No one disputes that male and female brains are different or that males and females differ in their accomplishments. But are these two facts related? A few years ago Harvard President Larry Summers suggested that the answer is yes. He proposed that innate brain differences help to account for the dearth of successful women in science, provoking much heated debate. Reporters called it the story that would not die. Unlike most news stories that exhaust themselves after a few days, this story stayed in the news for months, and even years later continues to inspire debate. Apparently many of us think we already know the answer to this question—the subject of Cordelia Fine's highly readable and enjoyable new book Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference . At least half of us—not just the men—seem to think the answer is yes whereas the other half say not so.
You all know where I stand on this issue. Based on my experiences as a neurobiologist and as a transgendered person, I have previously argued that innate sex differences in the brain are not relevant to real-world accomplishments ,. Without question, male and female brains have different circuits that help to control their different reproductive behaviors. So it has long seemed an easy step to believe that such anatomic changes also underlie supposed gender differences in cognitive abilities. Rather, in a theme that Fine elegantly expands on, it is the idea itself that women are innately less capable that may be the primary cause of differences in accomplishment. This idea Fine appropriately dubs “neurosexism.” This idea was long ago powerfully encapsulated in the concept of “stereotype threat,” the phenomenon in which members of a sex or race perform substantially worse on a test—and perhaps in real-world environments—when they are led to believe before the test that they are innately less capable .
I'm happy to say that Professor Fine will have an essay in Neurofeminism: Issues at the Intersection of Feminist Theory and Cognitive Neuroscience, edited by Robyn Bluhm, Anne Jaap Jacobson, and Heidi Maibom, forthcoming in 2011 in New Directions in Philosophy and Cognitive Science, a series with Palgrave Macmillan that I co-edit with Mike Wheeler of the University of Stirling.