Delusions of Gender and my physics classroom (part 1)

Mostly this is a book review of my Easter holiday read: Delusions of Gender: the real science behind sex differences by Cordelia Fine.

I’m interested in gender issues generally and have had this near the top of my to read list for a while. What I didn’t expect was to find so much in this book that is directly relevant to my teaching practice. I have come away from this book feeling inspired, depressed, enraged, capable and like I can make a real difference to my students.

The first third deals with hidden sexism. The attitudes of society that pervade our subconscious minds. Many scientific studies are considered where the effect is basically: if a girl is reminded of how crap girls are at maths before taking a maths test, they will perform worse on the test than if they are told about something more gender neutral. I’m paraphrasing to the extreme. The effect is also seen with boys and english literature etc but the effect is not seen on boys taking maths tests. In the final example, there is no society driven, subconscious sexism at work. Please, do go and read the book, because I won’t be doing it justice with my description here.

Crucially, these subconscious effects can be overcome by female students reading, or being told something gender neutral about maths ability before taking the test. Reminding female students that there is no genetic basis for them being bad at maths helps them perform better. I need to re read the book to make sure I understand the subtlety of it, but essentially I’m going to be telling my female students ‘You are a good scientist. You are intelligent and you are capable.’ much more explicitly than I do already. #girlpower

I also found this book personally revealing. There’s a section on women who do end up following a STEM career path and it described certain aspects of my own personality in a way I found slightly disturbing, and terribly fascinating. I’m not going to say which parts, or go into any details here, but it felt like someone had got into my own head and had a look around. I’ve never quite been convinced how sexism has affected me personally. I’ve written before about not having any strong female, science role models and I don’t believe I’ve ever been a victim of blatant sexism (actually, more recently I have had this experience, but I am not ready to disect it yet!). I have often wondered how sexism in society has affected me and now I know. Eye opening.

The middle section deals  with the problems of taking results from neuroscience and giving them significance beyond what they are actually telling us. Or to put it another way, it deals with neurobollocks. Or neurononsense if you are more polite than I am. Neuroscience is used to justify many things in education. Here the author sets out why this is wrong and just why we shouldn’t be so impressed when neuroscience supposedly tells us why we should treat students in this way or that. The leap from a few fMRI scans to generalisations about the best way to teach girls and boys is huge. People who do this should really stop.

How an fMRI scan works is included and, happily, I completely understood this. It was nice to see the link between the physics of the scan and how it can (or can not) be applied to discoveries about the brain and behaviour .

One difficulty is that people, myself included, find it difficult to unravel neuroscience from neurobollocks. Is this book telling me a valid, useful result? Or is it not? It’s difficult to unpick for the general reader. As I read Delusions of Gender I found myself thinking ‘yes, brilliant, oh my god, but is this the truth?’  Even with a critical, scientifically trained mind I need a check. This book agrees with my world view and it’s extremely convincingly written. I find myself googling to check if there are hoards of criticisms online about the validity of this book. There aren’t (that I could easily find) phew!

I’ve named this blog post part one because I’ve not finished reading this book yet. I know, so presumptuous of me to write a review at this point. I’ll write part two when I’m done. I have high expectations for the rest of the book and low expectations of the time I have for reading when I’m back to work after the holidays.

The final thing I must mention about Delusions of Gender is that it is also extremely funny. Please go and read it 🙂


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4 Responses to Delusions of Gender and my physics classroom (part 1)

  1. Josh says:

    This book has been criticized, her weakest point in the book is trying to explain away prenatal hormonal influence. Here is some critique of the book


    • audsley says:

      Thanks. I will give that a read. I didn’t mean to say there was no criticism of the book, more that it is generally well received. 🙂


  2. Pingback: Book review: Delusions of Gender – Cordelia Fine (part two) | a physics classroom

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