Sex Differences and Stereotypes: A Q&A with Cordelia Fine

Cordelia Fine, academic and author of the bestselling Delusions of Gender and Testosterone Rex, joined our Let Toys Be Toys, Parenting Science Gang for an online Q&A.

Cordelia Fine: Hi everyone. To briefly introduce myself, I am an academic psychologist at the University of Melbourne, and a writer, with a particular focus in the past ten years on the science of sex differences

PSG A: Hello! Have a wriggly baby but will join in as I can

Lots of us have enjoyed your books, please could I ask if you’re working on a new one at the moment?

Cordelia Fine: Finishing a book is a bit like having a baby in that for some time afterwards you think, “Well, I’m never doing THAT again …” I’m past that stage, I’m happy to say (I’m talking about books now, just to clarify!) but my next book idea is at a very early stage of incubation …

PSG B: I loved Delusions of Gender! So eye opening.

Cordelia: Thanks. It was actually quite eye opening to research and write it.

At the end of testosterone Rex I felt you made a bit of a clarion call for more effort on equality. Do you think we still have a long way to go?

Cordelia Fine: In terms of progress to equality, while I do think there’s quite some way to go in many areas, at the same time I always think it’s helpful to think about how far we’ve come in what is, in the grand scheme of things, a relatively short period of time

What has been the most misunderstood idea in your books?

PSG P: The thing that has made you want to sit a journalist down and talk slowly to them until they get it properly?

Cordelia: Maybe one difficulty is that when you point out difficulties in particular claims about biological contributions to sex differences, it’s assumed you’re saying that men and women (brains, behaviour, etc) is exactly the same

I am interested, in questions about differences vs. perceptions in babies.

PSG C:  I have noticed baby/toddler boys spending more time on operative play, and girls more on social play, but that video experiment where babies clothes were changed and adults chose very different toys for them kind of blew my mind.

Is it all just cultural influence that starts at birth? Is there any evidence?  If it’s so ubiquitous, is it even possible to separate nature from nurture in studies?

Cordelia: Yes, scientists can’t run controlled experiments with humans! And when you measure brains, for example, you are also capturing experiences that are confounded by those gendered expectations and experiences.

And in terms of research methods, we have not progressed very far in working out how to measure those kinds of experiences – by comparison, it is very easy to classify by sex!

PSG C: I used to work in a hospital abroad caring for abandoned and semi-abandoned babies, and it was very interesting in that there was usually no way to know whether the babies were boys or girls, so mostly they were treated the same, but some volunteers who would come in would find it very unsettling not knowing, so it was like some adults needed a reference frame based on boy/girl to know how to interact with a child.

PSG D: That’s quite sad for a number of reasons.

PSG C: Sad, yes, but on that point an interesting insight into just how heavily we unconsciously seem to rely on that framework even for the very youngest members of society.

PSG E:  That’s very interesting. I’ve noticed how embarrassed people get when they “misgender” babies…. Why?!

How do you think society can move towards the idea that differences between men and women are small (biology aside) and away from the Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus view…

PSG F: … when the media love nothing more than publishing articles in that vein but ignore findings that show there are very limited differences?

Cordelia: I think that’s a good question. One answer might be that the less inequality there is to be explained, purported biological explanations for those inequalities become obsolete. I’m thinking for example about the concerns that women might become infertile if they went to university, or go insane if they were able to vote …

PSG F: Ah I see, so going at the problem from the other end – instead of trying to change people’s mindsets, start by trying to change structural differences and that will in itself change their mindsets as there is nothing to then explain.  I hadn’t thought of it like that before.

What are the key things that parents can do to help counteract stereotypes?

PSG A:  My older child gets flooded with them from nursery, playgroups, other children, stories and even family members.

