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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

How To Debunk Sexist Pseudoscience

Cordelia Fine is a psychologist and philosopher of science who has become well-known for criticizing strong claims about “innate” or “hard-wired” sex differences in the brain. Today she explains the kinds of sexist errors that have persisted for centuries.

Cordelia Fine is a psychologist and philosopher of science whose work brilliantly demolishes myths about the “nature” of differences between men and women. Prof. Fine has written three books, A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives, Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences, and Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of Our Gendered Minds. In this conversation, which originally aired on the Current Affairs podcast, Prof. Fine joins for a conversation about various popular myths about how men and women are “wired” and why a lot of supposedly sound science on sex differences is, in fact, untrustworthy or downright wrong. Prof. Fine shows how these kinds of claims about the biological roots of social gender differences have a long, long history, and they’re not any more sound now than they were in the 1900s when suffrage was being opposed on the grounds that women were biologically incapable of voting intelligently. We discuss the contemporary claims of people like Jordan Peterson and the Google memo guy about the supposed scientific foundations of various kinds of gender inequalities. The conversation has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.


We’re here to discuss what comes up in much of the work you’ve done over the past decade or so, which is biological and gender essentialism and the stories that are told about the “inherent” or “hardwired” differences between men and women and what their implications are. These stories are often grounded in evolutionary psychology and stated as scientific fact. Often the narrative is that those who would deny these clear, strong, hardwired differences between men and women reject the science. Those who don’t accept the narrative are “postmodern neo-Marxist feminist ideologues” who can’t handle the hard truths about a biological reality.

We’re here to discuss that story. Perhaps one place we could start is actually not with the story as it’s told today, but as it has been told over the course of the history of science. One of the things you do in your books is start to unsettle our belief in this story partly by going over all the stories that have been told in generations past and how silly many of them look in the rearview mirror.


A nice place to start is Aristotle, who famously saw women as deficient men who didn’t have enough heat to cook their blood and therefore purify the soul, and as a result had weaker reasoning powers. That dichotomy between “rational” man and “emotional” woman has, of course, continued and persists to this day. In the late 18th and 19th century, the craniologists of the time were very busy trying to identify the cause of sex differences in intellectual achievement. And politically, that was quite an important endeavor because there was a problem for the Enlightenment thinkers: why wouldn’t the natural rights in the new democracy be extended to women and people who weren’t white men? There needed to be some kind of rationale for it. And so, they were very busy making all kinds of measurements of the skull—the volume and ratio of the skull length to the skull breadth.

In the mid-19th century, the sort of evolutionary flavor came into things. There were proposals that women and members of non-white races were caught in a kind of primitive stage of physical and mental evolution. One of my favorites from that period, from the late 19th century, was Edward Clarke, who was a medical doctor at Harvard Medical School. He was quite an influential commentator in the debates about the inclusion of women in higher education and drew on “limited energy theorem” to propose that there was going to be a quite dangerous consequence of allowing women to engage in the hard intellectual labor of attending university because their reproductive systems use so much energy, and in a limited energy system, that energy will be sucked up to their brains and would cause infertility, mental health issues, etc. So, the consequences would be quite dire.

You made this comment about the kinds of responses of, “Look, these are just the facts, and I’m sorry you don’t like them.” It’s quite interesting to read some of the commentaries of the time because there’s still that same kind of patronizing tone—it’s sometimes very similar to what you read today.


You have a quote from the New York Times in 1915 from Dr. Charles L. Dana, a neurologist, commenting on women’s suffrage:

“There are some fundamental differences between the bony and the nervous structures of women and men. The brain stem of women is relatively larger, the brain mantle and basal ganglia are smaller. The upper half of the spinal cord is smaller. This lower half, which controls the pelvis and limbs, is much larger. These are structural differences which underlie definite differences in the two sexes.”

And here is where it gets hilarious:

“I do not say that they will prevent a woman from voting, but they will prevent her from ever becoming a man. And they point the way to the fact that woman’s efficacy lies in a special field and not that of political initiative, or of judicial authority in a community’s organization.”

