Cordelia Fine never intended to write the book she did.
“It did end up being controversial more than I anticipated,” the Melbourne Business School psychologist tells Women’s Agenda shortly after being nominated for the prestigious Warwick Prize long-list, alongside literary luminaries like Thomas Keneally (of Schindler’s List fame) and Jonathan Franzen (who wrote Freedom).
When Fine became a mother, she began reading popular science books about the differences between the brains of boys and girls, and how these differences affect the ideal teaching style for each gender.
Out of interest, she also looked up the studies cited in the books.
“I was completely shocked by the disconnect between what the science showed and the claims being made for it,” she says. “So I wanted to write a book showing how neuroscience was being abused by popular writers. That’s the book I was contracted to write.”
But it’s not the one she delivered. Instead, when she looked deeper into the studies, she found another problem.
“The science itself seemed to be drawing on premature conclusions,” she says. “There were bad assumptions being made, there were methodological issues, and overall, there were a very small number of studies being done.
“That was an influential story in science – all the evidence about differences between men and women. But it seemed to me that the science that story was based on couldn’t justify the conclusions.”
I say to Fine that it’s hard to imagine so much peer-reviewed science having such gaping holes. She says it’s a complex problem.
Firstly, there’s a bias towards studies showing spectacular results.
“It’s so easy and obvious to divide by sex and look for differences,” she says. “If you do that routinely, and don’t report when you don’t find differences, but do write a paper when you do, well, that’ll skew the evidence.”
Another problem is that neuroscience is still an emerging field of study, which leads to teething problems.
Thirdly, the people writing and reviewing the studies are not always versed in the contributions of fields outside their own on the very questions they are researching.
“Academics work in their own particular areas, and develop a very rich understanding in those areas. But they won’t always know everything that’s relevant to what they’re doing.
“For example, people looking at prenatal hormone influences on the brain may not have a rich understanding of the development literature, so they may assume studying the mind of a one-year-old child shows something about their innate predispositions, whereas a developmental psychologist would say, ‘they’ve been in a gendered society for a year, you can’t make that assumption’.”
And finally, Fine says, despite a growing recognition of the pitfalls of some of the early studies on gender difference, studies which show replicated or widely divergent results keep getting cited and referred to, even though more recent studies come to different conclusions.
Ultimately, Fine’s research led her to conclude that the differences between the so-called scientific sexes are far overblown, if there’s any evidence to them at all.
The research went into Delusions of Gender, which scored a range of nominations and awards upon publication. It received the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction 2011, The Best Book of Ideas Prize in 2011 and the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in 2010. It was The Guardian’s book of the year and the Washington Post’s best non-fiction book of the year.
Fine says the reaction is gratifying. “I particularly love hearing from people who’ve read the book and sometimes share their experience with me. The best emails are those from people who came to the book sceptical, and have their views turned upside down. Which I have to say was my experience.”
In academia, Fine says, the signs of influence come slower, but as Fine puts it, “it’s better to be controversial than to be ignored.
“I really hope the book triggers more interdisciplinary research,” she says.
“This is an important story. It’s a story of how we come to be who we are, it has huge political implications. So it’s important to get the science right.
“I get very concerned about popular misrepresentations of the science in the business world, for example. You often have books published that argue the way to increase the quality in organisations is to understand and appreciate the hardwired sex differences in the brain. This is a very concerning message for two reasons.
“Firstly, the information provided in these books is simply false. It misrepresents the nature of gender differences.
“And secondly, the messages about male brains and female brains inevitably reinforce gender stereotypes that act against women in the workplace. If you take some dubious claim about brain differences, then form as stereotype to make sense of that brain difference, you just end up reinforcing that stereotype. It’s a very small step from there to the idea that men should be like this, and women should be like that.
“For women in particular, gender expectations of being communal and nice do make it harder for them to work the way they need to.”