July 2017
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gender is sexism painted over with bad science / self-educating 2009: 12 & 16


A year ago I wrote a post declaring that I do not believe in gender. Now I KNOW (as well as believe) that gender is a social construct; I am now aware that there is no reliable scientific evidence of brain differences based on sex.

Like most people, you've probably heard of the 'studies' that show that men and women are 'just inherently different' in the way they think (and therefore in the way they behave). I've been suspicious about these for a long time because out of all the people who tried to justify sex roles by biological roles, not ONE actually had done any research on the subject -- they'd just heard it somewhere, you know, and taken it as gospel. I've now done some research on the topic, which I will share bits of in an attempt to encourage you to question this hearsay -- to actually look at these studies with a critical eye.

There have been many studies which attempted to show inherent, biological differences between male and female brains. There are so many problems with these studies that it really boggles the mind; it's as if scientists forget how to do science when it comes to the concept of gender. The first and most obvious issue is that nearly all of these studies are created around the assumption that gender does, in fact, exist. They do not ask the question, "do brains differ based on the sex of the body they are in?" instead they ask, "HOW do brains differ based on sex?" Then studies which show no difference are thus considered irrelevant, and only the studies which DO show a difference are examined. Thus, if five studies are done, three of which show no difference and two of which show a sliiiiight difference, the scientist does not say, "hey, it's most likely that there's no significant difference" -- instead ze looks exclusively at the ones which DO show a tiny difference and then publishes on those! (that's not hypothetical either -- I can't remember the exact number but one set of scientists did several studies, the majority of which showed no difference, and they ignored the majority in favor of the ones that showed difference) Over and over, scientists pick something and declare "HERE is the reason women don't have the same opportunities as men (it's not sexism, it's just nature)!" Then they discover that oh, there actually isn't any difference, or worse, women have a larger ____ lobe and therefore according to the hypothesis are better, oops! and they move on to another lobe. I have not seen a single study which even allowed for the possibility that male and female brains have insignificant differences, despite the fact that each group differs more within the group than it does from the other group. It's not a question of absolute difference by any stretch of the imagination.

Trying to pin differences in the way men and women think/behave on hormone amounts is as useless as measuring lobes. Did you know that testosterone actually DROPS with increased stress? If it's supposed to make males assertive and stressful times call for assertiveness, how does it make sense that testosterone drops? The answer is -- it's not that simple and no, increased testosterone cannot be the sole or even main cause of male assertiveness.

And besides the assumptions which do not get questioned despite being unproven, we have the issue of purely bad science. Poor sample sizes, inadequate or inappropriate or NO controls, statistical manipulation, lack of blind and double-blind experiments -- usually a nice mix of all the above. And these absolutely unscientific studies are Big News and get published in national media; not sharing actual data so that the reader could decided for zirself what it meant, but simply stating their interpretation of the data. The reader assumes that the scientist did a good job with the study and takes the article at face value because it fits perfectly with the reader's world view. And thus hearsay becomes a 'well-known fact.'

I really can't explore all of the ridiculousness that is sexist science, but I'll give you a prime example. Two scientists studied 507 fetal brains and found no significant sex differences (despite the theory that brains become 'male' by being washed in testosterone in the womb) -- which they themselves admitted. Yet they ignored these findings (citing the study for some other finding) and went on to study rat brains -- noting a slight difference in the cortex and making the rather astonishing mental leap of declaring that THAT difference was the reason that human males are 'superior' in math and science.*

Also! Even socially-induced differences are not nearly so large or immutable as people tend to believe. For instance, boys and girls have equal math scores if you throw out a few outliers and control for the number of math classes taken. Men are every bit as nurturing as women; in a study* of single parents, the males were just as good at caretaking as the females (but in married couples the children usually had only one nurturer). And the males in that study became single parents through circumstance, not choice. Another study* showed that women are every bit as warlike as men (though they differ in their reasons to go to war). Women are often considered more intuitive -- to the point that it is common for people to refer to 'women's intuition' as if a vulva has anything to do with it. A study* on the behavior of men and women in leader/follower positions showed that a better term would be 'subordinates' intuition' because the follower in each group was more sensitive to the leader's cues than vice versa, regardless of sex.

* Representative example -- for more, read The Mismeasure Of Woman.

I recently finished reading two very in-depth books that examine many, many studies on the subject.

12. Mismeasure of Woman: Why Women Are Not the Better Sex, the Inferior Sex, or the Opposite Sex by Carol Tavris (non-fiction) 5 stars
Written by a psychologist, The Mismeasure of Woman explores studies on 'gender', focusing on the psychological and social aspects, with a basic section on the brain studies. It took me a while to work through because it's a dense read -- there are so many studies and articles mentioned that the bibliography is 42 pages long. It's quite the emotional rollercoaster! It's infuriating and depressing to realize how much science and society have lied about and mistreated women (and men, though not in the same way); it's exciting and empowering to realize that there is so much human potential that has been ignored or repressed; and it's laugh-out-loud funny in parts thanks to the dry, sometimes sarcastic tone of the author. Despite the fact-dump, it's interesting and entertaining. Also, the author speaks in a genuinely equalist tone; ze doesn't drift into ridiculous "men are the REAL victims here" bullshit but neither does ze ignore the fact that these stereotypes are damaging to men also. Ze challenges both sexes not only to step out of their own roles but to challenge their own ideals and help others step out of those roles.


16. Myths of Gender: Biological Theories About Women and Men by Anne Fausto-Sterling (non-fiction) 5 stars
Myths of Gender explores studies on 'gender', focusing on the medical aspects. Fausto-Sterling discusses genes, hormones, brain differences, animal behavior, homosexuality, and how science affects society. It was not as entertaining as Tavris' book but just as fascinating, and more succinct and detached. I liked reading the two very different styles on the same subject.


P.S. I'm not interested in uninformed disagreement; unless you've devoted a significant amount (at least eight hours) of intensive research to this topic, don't bother. (If you HAVE devoted a lot of time to learning about the concept of gender, please state your sources) I'm really, really tired of hearing the same disinformation over and over and I'm really not interested in discussing every single theory (if you want to ask if I've heard of a particular theory, that is fine). I am sick and tired of being told that science says that men and women are just 'wired differently' when science does NOT prove that by any stretch of the imagination.

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on communication, social justice, intimacy, consent, friendship & other relationships, spirituality, gender, queerness, & dreams. Expect to find curse words, nudity, (occasionally explicit) talk of sex, and angry ranting, but NEVER slurs or sexually violent language. I use TW when I am aware of the need and on request.
Expect to find curse words, nudity, (occasionally explicit) talk of sex, and angry ranting, but NEVER slurs or sexually violent language. I use TW when I am aware of the need and on request.