Gender inequality and gender differences

Polite Ire critiques gender essentialism and fashionable brain imaging studies.

Submitted by Joseph Kay on March 13, 2012

The supposed ‘fundamental’ differences between sexes have historically been used as an argument against equal rights, notably in the opposition to women's suffrage. In the early 20th century this opposition was supported by the science of phrenology, later discredited and its conclusions found to be spurious and based upon prejudice. More recently Neuro-scientific researchers have claimed that essential differences between the male and female brain have been uncovered, ‘evidenced’ by neuro-imaging that suggests differing brain structures. However this research is not as clear cut as it may first appear; no participant of a study can be isolated from the affects of socialisation, and as such each supposed ‘essential’ difference may in fact be a result of socialisation (Fine 3-26). There has also been no conclusive evidence found; the methodology is often flawed, the samples small, and the imaging yet to be properly understood. The widely held belief that male and female brains function in different ways is based upon the conclusions of a small minority of studies, conclusions that are damningly dismissed by meta-analyses. The neuro-imaging “evidence” of differently gendered brains may then, in the future, be shown to be similarly laden with prejudice, skewed by societal expectations, as was the case with phrenology. (Fine 131-154)

Where socio-biologists have relied upon the notion of a universal, innate, human nature, a nature that includes gender divisions, they have faced criticism for the inability for this “universal” to be universally applied; for example, while all human societies include a division of labour by sex, these divisions are varied, the social structures changing the form, rigidity and cultural meaning of such divisions (Fausto-Sterling 198-99). This section will consider how gender is socially constructed, and what effect this has upon how the experiences of men and women.

Our society is patriarchal. Our institutions, our traditions, our everyday lives, are filled with examples of men in positions of authority over women. You are born and take your father’s surname. You marry, and tradition holds that a father gives away his daughter to become the wife of a man whose name she shall adopt. Until very recently (and as is often still the case) it is the man in a relationship who holds financial control, and the woman who takes the (unpaid) responsibility for the home and the children. When a woman goes out to work she earns, on average, substantially less than her equivalent male colleagues (despite legislation banning this), is less likely to receive a promotion, and is likely to receive a smaller pension. If a woman is a wife and/or mother, she will also, on average, continue to take responsibility for the home and the family in addition to her paid employment (the infamous ‘second shift’). The decisions made on our behalf by representatives in unions, councils, and governments are made predominantly by men. Despite the now higher proportion of female law graduates to their male counterparts, our legal system remains dominated by men. Equality legislation has not resulted in equality. Why should this be the case?

Cordelia Fine, in her book Delusions of Gender, argues that associational learning is key to our socialisation, a process that includes the internalisation of gender roles and can account for the apparent differences between men and women. Beginning at infancy, our young malleable brains are subjected to pressures to conform to gender norms deemed appropriate for our sex. Thus, to take the obvious examples, girls are surrounded by pink and boys with blue; girls are given toys that will allow them to imitate the life of a traditional wife and mother (e.g. dolls and play-kitchens), and boys that of a traditional working man (tools, building blocks, etc). While in recent years many parents will attempt to reject these for more “gender-neutral” parenting, society as a whole will ensure that a child will soon become aware of what is “normal” for a girl and how that differs from what is “normal” for a boy. Violation of these norms has violent consequences in bullying, harassment, depression and suicide, as demonstrated by this speech given by Texan politician, Joel Burns:


Our associations also affect how we interact with children of different genders, and thus how they are socialised into conforming to gender roles. Crucially, this process is ‘pre-cognitive’, i.e. independent of our opinions or rational judgement. Male babies are talked to, held, and comforted less than female babies. An adult who believes a child to be a boy will judge it to more independent and active than if the adult believes the same child to be a girl. This raises the issue of gender binaries. If I were to describe two people, one as “ambitious, sporting, and competitive” and another as “empathetic, communicative and caring” it is obvious which gender you would automatically assign to each description. And yet we are all aware that people are far more complicated and contradictory than such binaries would allow. These implicit associations of behaviours and personality traits, divided along gendered lines, give us an underlying social reason for our unequal society, as will now be explored. However as will also be seen, change is not as simple as rejecting these associations.

