about Oxford as a haven for the rational, ethical (in Cartwright’s view the sole ethical) human endeavour of striving to grapple with and leave some small mark on the “unheeding universe.” It’s really wonderful to pick up a book that explores the very notions your own head is full of at that moment. You feel a little less alone, like when you meet a stranger and, after a few moments of conversation, discover that they’re a kindred spirit. Justin Cartwright’s blend of rationality with unashamed sentimentality felt so intuitive to me that I criticised his few faults with the feeling that I was examining my own work.

Geza Vermes, a retired professor of Jewish Studies and a friend of Cartwright who is quoted in the book, felt upon his arrival at Oxford that he had “woken up in heaven.” I have fervently dreamed of studying at Oxford for many years, and I was about to write that I worry sometimes my idealistic expectations may not be met, but in fact that’s not true. I am not worried at all; I consider dispassionately that Oxford may not be how I expect it to be, yet I remain absolutely sure that I’ll love it. I truly feel as though I’ll belong, in a time-honoured community of people dedicated to the beauty of learning; this is indeed how Cartwright felt, for the first (and, it seems, last) time in his life. Do I suffer from the Oxford version of Jerusalem syndrome, as Cartwright suggests many do? Does it matter, if I’m happy?

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