And I suppose you could use hundreds of such quotes from the papers of the time.


Yes, so Edward Clarke was also appropriately cautious. I won’t say they will all go infertile, but there is this just terrible risk. Actually, if you look on Amazon, Clarke’s book has quite a few positive reviews. Some people find it a little bit old-fashioned, but quite fascinating. That’s food for thought in itself. Skipping through the 20th century, there was a lot of interest in links between hormones and brain lateralization, the idea that men have more one-sided brains, with particular parts of the brain being more developed underlay their greater intellectual abilities. Where I came in was in the 21st century, and the rise of the new brain imaging technologies, with structural and functional neuroimaging.


I feel like in that quote that I read from Dr. Charles L. Dana, we can see a tendency that is very common to these arguments across time. What he does, in the pattern of reasoning and the way he draws his conclusion, is to list a series of biological differences between men and women and then conclude from that a social implication—and that social implication is some kind of limit or prescription that supposedly follows from the biology. So we list all these differences, and then conclude that’s why society has to be constructed in X way.


Yes, I agree. There’s a kind of unassailable assumption, and then you find a part of the brain that you can link to that particular conclusion.


I want to read just a headline from The Guardian from 2013 because it’s easy for us to mock Dr. Charles L. Dana: “Male and female brains wired differently, scans reveal“—this is the neuroimaging that you were referring to. It says,

“Scientists have drawn on nearly 1,000 brain scans to confirm what many had surely concluded long ago: that stark differences exist in the wiring of male and female brains…Ragini Verma, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, said the greatest surprise was how much the findings supported old stereotypes, with men’s brains apparently wired more for perception and co-ordinated actions, and women’s for social skills and memory, making them better equipped for multitasking.”

So, that’s not the New York Times in 1915, that’s The Guardian in 2013.


Gosh, yes, that is a surprise, isn’t it? That particular study, which I remember quite well, had some of the common issues that people who critique this kind of work are familiar with, but not all of them. So, one of the main difficulties in this area can often be that conclusions are drawn and work is published based on very small sample sizes, and then those findings don’t actually get replicated. There’s an interesting underlying assumption behind that, which is the larger the differences between populations, the smaller a sample size you need to reliably identify a difference with a good chance of kind of getting it right. And so, the fact that people are willing to compare quite small groups of women and men is an indication that there’s a sort of tacit assumption that those differences are considerable.

That was not a problem that applied to this particular study because it did have, as you pointed out, a very large sample size. But one of the things that was interesting about the media release that the authors put out is that they were referring to kinds of skills that they didn’t actually tap behaviorally. For example, I don’t believe that they had a behavioral battery of multitasking, so that did seem to be a pure stereotype. But also, they actually did have a comprehensive battery of cognitive, social, and other kinds of behavioral measures on the largest sample from which those smaller scans from that sample were drawn.

What’s actually striking about those data is how very modest the differences are. These were tiny average differences, and the researchers didn’t actually look to see if the connectivity differences which they found between males and females had any relationship to any of these very modest behavioral measures. The connectivity differences themselves were presented in such a way as to emphasize what turned out to be a relatively small proportion of connections between the brain that were significant, while not mentioning or not visually showing the many connections that didn’t differ between the brains.

There’s this assumption, and a quite common one you alluded to before, that whenever you compare your males and females and find a difference, there must be some kind of behavioral difference that we need to pin that to. But, in fact, another way to think about it is that we have male and female people, and often they behave in very similar kinds of ways in somewhat different bodies, and sometimes one difference might be to compensate for another difference. One difference between males and females is an average difference in brain size. It may be that smaller brains just tend to be wired somewhat differently compared to larger brains, so that what you’re looking at is a brain size difference, and not a sex difference. So, that was a sort of possibility in this particular study. People have gone on to look at this more closely, but that wasn’t a consideration they had when they were looking at their data. They said, “We found an average connectivity difference—let’s emphasize that. We found some very modest behavioral differences—let’s connect the two.” And then, “Let’s write a press release saying this is hard-wiring,” even though, of course, this is just a snapshot in time.