Cordelia: I definitely don’t feel qualified to give parenting advice! But as your kids get older you will find that you’ve equipped them to notice and challenge these stereotypes

I teach ethics at the business school in Melbourne and I teach the often unacknowledged power of social norms in influencing people’s behaviour. We then work on building what’s been called ‘moral competence’ – how do you speak up against unethical norms. It’s a practical skill. And I think parents who teach and help their kids not to necessarily conform to gender norms if they don’t want to, are gifting them with that really valuable skill of moral competence

PSG G: That’s really interesting – would you be able to recommend any resources on building “moral competence”?

Cordelia Fine: The person who coined the term is Mary Gentile who has developed an entire curriculum called “Giving Voice to Values“. You can easily find it online. I think it’s great and have used it for a number of years now in business ethics teaching

PSG H: Giving voice to values sounds great

PSG I:: Thanks for the Gentile link. This sounds like a technique that would be useful for us at LTBT-Parenting Science Gang

Cordelia Fine: Yes, Gentile’s material is great, and she has made it all freely available too.

The key things parents can do to help counteract stereotypes?

PSG H: Naming it for what it is one of the most powerful things we can do I think. The word “sexism” gets used a lot in this house.

PSG A: Yes, it comes up in conversation a lot with my 13 year old step child! She gets very frustrated at the attitudes of her peers in school who have very clear ideas about men and women. It’s very harmful and she can see it herself. She even gets it from some of her teachers. “Run like a girl” is a phrase used by one of her teachers

Cordelia: There are the classic ‘baby X’ studies along similar lines to the BBC show that someone mentioned before, done back in the seventies I think, but I’m not sure about recent work. There was one more recent study that found that parents thought their young sons would be more risk-taking on a sloping plank than their daughters (in fact, boys and girls were equally risk-taking).

PSG F: Run like a girl – awful thing for a teacher to say.

Cordelia: And an issue that often comes up is around gender diversity and related issues in the workplace

PSG J: Gosh, I’d be talking to the head I think!

PSG H: It’s seems so “petty” to take issue with such a phrase, but it really isn’t, I think that is really crappy behaviour

PSG A: Yes, this is what I find. Lots of people think I’m odd for correcting ‘small’ things like this, when they don’t realise the cumulative effects. Or the subconscious ones!

Cordelia: Not so long ago people thought it was petty to complain about using ‘he’ as the generic pronoun. But there’s interesting research showing that, even though that convention is no longer in place in the academic psychological literature, there is still a subtle ‘androcentric’ bias in that when males and females are compared, it’s more often the case that men and boys are implicitly regarded as the norm, and women and girls are the divergence from that norm to be explained

PSG J: Cordelia – I saw an interesting academic talk on that – there are some authors in developmental psychology who use “she” for a child, this is probably a bit old-fashioned now, but I’ve always felt it’s a bit “infantilising”!

PSG K: If people think you’re odd for correcting the small things, ask them if they’re familiar with ‘normalisation’. It’s what make otherwise good people end up doing bad things during WWII

Are there any sex difference that are “hard wired” or do they develop differently with different types of nurturing behaviour from care givers?

Cordelia: I haven’t looked at all behaviours in my research, but have focused on the kinds of characteristics that are often drawn on to explain gender inequalities in the workplace: empathising, systematising, risk-taking, etc.

Are girls ready for academic learning before boys?

PSG L:  Hi Cordelia, I’ve loved your books and the accessible way you write. I see time and time again how parents expect different behaviour from their girl children compared to their boys.

But one difference that I can’t really explain is that girls are very often more ready for academic learning (reading and writing) at a young age compared to boys. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Cordelia: Regarding reading and writing at a young age, I can’t really speak to that in a very informed way, but a reliable finding is that there is typically considerable overlap between boys and girls (and men and women) in the basic building blocks of cognitive, social, emotional characteristics. In terms of language ability, for example, what sex a child is doesn’t explain a great deal of the variation between children

PSG J: I can answer a bit of Catherine’s question about literacy (I’m also an academic psychologist, and I work on children’s early language development).

Cordelia: Ah, but I’m glad there’s a literacy expert in the room – over to you!

PSG J: OK so in terms of early spoken language, the mean age at which girls achieve milestones IS earlier than the mean for boys.

