Photo: Testosterone Rex, by Cordelia Fine

BOOKS

No, gender bias is not genetic

So says Cordelia Fine’s latest book, which is shortlisted for the Royal Society’s prize. She meets Katy Guest to talk sex, lies – and debunking the persistent myth that women are genetically inferior to men

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By Katy Guest on

Three things have happened this summer which make Dr Cordelia Fine’s new book, Testosterone Rex, urgent reading. The BBC pay gap, that Google memo, and BBC2’s fascinating documentary, No More Boys And Girls, all raised the question: are gender differences in achievements, choices and behaviour hard-wired into our brains? The major takeaway from Fine’s books is that, no, they are not.

Testosterone Rex: Unmaking The Myths Of Our Gendered Minds is currently shortlisted for the 2017 Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize and the judges are very excited about it. “Every man and woman should read this book on gender bias,” they said. “Testosterone Rex is an important yet wickedly witty book about the 21st century, which touches on the current debates around identity and turns everything on its head. Pressingly contemporary, it’s the ideal companion read to sit alongside The Handmaid’s Tale and The Power.” If Fine wins, she will be the third female winner in a row – after men won the prize every year since 1988.

The book painstakingly analyses studies of high-ranking male rhesus monkeys, aggressive mice, monogamous marmosets, wanton langurs, singing African weaver birds, choosy female bush crickets, hedge sparrows, rat mothers and many human behaviours to repeatedly debunk hypotheses that testosterone makes boys be boys and women, well, lack a certain something. The idea that testosterone and our evolution account for all our “persistent and seemingly intractable sex inequalities” she calls “the giant elephant testicles in the room”.  

When I speak to her over the phone from Australia, where she is a professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Melbourne, Fine is slightly overwhelmed by the comparison of her book with Margaret Atwood’s and Naomi Alderman’s novels about dystopian societies divided by gender. “I don’t feel confident enough in my skills at literary critiques to say much about that,” she laughs. But the shortlisting for the Royal Society’s prize is an honour that does mean a lot to her. The prize’s aim is to make science writing compelling and accessible to the public, and that is exactly what Fine tries to do.

Her work has been varied, in what she calls an “interdisciplinary career”. She studied experimental psychology at Oxford, criminology at Cambridge and psychology at University College London, and taught as an associate professor with the Melbourne Business School (among other positions). Her first books were A Mind Of Its Own (2005) and The Britannica Guide To The Brain (2008). But it was only when she had children that she saw the need for an accessible book about gender differences in the human brain – or, rather, the lack of evidence for them.

“When my sons were little, I read lots of parenting books,” she explains. “One was arguing that because of boys’ and girls’ different brains, they needed to be parented and educated in different ways. That book referred to a part of the brain that I’d studied intensively, but sex differences hadn’t come up in my work. So, I looked up the study that was cited as evidence… and I was shocked by the disconnect between the science and the popular book.”

Why should businesses spend effort and money trying to address unconscious gender bias while we simultaneously sow the seeds of it in our children?

As a highly qualified neuroscientist, Fine knew that accurate information about the human brain was available in scientific papers, but realised that it was not accessible to the public. “So, I decided to write that book myself.” When she came to analyse the science, however, she found a lot of assumptions that didn’t stand up to scrutiny. “One study would say that men are good systematisers because they use one side of their brains,” for instance, “and another would say that men are good systematisers because they use both sides of their brains. Both seem plausible, but they can’t both be right.” Fine realised that she would have to criticise some of the research itself, “and that’s how I got hooked into this subject.” Her 2010 book, Delusions Of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences, made a splash all over the world.

Testosterone Rex is equally packed with convincing evidence and astonishing facts, all of which seem so important that everybody should be made to read all of it immediately, or at least before typing another word on Twitter about political correctness gone mad. (“This book is not politically correct; it is good science”, wrote Professor Agustin Fuentes, professor and chair, department of anthropology, University of Notre Dame.) My copy is covered in heavy underlining and full of exclamation marks in the margins: sex chromosomes are much more complicated than “XX” or “XY”; our hormones can be altered by our behaviour and environment; our brains are not binary, male or female, and not even on a spectrum with a male and a female end, but are more like mosaics of different traits and preferences; confirmation bias is everywhere; feminist women have better sex and, in heterosexual relationships, so do their male partners…

And all of this stuff is important, Fine insists. Why should businesses spend effort and money trying to address unconscious gender bias while we simultaneously sow the seeds of it in our children? Challenging assumptions about gender wouldn’t only benefit women’s rights or the numbers of talented people working in science and technology. “In the book, I stress the negative aspects for women, but for men, [gender expectations have an impact on] mental health and the suicide rate,” Fine points out.

All of this could come across as rather depressing. If testosterone really were responsible for men’s dominance of career ladders and prison populations, it could be treated. Though Fine is at pains to point out “that castration has never been mentioned as a possible solution”, (“not even in the Top Secret Feminist Meetings where we plot our global military coup,” she adds). But, once we accept that our environment plays a much bigger role than we ever expected, it all becomes a lot more complicated. How do you disentangle gender from media, toys, language, clothes, art, jokes, religion…?

But Fine is optimistic. “Just look back 100 years to see how much has changed. It can seem as though we take two steps forward and one step back. But [those steps forward] are what I try to do in my work.” And how does she cope with Twitter warriors and others who just refuse to listen? “I just relentlessly continue to… look at the science.”

Testosterone Rex: Unmaking The Myths Of Our Gendered Minds by Cordelia Fine is published by Icon Books, £14.99

The winner of the 2017 Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize will be revealed on 19 September

@katyguest36912

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Photo: Testosterone Rex, by Cordelia Fine
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