Yes, I want to talk about this word “hardwiring” because I think this comes up a lot: the idea that if we take a look at the brains at a particular time and see differences in wiring, those differences are pre-programmed in, essentially. One of the things you point out in your work is just because you see differences in men and women at a particular time does not mean that you have identified that difference as an innate or hardwired difference.


Yes, that’s exactly right. It’s a mistake, but can be quite common in popular commentators. “Oh, it’s in the brain, it must be biological,” i.e. innate. Scientists, of course, understand that the brain is somewhat experience-dependent. The use of the words referring to kind of innate or hardwired differences in this particular example we’ve talked about is a bit of an exception. But there has been something more subtle going on in the contemporary literature, which is something that I talked about in an academic article I wrote that analyzed two years of functional neuroimaging studies of sex differences. What I found was that there weren’t a huge number of these, only about 39, but all of them took a snapshot of differences. So, they would just compare the sexes in brain activation. Obviously, you can’t say that those brain activation differences are innate, universal, and immutable. But at the same time, if the field is simply taking these snapshots, they can never produce data that would challenge that hypothesis. So, they can never produce data that would indicate that these differences are seen only in these contexts or populations, or only following this kind of developmental trajectory.

There are subtle differences in terms of asking: what is the data that you’re producing, and does the data that you produce actually have the capacity to challenge what may be a kind of tacit assumption that these differences are hardwired? Those differences are just a starting point for further investigation.

This point was made very nicely by two neuroscientists, Daphna Joel and Margaret McCarthy, and this was talking even about animal research, which obviously you can have much more control over what you can do in terms of research. Their point was when you see a sex difference in some kind of endpoint in animals, so whether it’s a brain or behavioral difference, there are all kinds of sex difference that it can actually be, and they set out the kind of tree of what it could be. So, you have to ask: is this difference transient, or is it persistent? Is it context dependent? Does it depend on experience, development, the environment, or is it context independent? And then you can also ask a question about what form it takes. So, you have a male and female typical version—is that either two really distinct forms, or are you seeing a continuum? When people say a sex difference in the brain—sure, but what kind of sex difference is it? That’s actually quite a lot of work, some of which may be impossible to explore all the possibilities, to work out what kind of sex differences we’re talking about, even in animal research.


We’ve been talking in somewhat general terms. There are many examples of stories that are told, with titles such as, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, Men are Like Waffles, Women are Like Spaghetti, Why Men Don’t Listen, and Women Can’t Read Maps, Why Men Like Straight Lines and Women Like Polka Dots, etc. From these examples, could you provide us an example of a common story that is supposedly grounded in science and why it doesn’t hold up when we scrutinize it? 


One really nice example is the “spaghetti/waffle” story, which has been told in many ways. The official scientific label or theory of this is “greater male lateralization,” the idea that, particularly in relation to language, males tend to use just one side of the brain of the language regions when they’re processing language, whereas females tend to use both sides—they’re less lateralized, so to speak. I’ll just say “one-side” and “two-sided” for simplicity. This was a respectable scientific hypothesis in relation to language, and was looked at both in terms of looking at patients who had suffered trauma to the brain to see what the effects on their language abilities were, and then later with neuroimaging technologies looking at neurologically intact individuals to see if there are sex differences in where the brain is processing language.

It’s one of these examples where the smaller scale studies finding sex differences didn’t pan out once you started to look at much larger samples. This is a real problem in this area of research because it’s so easy to test for sex differences—if you find them, you emphasize them, and if you don’t find them, you don’t mention it. So often the null findings—the findings of similarity—get lost in the literature. And actually, it’s interesting because if you want to look for sex differences in the scientific literature, you can put in your keywords—”sex differences” or “gender differences,” for example—and it’s very hard to look for similarities. We don’t have any statistics to measure similarity, so that’s a general issue.

