New arguments for old stereotypes. That’s how professor Cordelia Fine describes «neurosexism», a term referring to the use of neuroscience to justify traditional gender role models, models that do not include the stereotype of the female scientist. That might somewhat explain the poor presence of women in high-level research positions (only 20%) in Spain, as recently published by Materia.
Cordelia Fine, professor of Psychology at the University of Melbourne (Australia), published Delusions of Gender in 2011, in which she delved in the issues around neurosexism, a theme she has also researched in different academic papers. The last of them was published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences. In the paper, she proves how easy it is to find newly published books defending sex-difference through neuroscientific aspects, and how the media reproduce the same patterns.
Professor Fine participated in ESOF 2014, the European science conference that took place this year in Copenhagen, and we could talk to her about neurosexism, women and science.
I would like to start with a recurring question when we deal with differences between men and women. What makes us different, biological or social factors?
In your books you write about neurosexism. What does the term entail?
But it is true that our male and female brains have different structures, so it seems only logical to think that they work differently and make us different.
But there are differences that we accept as natural, especially when we see children reproducing it at an early age. You comment as much in Delusions of Gender, how some parents feel sure that they offer egalitarian education but they end up accepting innate sex differences observing their children. Do we learn how to be a girl, how to be a boy?
«Neurosexism describes the use of neuroscientific claims or language to justify old-fashioned gender stereotypes and roles in ways that aren’t scientifically justified»
«We are not far enough along our journey in neuroscience to know what it means for a brain structure to be different between males and females»
Reading books like The Female Brain by Louanne Brizendine, which you put as an example of neurosexism, I had the impression that the book had a somewhat soothing effect. That is, women are the way we are because of our genes, so we can stop fighting for equality, a fight that demands a lot of effort everyday. What do you think about this?
This cultural baggage also influences researchers, as you mentioned in Delusions of Gender, and personal prejudice can affect the results or design of an experiment. To which point can we say that science is a product of its social environment?
Maybe that’s the reason why you make a difference between good and neglected science. In fact, in your book you claim that those who are interested in gender equality do not fear good science. The only thing that worries them is neglected science, misinterpreted science and neurosexism.
What do you think of the way the media communicate scientific results. I feel that we journalists tend to publish more works highlighting the differences between men and women. What is our responsibility?
Preparing this interview, I reviewed the representation of women scientists in the media, and their presence is almost anecdotal. How does this influence the social perception of women scientists?
Anna Mateu. Assistant Editor, Mètode.
«I think it’s not fair to just scapegoat the journalist»