Research has shown that without the awareness, intention or control of an individual, the perception of a connection between subjects and behaviours are reinforced by their repetition. This is not simply a matter of affecting opinion but of having a real effect upon behaviours and ability. For example, research has shown that when gender is made salient, people perform according to the stereotypical ability of their gender (e.g. women less capable at maths, men less capable at empathy) – however when gender is not mentioned there is no such correlation in performance. The subconscious nature of this compliance to a norm demonstrates that while individuals may consciously reject gender roles, their subconscious continues to unknowingly make gendered associations and behave in gender ‘appropriate’ ways. (Fine 3-26)

These associations, implicit in our society, have deep implications when it comes to gender equality. Though discrimination according to gender is not permitted legally, in reality it is much harder to avoid. Research has demonstrated that when equally qualified men and women apply for identical jobs, the gender associations of the vacancy is a key factor in determining who will be successful: women therefore are at a disadvantage in many areas of employment from the outset, as the attributes of a successful worker are typically seen as masculine (ambitious, competitive, independent, dominant etc) – while a woman may be perfectly suited to the role in question, her talents are far less likely to be recognised than they would be in a man. (Fine 27-66) Such discrimination does not seem to affect men when the situation is reversed; men who work in traditionally female jobs (nursing, teaching etc) are more likely to be favoured for promotion, the societal association of men in positions of authority clearing the path for them to progress in their field. The pervasive nature of these associations is apparent from a young age:

Where eleven- to twelve-year-old children are shown pictures of men and women performing unfamiliar jobs, they rate as more difficult, better paid and more important those occupations that happen to be performed by men. (p 66)

Therefore the expectation implicit in liberal feminist theory – that equal access to education and employment based upon merit will lead to gender equality – is inherently flawed, as it does not account for the failure of legislation that has, in theory, permitted women to achieve the same status as men. Socialisation trumps legislation. (Sometimes the facade of equality falls away even in this, as David Cameron’s suggestion that there should be more women on boards of directors because they ‘cost less’ serves to demonstrate).

It is important to recognise that the affects of a patriarchal society are not limited to women, but to people as a whole, distorting the complex and malleable nature of individuals and presenting them as binary and definitive. While it may be difficult for a woman to gain acceptance in a high-status professional role it is equally true that a man who wishes to look after his children full time may meet equivalent challenges.

The reliance upon theories of ‘essential differences’, and thus the failure to accept the social construction of gender, also has consequences in failing to address the endemic phenomenon of rape. It is to this issue that we now turn our attention.

Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender
Anne Fausto-Sterling, Myths of Gender
S. Rose, R.C. Lewontin & L.J. Kamin, Not in our Genes
Angela Y. Davis, Women, Race & Class
Diane Herman, The Rape Culture



12 years 4 months ago

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Submitted by Choccy on March 13, 2012

This is good, I like Fine's stuff. Apparently Rebecca Jordan Young's 'Brain Storms' is a good compliment to Delusions of Gender. Her and Fine were interviewed together on Radio National's All In The Mind last year.

That stuff on 'stereotype threat' is really important too, and the effect holds for other factors such as race and class from what I'd read.


12 years 3 months ago

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Submitted by Steven. on April 24, 2012

There is a really good article on today about five key gender stereotypes which used to be exactly the opposite way round!


12 years 3 months ago

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Submitted by BanjoRed91 on April 24, 2012

Good article, I've had debates on this issue with one of my sociology professors who is follower of "difference feminism". He contends that biological differences between men and women make it so that the gender gap for wages, careers, and family orientation is based on biology, not social structure, and thus sexism in society is not as prevalent as people think. He always points students towards Susan Pinker's The Sexual Paradox when talking about difference feminism. But it seems like difference feminism is doing exactly what these socio-biologists referred to in the article are doing: taking abstract and not completely understood biological concepts and applying them to social norms.


12 years ago

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Submitted by petey on July 22, 2012

i read delusions of gender last year, and while i think fine's argument is correct, i found the book hard to take b/c of a needlessly snarky tone and sometimes partial argumentation. but i'd still recommend it.