So, the literature looking at the effects of damage to the brain had started to move away from the lateralization hypothesis, but it was revived with new neuroimaging technologies. This was another interesting case where there are many studies of small sample sizes looking at it. Some find differences and expected to find differences of the other side, and some didn’t find differences at all. Iris Sommer did two syntheses of this literature called a meta-analysis, where you bring all the studies that looked at this issue and make a special effort to look at studies that don’t actually report sex differences and just presented people as people, and unpublished data. In both of her meta-analyses, she found that, overall, there didn’t appear to be a sex difference in language lateralization. But back in 1995, in the early days of functional neuroimaging, there had been a study that had looked at three different types of language processing and found a sex difference in one. This study emphasized the one finding of difference in its title, even though they found two differences of similarity, and that was the spark that lit the fire that really gave fuel to this idea that men are one-sided which became more compartmentalized, which became more “waffle.”


I see, I was wondering what this had to do with spaghetti and waffles.


We finally got there! Now you understand. It extended beyond language to become a kind of general phenomenon. So, when the female is processing things, the brain is just doing everything everywhere—it’s a mess—and then the reasoning gets mixed up with the emotion, etc. Whereas, the male’s thinking part is separate from his emotional part.

One of these popular books says that’s why men can’t talk about their emotions because the language part is very distinct from the emotion part, and it’s difficult to get a connection between the two. But all of this stems from what was the live scientific hypothesis that eventually was overturned through the sheer weight of data, that actually, when I looked at the citations of that study, was very high-impact in terms of how often was cited in the scientific literature as well as in the popular literature. Many people continue to cite that study, even after the meta-analysis said this small sample hasn’t really borne out. I’m not saying this as an issue that’s peculiar to sex differences, but when you have such intense popular interest, it doesn’t help—let me put it that way.


So, that is a case where a supposed difference was found but didn’t really hold up once it was researched more extensively. I want to go back to those other categories of cases, however, where if we do find a difference, we are faced with the question of what the source of the difference is. This is where we get these debates over “innate” versus “environmental” and “socially constructed,” or “nature” versus “nurture.” One of the points that comes across strongly in your work is that even when the difference holds up, it is extremely difficult to figure out whether something is the effect of a gendered society and upbringing, or whether it is hardwired or innate. You lay out all the ways in which, from birth, we live in a gendered society that is making it impossible to disentangle environment from genetic innateness.


Yes, that’s right. One thing to also add is we don’t know what the significance of any differences for thinking, feeling, behaving and so on—perhaps we can come back later to that, what any particular difference means—but yes, you’re absolutely right. Scientists have to be quite ingenious and creative when it comes to studying humans, but you can’t run a controlled experiment when it comes to humans.

I can talk through some of the different ways that that scientists have approached this issue. One obvious approach is animal research. You can look at what happens if you tinker with genes, or intervene in hormones that are part of the early sexual differentiation of the brain. I don’t think anyone doubts that the genetic and hormonal components of sex do actually have an influence on the brain. The question is in what ways and what implications in particular in humans. So animal research is one approach. Another way is—and this is particularly popular with evolutionary psychologists—to look across different cultures and see if the same differences are consistent cross culturally. And another popular approach is to look at individuals who have variations in sexual differentiation, sometimes called intersex conditions. For example, one particularly popular population—this is often seen as the kind of strongest evidence for inherent sex differences that have implications for behavior—is a group called girls with congenital adrenal hyperplasia [CAH], a condition in which the body is producing atypically high levels of androgens in utero. So, while still in the womb, the brains of these girls are actually developing in a more male typical hormonal environment. Researchers have spent a lot of time looking at this particular group, to say they often have masculinized genitalia, for instance, and asking if they are masculinized in behavioral ways as well. That’s often seen as one of the strongest pieces of evidence for inherent sex differences.


And would you agree that it is strong evidence?


