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More overlap than differences between sexes

Neurononsense is being used to promote gender stereotypes. Scientist Cordelia Fine argues that men and women are in fact very much alike.

Neuroscientists are frustrated by “neurononsense”

Cordelia Fine, born 1975 in Toronto, is a psychologist and neuroscientist at the Melbourne Business School. She published A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives (2006) and Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences (2010), where she relativizes and refutes so-called neuroscientifically proven prejudices about men and women. A conversation about gender stereotypes, differences and overlaps and tricks to overcome those.

Intuition, empathy, lack of aggressiveness – you claim that none of those alleged female traits can be supported by scientific research. How were the reactions from colleagues when you came up with terms like “neurosexism” or “neurononsense”?

“Just to clarify, currently the best measures of sex differences in empathy, aggression, etc., are behavioral, not neurological measures – and what behavioral measures show is that, while there are some average differences between the sexes, there is often much more overlap than people realize, and that the differences are also very responsive to social contexts. I think all neuroscientists are frustrated by the misinterpretation, over-interpretation and fabrication that is popular neurononsense. Where there are negative reactions, it seems to come from a misunderstanding that criticisms of the research are driven by political correctness or the ideological position that any research into sex differences in the brain is sexist. But the goal of the criticism is not to hinder research in this area, but improve the quality of scientific methods and interpretation by highlighting subtle biases in the research.”

Would you say that neuroscience itself tends to oppose gender equality or is it mostly the interpretation of media and lobbyists?

“I absolutely do not think that neuroscientists are opposed to the principles of gender equality. But scientists are also people, embedded in cultural assumptions about gender as we all are, and implicit assumptions can subtly bias the way research is done and interpreted, completely inadvertently.”

Do you think the way neurosciences are interpreted in popular science books have provoked a rollback regarding gender equality, or do they just represent the prejudices that exist anyways?

“That’s an interesting question. My concern about the popular books is that, after many decades of trying to move away from gender stereotypes, these books appear to legitimate them with all the authority of science, as well as claim them to be hardwired. Suddenly, employers or teachers are being scientific, rather than sexist!”

Could you tell us some psychological tricks to overcome gender stereotypes, for example at workplace?

“When it comes to evaluating others in the workplace, awareness that your judgments can be biased, even if you are consciously egalitarian, is an important first step. Then you can try to reduce the scope for this bias. If possible, evaluate candidates gender-blind. Of course, this usually isn’t possible, but there are other tricks. For example, when selecting a job candidate, decide the importance of the various criteria before comparing the candidates. Otherwise, the importance of the criteria might shift to prefer the male candidate for a traditionally male job (or indeed a female candidate for a traditionally female job). There is a great video on this topic, with some practical workplace tips, by sociologist Shelley Correll, whose work I cite in Delusions of Gender.”

From a psychological point of view, do you support or oppose the women’s quota? Does it create social circumstances that help to overcome stereotypical perception?

“This is a really hard question, and I still not sure where I stand on this issue. I actually wrote a popular article about this, asking whether mandatory quotas work or not. While I certainly see the appeal of a strong intervention against the many subtle, mutually reinforcing factors the contribute to sex inequality in the workplace, quotas also bring with them a host of negative psychological effects, in terms of unfairly harsh evaluations of the competence of women chosen under a quota system, which are internalized by the women themselves.”

Auf Deutsch erschienen ist das Buch von Cordelia Fine unter dem Titel: Die Geschlechterlüge: Die Macht der Vorurteile über Mann und Frau.