For some people acknowledging innate sex differences is indistinguishable from old-fashioned sexism and so ideologically out of bounds – regardless of the evidence
The title of this post is a quote from a 2011 Slate article by William Saletan. The article was written in response to a panel discussion of “The Promise and Peril of Research on Sex Differences” at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in 2011 and is an excellent primer for anyone interested in the debate on innate sex differences.
The panel, which consisted of neuroscientist Lise Eliot, behavioural neurobiologist Larry Cahill and psychologists Melissa Hines, Janet Hyde and Maryjane Wraga, represented a diverse range of expert opinions on this controversial subject.
The article notes that the debate “didn’t settle the controversy, because it isn’t binary, and evidence is complex.” So instead of attempting to present a conclusion, Saletan highlights ten pitfalls to be wary of when assessing arguments regarding innate sex differences. It’s well worth reading the whole article, but I’m going to pick out five of the pitfalls that Saletan identifies which are particularly relevant to my experience of debating the issue in relation to the gender gap in children’s literacy.
1. IdeologyIn my experience the belief that “there’s no such thing as innate sex differences” is often rooted in ideology rather than evidence. I commented in an earlier post that I suspect that many people who hold this belief are not aware of the evidence that helped establish it – or the degree to which this evidence has subsequently been discredited. For some people acknowledging innate sex differences is indistinguishable from old-fashioned sexism and so ideologically out of bounds – regardless of the evidence. Saletan notes that “fear of sexism has produced a bias against conceding sex differences, which gets in the way of frank discussion and investigation.”
2. Casual ExtrapolationSaletan describes psychologist Melissa Hines recalling “an incident in which, after she had described data on toy preference among girls, a male physicist said she had just explained why it was hard to recruit women to teach physics. The leap from dolls to doctorates was effortless, though groundless.”
Similarly inappropriate extrapolations are often made by individuals on both sides of the innate sex differences debate. One thing that distinguishes Hines’s book Brain Gender from many others on the subject is the way in which Hines carefully avoids such extrapolations.
3. StereotypesSaletan notes that “girls differ from boys, but girls also differ from other girls.” And goes on to say that “you certainly can’t infer from a person’s sex how well he or she will do on a test.”
I know from my own experience that no matter how carefully one tries to qualify an argument about sex differences by saying that some girls will have boy-typical reading tastes and vice versa, one will inevitably be accused of stereotyping simply for describing certain reading tastes as boy or girl-typical. In this context “boy-typical” means “commonly associated with boys”, it does not and should not mean “exclusive to boys” or even “better suited to boys”. Saletan explains that sex differences don’t show up as separate clusters, but as “overlapping distributions”, a point I attempted to get across in the “Twin Peaks” section of my essay NATURE and NURTURE.
4. Either/OrIn my experience an Either/Or approach, ranks alongside Ideology as the most commonly encountered pitfall in arguments on sex differences. There’s no reason whatsoever to regard nature and nurture as mutually exclusive factors and yet I’ve heard from several people who seem to assume that the indisputable evidence that nurture influences a child’s reading tastes can also be taken as indisputable evidence that nature has no influence.
The growing number of recent studies demonstrating the influence of nature on children’s preferences are dismissed by the nurture-only lobby as either biased, unreliable or unconvincing. Even if all of these studies were invalid, discrediting the evidence that something is true is not the same as proving it is false. Separate evidence is needed to demonstrate this and no such evidence has come to light.
5. Inferred ImmutabilityI think one reason many people find innate sex differences difficult to accept is that they associate them with a biologically deterministic view of gender roles. This perception has some justification. In his book The Essential Difference, psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen states its central theory thus:
The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.Saletan comments that “several panelists targeted the word hardwired as a misleading metaphor for explaining the brain”. Neuroscientist Lise Eliot, who moderated the panel discussion, regards the brain as plastic and susceptible to change. In her own book Pink Brain, Blue Brain Eliot argues that “adults need to be aware of boy-girl differences so that we can help children compensate for them early on”. Instead of a gender-neutral approach to child development, Eliot advocates differing approaches for boys and girls, which reflect their different preferences, but are intended to close the gaps on their differing abilities. As I said in my essay FIGHTER and FASHIONISTAS, I believe that such an approach can be used to close the gender gap in children’s literacy and this is the type of approach I’m advocating in COOL not CUTE.