There’s a kind of consistent finding with this population, which is that when it comes to things like toys and activities, they do have more masculine interests compared with control girls. So, that’s the clearest finding, and to me, it seems pretty clear-cut. With other kinds of things that have been looked at, it’s much less clear—the findings are somewhat weak, inconsistent, or mixed. But for this, the data are pretty clear.

Does that show what people think it shows, which is that boys are just wired to play with trucks, and so on? To me, that’s not so clear. And the reason is that for decades, actually, feminist biologists have been criticizing this kind of work, which has been going on in the same kind of way for a very long time, for treating “boy toys” and “girl toys” as a kind of timeless, universal, and immutable kind of phenomenon, as opposed to something that might actually be socially constructed, to use that term. I looked at the studies in some detail. Instead of just taking the overall picture of, “here’s this consistent finding: girls with CAH are more interested in boy toys than control girls,” when you start to look at the studies, it becomes more interesting.

So, there can be inconsistency across these kinds of studies in what counts as a “boy toy,” a “girl toy,” and a “neutral” toy. For example, a ball might be a boy toy in one study, or it might be a neutral toy in another; a teddy bear might be a girl toy in one study, and a gender-neutral toy in another. You even see examples, actually, where they test their toys on a group of control kids first, and there might be a toy like a Lincoln Logs construction toy in their boy toy set, but the girls absolutely loved playing with it. So, they think, “that’s not a boy toy, then.” You start to see the problem here, that there isn’t a theory that testosterone masculinizes the brain in a way that draws it to X, something that involves working out how the system works—motion, dominance, or whatever it might be—or less interested in things to do with feelings, or understanding thoughts and belief. There’s not an underlying theory of what’s actually going on in brain masculinization, instead it’s just linking it to what is culturally associated with boys and girls in a particular time and place or even in a particular population.

One fascinating study that came out a few years ago took a first step towards looking at this problem indirectly, but didn’t mention the criticisms that we made of this kind of research, which is that they did something different for the first time. And they, instead of presenting children with these groups with toys that are unambiguously boy toys and girl toys and culturally understood to be that way, they presented them with things that are quite boring and gender-neutral, like an orange or silver balloon, or a toy cow and a toy horse, and linked them with either gender cues or gender modeling. So, there might be someone saying, “This is for boys,” or, “This is for girls,” or they saw either a woman or a man playing with the object. And with the control girls and boys, they found the kind of result that you often get, which people overlook, which is when you tell girls and boys who don’t have that many social identities of that age—they have some, but they don’t have professional identities, and their identity as a girl or a boy is a quite prominent and important one—those cues influence what they’re interested in. That came out clearly in the data.


I remember being a little boy, and as a little boy, I played with a lot of cars. I always wanted the pink Barbie car, but I would never say that I wanted it because that was a girl’s toy. I also wanted a Ken doll, which was in the Barbie line, but I know that I would have never chosen the Ken doll because I knew it was a girl’s toy from a very young age. And it’s very difficult to find children to do these kinds of experiments who have no idea that these categories of boy and girl toys even exist, and then conduct experiments on such pure pristine children that they can’t possibly have been influenced by being told that these are the toys that are appropriate for them.


Exactly. There are two interesting studies that come to that. One is research by people who study gender development. I remember reading somewhere these researchers talking about how difficult it is to create gender-neutral stimuli because children will latch on to anything that has symbolic femininity or masculinity. So, if something is a curved shape, they’ll see that as feminine, whereas if it has a sharp shape, they’ll see it as masculine, so they have to sort of pretest their stimuli. It’s incredibly hard to make something gender-neutral.

And even before children have this kind of conscious awareness of themselves as boys or girls, there have been studies looking at how many boys and girls toys even very young infants have in their home and whether there is a link between that kind of familiarity and later preferences. And this is the study showing the very unsurprising finding that children pay note, and are shaped in their responses. It’s not to say that children can’t behave in a gender-nonconforming way, and say, “I will have the Ken doll,” but there’s a friction there. But what was really interesting in this particular study is that the girls with congenital adrenal hyperplasia, they remembered the labels—there wasn’t an issue with their memory—but weren’t influenced by it, so they just chose the one that they wanted. There wasn’t a sort of bias towards them on being labeled, or modelled, by women or girls.

