The gender wars take no
prisoners. In 2005, suggesting that there might indeed be innate
between men and women derailed the career of Harvard
Larry Summers. He reemerged, years later, as President Obama’s sometime
finance guru). Meanwhile, a host of
neuroscientists report differences between the brains of men and women
they say, account for different abilities and career choices.

Psychologist and author Cordelia Fine disagrees
with the neuroscientists.
In Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds,
and Neurosexism Create
, she has no
time for the “special powers” that pop brain science currently imputes
to the
female brain, reminding us that such claims were made long before the
resonance imaging machine was invented.

She takes aim at books
such as
What Could He Be Thinking?
where we
hear that images of male and female brains were “marriage saving” for
Michael Gurian and his wife, to say nothing of Gurian’s Leadership and the Sexes which “links the actual
science of
male/female brain differences to every aspect of business.”

that doesn’t make you feel like Employee Double X or XY
clocking in,
what will?

“The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for
The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and
systems,” says Cambridge psychologist
Simon Baron
Cohen. But is that true? And is it why right-brainers (= mostly women)
rule the future?

work is
distinguished by the absence of shrill feminist rhetoric. Thank heaven,
we’ve all heard enough of that. Put another way: Men could be smarter
women. That might not seem fair to the rest of us. But what doesn’t seem
fair to
the rest of us could still be true, and we would still have to live with
Unless, of course, we prefer Potemkin Villages of mandatory half-female
in all subjects, so we can demonstrate that bureaucracy trumps reality.

However, Fine’s main point – massively documented throughout the
book –
is that so many of the findings in this area are flawed that it would be
not to base any judgment on them. She assembles a pretty good case by
not primarily at the distortions of pop psychology, but at flaws in the
literature. There she found much evidence of “gaps, assumptions,
inconsistencies, poor methodologies, and leaps of faith.”

one thing,
much of the primary literature is based on determinism – in an
world. Whether due to “neural or hormonal roots” (The Sexual
or the
surge of fetal testosterone which will decide “the very nature of the
(Brain Sex), the fix is in, we
are told. Fine
argues, by contrast, that the mind is a cluster of psychological
processes that
cannot be understood apart from the culture with which it interacts.

Most of the way, I am with her. It’s refreshing (and
significant!) that
– at last – a careful psychologist takes aim at the pop culture science
degrades both pop culture and science. For example, her book is
blessedly free
of the evolutionary psychology nonsense about what Neolithic
man or woman
“would have done” and so, the argument runs, it’s in our genes to do it

But then, at page 4, something changed: I was asked
(hypothetically) to
write down what I thought males and females are like. My ideas did not
match the
approved research findings of rampant sexism, and by page 5, I was
informed that
my mind harbours stereotypes (big, beefy vs. pink, frilly) without “the
encumbrances of awareness, intention, and control.” So, after all this
time, I
still don’t know what I think, but the researchers do? Many readers, I
would share my restlessness at that point …

That said, Fine
does an
exhaustive job of critiquing neuroscience and psychology research that
seems to
have begun with its own premise – that men and women have different
structures or styles – and tries to find evidence to match. The brain is
like an
ocean, so no surprise they found something. She introduces much research
contradicts the Difference model, and anyone writing on such a sensitive
should definitely look into it. That sort of caution might have saved
Summers’s career.

Still, in the end, I find myself asking: If
there are
no significant differences between men and women, why did women
get the
short end of the stick – or so we are told – for thousands of years? And
why did
we eventually need a women’s rights movement, not a men’s rights
movement (or
not till recently anyway)? And why are
so many Muslim
women supporters of what seems like oppression to non-Muslim
Westerners, in spite
of the women’s rights movement?

One possible clue is offered by a
traditional religious source: The curse on Eve after she ate
the infamous
apple was that “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule
you.” (Genesis 3:16b) Many people have assumed that “he will rule over
you” is a
legal prescription, but that is far from clear. What’s predicted there
is that
Eve will desire a relationship with Adam and accept his domination in

Is it true? I’ve seen many women suppress
instincts if they sense that the man they desire doesn’t find such
attractive. In their case, brain-based theories, pro or con, are just so
whistling down the wind. The answer is much simpler: The women made a
choice of
relationship over achievement, irrespective of their testable abilities.

But hats off to Cordelia Fine for providing enough balancing
to give us cultural freedom to discuss these questions without losing
our jobs.

O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...