Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Neuro-sexism - a bar to equality

This originally appeared on the Fresh Outlook at

This is also my 200th post! 

Girls like pink, boys like blue. Girls love caring, boys love maths. Girls are nurturers, boys are leaders. And we can’t change that. It’s innate, it’s genetic, it’s to do with the size of our left brains, or our right brains, or the way different parts of our brains light up, or testosterone levels in the womb, or oxytocin levels outside the womb, or… well it’s just science, ok? And it certainly has nothing to do with societal expectations, prejudices, stereotypes or sexism. Women are from Venus and Men are from Mars, men don’t listen and women can’t read maps, and the answers lie in our genes.

The current trend of biological determinism has been eagerly reported by our press, from the surreal study that ‘proved’ girls like pink and boys like blue because our ‘male primal ancestors hunted under clear blue skies and women picked pink berries’ (paraphrased) to Lawrence Sumner’s claims that women were innately unsuited to science. Voices of scientists, psychologists and activists who have disputed these claims have been rarely been heard in the media, who instead have hailed those pushing the bio-determinist views as crusaders against the unscientific nature of political correctness, fighting the taboo that women and men are different. The fact that much of the research actually reinforces stereotypes that are, if anything, deeply old fashioned in their outlook is casually ignored.

Biological determinism or ‘neuro-sexism’ is harmful to both men and women. Make no mistakes about that. The theories that women are caring, nurturing and good with empathising with emotions perfectly suits women to low paid, low status caring careers. The idea that we are emotional and therefore ‘not rational’, that we are talkers and therefore not good with ‘systems’, and that because we are good with language we are therefore bad at maths basically excludes women from what have become traditionally male-dominated areas of life and the workplace. Conversely, the idea that men can’t be emotionally intelligent, caring or nurturing excludes them from the caring professions and family life, which is equally as sexist and harmful.

Recent feminist literature, including Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls and Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender explore how sexism still manifests itself in our day-to-day lives, from harassment in the workplace to unequal division of labour at home. They look at how pernicious the influence of stereotyping is, so that even when parents think they are offering a gender-neutral upbringing, society still encourages rigid gender roles. They break down flawed studies and force you to ask uncomfortable questions about your own attitudes towards gender and stereotyping. Fundamentally, they question and argue against the idea that gender roles are innate and fixed, and ask whether prejudice, sexism and stereotyping are, in fact, influencing women’s and men’s choices, as opposed to women’s so-called love of pink being directly descended from our ancestors’ taste for berries.

The problem with bio-determinism and neuro-sexism is it kind of puts the breaks on a move towards equality. It says that there’s no point fighting for better representation for women on boards/parliament/engineering/science or buying our daughters trucks and our sons dolls, or campaigning for more equal parental leave, because our genes innately mean that men and women are different and should stick to different paths. By looking for alternative theories beyond biological determinism, we can find a sense of hope. It tells us that there is a world of opportunity beyond the idea that women and men are stuck with a genetic make up that reduces our outlook and chances for the future. By reminding ourselves about how wrong gender difference science has been in the past, and exploring how it is still getting it wrong today, we learn that if we move beyond stereotyping and sexism, women and men can perform equally well on the public and domestic stage. Neuro-sexism does not have to define our present, or our future.

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