And to me, this kind of comes right back to this query that I’d had from the research as soon as I started reading about it, which is: what exactly is going on here? Is there a direct link between the effects of androgens on the brain and being drawn to boy toys, or is there something more complicated going on here, having something to do with girls and the development of their gender identity? They do identify as girls, but is their identification as girls is not identical to control girls? For whatever reason, they don’t have that same “this is my tribe, and so I need to conform to what’s right for me”—for some reason, they’re not internalizing those gender norms. The researchers presented this, as another route by which we might see gender differentiated interests. But to me, the question is: what route is the traditional findings? And I think that really remains an open question at this point.


A few months ago, I reviewed a horrible transphobic documentary by a right-wing pundit called What is a Woman? that aims to prove that sex and gender are innate, fixed biological categories, and shows that there are gender roles prescribed for us. And one of the funny things is in that documentary, he goes to speak with an Indigenous group in Africa, the Maasai, and by speaking with the men, he’s trying to prove that gender roles are universal across cultures. And he asked, “Do women do this? Do men do this?” and they said, “Yes, yes, yes, they do that here, too.” And he responded, “See, even here among these people….” And I couldn’t help but notice that most of the men he was talking to in this ethnic group were all wearing what would be in the United States called a colorful skirt, but among them, they were all wearing what was associated with masculinity. Something that didn’t apparently attract Walsh’s attention was the fact that all the men that he was speaking to were wearing dresses, considered perfectly normal in the country that he was in.


Yes, this is a good point. Some of the studies have looked at girls with congenital adrenal hyperplasia and career interests, and here we start to not just talk about toys, but about what roles people play in the economy, and findings showing more interest for the girls with congenital adrenal hyperplasia with the sort of male typical careers. But, when you go back and look at the early studies making these kinds of investigations, that what was considered feminine jobs or feminine roles was so constricted and old-fashioned. There is some variation in what are men’s and women’s jobs, so why don’t we expand our scope if we are actually interested in exploring this question?

I know these things are difficult to do: you have to have your population and have a relationship with them, etc. So, I’m not saying this is an easy thing to do. But, I think this is a general tendency to, exactly as you say, assume that what’s considered masculine in my particular culture and time as a timeless phenomenon, and link that to early biology. Rebecca Jordan-Young’s book, Brain Storm, makes this point beautifully and persuasively about the study of male and female sexuality, which is trying to be linked to these early hormones. And she makes the point that this research maybe started—I hope I got this right—in the 1950s or so and it carries on and there was a whole sexual revolution simultaneously. And so, the very kind of cultural understanding of what feminine sexuality in particular was evolved.

So, it started off as wedding fantasies, and then actually became something that was about having sexual desires or fantasies, or maybe even being interested in having sex—can you believe that? So, the sort of conception of feminine sexuality in particular had changed a lot. The band of what was just considered human sexuality became much larger. But all the while, it was like scientists hadn’t noticed that what they were trying to pin early hormones to actually changed as the cultural had changed. Coming right back to your point about  Charles L. Dana seeing something in the world and trying to explain it with the biology when women couldn’t vote, nobody is going to run that study now because the phenomenon has changed.


Every time I see people like Jordan Peterson say these things about how even in the egalitarian societies, there are more men as engineers and more women as teachers, I think that you can’t isolate the effect of the fact that’s how the professions already are—if you were to try and to actually test it, you’d have to have an experimental alternate society in which women were told from the start of their lives that engineering was a female profession, and then you’d see whether they went into the profession that was stereotypically associated. Of course, you can’t switch it, you can only work in the society that you’re in, where people are being told that all of these observed behavioral differences are, in fact, associated with a particular gender. You can’t get people out of the water of society that they swim in.


Of course, you’re right. The phenomenon you’re referring to is called the “gender equality paradox.” And the counter response would be, actually, when you look at the countries like Sweden, Finland, and Norway, these are the countries which, whenever we have cross-cultural gender equality indices measures, they’re right at the top. These are the most gender egalitarian countries in the world. When you look at, for example, the number of girls and women graduating from STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics], you actually see a greater gender gap in countries like Sweden than you do in somewhere like Iran, which obviously is no champion of women’s rights and scores very low on these kinds of measures. Their argument would be that these are the countries where you have the least constraints of gender. And in addition, because they’re wealthy countries, this is where women’s and men’s true preferences can reveal themselves.

So, that’s the argument, and that’s the kind of argument that Jordan Peterson is making in terms of the gender equality paradox. I think there are a number of interesting things to say about this. People are interested in the relationships between gender equality measures and whatever it is you’re tracking, whether it’s personality, economic preferences, or STEM, but what gets overlooked is just how much variation there is on these variables cross culturally. There might be some exceptions, but you can usually find several countries where what we think of as masculine and feminine, or what’s more common in men versus women, is actually reversed. So, there are often fascinating examples of that. We’re not talking about universal patterns here.

That really comes back to our point about variation cross culturally, and just how malleable some of these things are. The idea that when you look at some place like Sweden, and looking at some gender-free or gender-neutral country or near enough, that really does seem like a mistake to me. When you think about how there’s a particular structure to post-industrial societies and a history of the labor market, sociologists have been looking at this in complex and sophisticated ways. The rise of women’s rights came with the growth in the service sector economy—women became a very convenient labor force to fill demand in those particular sectors. Often those sectors were seen as a kind of professionalization of women’s traditional work, of caring and teaching and so on. And as a result, this kind of routine non-manual labor became the default home for women, and it accommodated to care responsibilities as well. And the public sector in places with strong welfare states is very large.

The point is:the same structural characteristics that go with enabling women to integrate into the labor market—so things like having access to education, access to reliable contraception, the lighter load of unpaid domestic labor thanks to technology and the provision elsewhere—at the same time actually go hand in hand with more sex segregation within the labor market itself. The mistake is to think all of these things that push us towards greater gender integration all go together—there’s just one dimension: gender difference and gender equality, and they all work in the same way along the same dimension.

Funnily enough, things are much more complicated than that. People have discussed the fact that such generous parental leave in countries like Sweden actually can act against integration in the labor market because, particularly when you have strong worker provisions, having someone who you think will take a year’s maternity leave does not become a very appealing prospect to an employer, for example.

So, there are all kinds of interesting and complicated things going on. But one point which was made recently, in a paper that looked at this idea that the reason we have fewer women in STEM in Sweden is because they’re just inherently less interested in it, is to point out that when we think about gender ideology, it’s not just patriarchy or anti-patriarchy—these authors talk about at least two dimensions to gender ideology. One is the vertical dimension of male supremacy: “Men are superior, should be in charge, and head of the household, and it’s woman’s job to service them,” etc. But then there’s also this horizontal dimension, which is: “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus; men are like this, women are like that.”

And if you reject the male supremacy, the vertical dimension, which we do in modern, egalitarian countries like Sweden or Australia, we keep the horizontal dimension, a kind of “different but equal” ideology. What these authors showed—I think that was led by Thomas Breda and colleagues—there’s actually a negative correlation between the two. Countries where you have the stronger endorsement of this vertical dimension have a lower endorsement of the horizontal dimension, and vice versa, and that’s actually reflected in the data looking at people’s interest in STEM subjects. Part of the data that people have looked at is the gender gap in how many boys and girls enjoy STEM, and you actually see also in these more gender egalitarian countries that score higher on these indices, there’s a bigger gender gap.

So, there’s something going on in these countries that is telling girls, “this isn’t for me, I don’t enjoy this” more so than in other countries. So, I think the struggle is we actually don’t know what’s going on in the gender equality paradox. There’s certainly much more complicated things going on than simply, “In these countries, finally women can express and reveal their true selves.” It’s a bit of a simplistic take.


What you’re saying, I take it, is they don’t believe in patriarchy, but they still believe in stereotypes. They still have roles and stereotypes, and they haven’t gotten rid of those. They’ve just created certain kinds of equality, but not others. Which doesn’t really prove very much.

I have a few more questions I wanted to ask you. [You’re critical of a lot of work that comes out of evolutionary psychology. It’s highly criticized as a subfield in part because a lot of this “reactionary hierarchies are natural” stuff comes out of it or seems to be confirmed by it.] So: is evolutionary psychology bullshit, or is there just a lot of bullshit in evolutionary psychology?


No, it’s a legitimate and important line of study to think about evolutionary processes—both ultimate factors and the kind of proximal factors. I don’t think it’s very helpful for the kind of work that I do, or what my colleagues do, to be dismissed as just feminist ideology masquerading as science without engaging with it. And we shouldn’t do the same on the other side. Let’s take each theory, account, or study case by case.

To make a tangent for your question, I would really like to see much more engagement between different perspectives in science. Evolutionary psychologists talk a lot about the importance of viewpoint diversity, etc. I completely agree. So, let’s actually engage in some of that and discuss the underlying assumptions in evolutionary psychology, and to what extent they’re born out.


That sets me up nicely to ask the last question I have for you. I was hoping you could tell our listeners and readers what it is that you feel that feminism has to contribute to science, and whether it actually improves scientific inquiry. You just mentioned there’s this whole thing about how feminist science is somehow diluting the quest for truth and pure, objective knowledge, and you strongly argue with the opposite that, in fact, it is a corrective that is helping us get closer to authentic understanding of the way things really are.


Yes, this is absolutely the case. Like your question about evolutionary psychology at the beginning of the interview about Charles L. Dana, it’s so easy for us to be shaped by the particular gendered culture that we live in. Of course, scientists aren’t immune to that process, and so it is very helpful to have people who are trained, thoughtful, and reflective about the influence of gender norms, gender stereotypes, gender schemas, even the gender of practitioners, and about how that is influencing and biasing science.

There are so many examples of this. When you look at this history of science, it is so often not always women who say “I’m a feminist,” but often it is who say, “Here are the problems with this account,” pulling out these unexamined assumptions, taking a look at them, challenging them, and suggesting new ways to think about issues. When I wrote Testosterone Rex, I didn’t set out for it to be a celebration of women in science, but it turned out that there were so often women scientists who said, “Hang on a minute, let’s just take a breath here and look at the assumptions being made.” Not always, but it was often the case.

This is one of the things that I feel that we are making progress in terms of having these perspectives being integrated into mainstream scientific journals, being taken seriously and having legitimacy among mainstream scientists. That’s been a really positive shift I’ve noticed since I’ve been working in this area. My worry is that the polarization of these debates about science and gender will start to undermine that progress, which would be a real loss.


Yes, that’s why I wanted to just take the opportunity here to push back against this notion that feminism politicizes or dilutes science. As you pointed out, what we’re actually talking about is the fact that everyone has biases and assumptions, and we do better science when we try to understand those things. Your first book, which is also fantastic, is about the many ways in which the brain is an idiot, and the most intelligent of us really cannot know how much we’re failing in different ways.


That’s right. I have to say the benefits, of course, will run both ways. If people are only responding to your work by saying, “You’re just a biased ideologue,” that doesn’t help you improve your work either. We all have confirmation biases to the extent that we are just operating in silos, or when you do engage with other people’s work, they just ignore it. That’s not how science is supposed to work. The reason science has been such a success is that you’re harnessing other people’s ability to spot the flaws in your work because of their particular perspective, and don’t agree with yours. They’re the best possible person to spot out what you’re doing wrong. The benefits run in all directions.

Hear the conversation on the Current Affairs podcast. Transcript edited by Patrick Farnsworth.

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