However the difference in timing is – wait for it – a massive 3 weeks.

PSG D: Massive

PSG J: But this idea is really really entrenched in parents’ and professionals’ minds meaning that if a boy is slow to speak, they are put down as “oh they are a boy, boys are slower” and (anecdotally, I’m afraid) this means professionals use “wait and see” more with boys.10:14

Cordelia: Thanks – that’s very interesting. And I think your observation about parents’ responses is interesting. We’re sensitive now to stereotypes about girls’ abilities, but perhaps less so sometimes regarding stereotypes about boys. (I think you had Rebecca Asher chatting for you at some point … I guess she spoke to this point!)

PSG B: I find that boy stereotypes are rarely seen as negative. And people always seem to notice differences before overwhelming similarities. Are we programmed to look for differences somehow? And ones that fit societal conventions?

PSG J: There is also quite a big difference in the numbers of boys vs girls who have moderate to severe learning disabilities (this may be something to do with fitness/hormones) – rather than the averages being SO different, children with severe problems are more likely to be boys

Anyway the idea that girls SHOULD be chatty, SHOULD sit down and listen/be interested in literacy/learn earlier, is likely to be playing a huge part in early school years. The differences in spoken language are so small (leaving aside children with severe difficulties) that they can’t make that much difference

PSG J: Remember people talk about boys and girls differently before they are born too!

PSG D: Hmm, and are parents expecting boys to be more physical and therefore subconsciously encourage that way?

PSG M: Physical characteristics have so many negative boy stereotypes – Boys and girls have different growth curves (helpfully pink and blue in my child record) – but all of my friends have a perception that pre-school aged girls and boys should have really different physical needs. Boys need to be more active, it’s harder for boys to potty train, boys unable to sit still. Is there evidence for these sorts of physical differences in very young children? To me they all seem just to be socialised – but I’d love to know where the evidence is on that one.

Cordelia: There was a study that found differences between boys and girls in ‘propulsive motion’ at a pretty early age. But in terms of these questions of perceptions, I guess this comes to psychologist Sandra Bem’s observation about the ‘lenses of gender’. We see sex as a major, diverging force in development, and differences that WITHIN a sex we would attribute to the idiosyncrasies of the child, we may readily attribute to a child’s sex when we are comparing a boy and a girl.

PSG F: The study on propulsive motion – is that indicating that boys are more active as babies? And if so – what could that be due to?

Cordelia: If I recall correctly it wasn’t due to activity but rather (if memory serves) how hard the babies hit a balloon. Another piece of research looked to see whether activity differences between boys and girls (preschoolers) might lie behind differences in toy preferences, but they didn’t find that play was any less active with ‘girl toys’ than with ‘boy toys’.

PSG D: Any bias for social conditioning and diagnosis in these cases? I’m thinking of ADHD and autism spectrum here

PSG J: Yes there’s evidence that some disorders are underdiagnosed in girls but that is probably more at the level of mild/high moderate

PSG N: I’m also interested in the autism point, my daughter is autistic and I have read a lot about how girls and women present differently. Do you know much about why that is?

PSG F: Did you see the Gina Rippon webchat – I think she said it’s theory that girls are underdiagnosed because social expectations lead them to develop better social masking skills – so their autism (mild/moderate) is not picked up until later. For girls with more severe autism they are unable to mask so there are more equal numbers of boys and girls.

PSG C: Also diagnostic criteria were developed based on observation of boys.

PSG B: There was a recent tv programme about undiagnosed autism in the U.K. they did find women as a group to be undiagnosed but to have potentially the same percentage of autism cases as the male population.

PSG L: As an autistic adult woman myself I spent decades being taught to suck it up and hate the world – I think the autistic boys around me were allowed to be a bit odd, whilst I was just terribly anxious, a bit miserable and unable to escape being a bit odd.

Cordelia: This (autism) is outside my area of expertise, but it speaks to a more general point that while biological sex may well be important in understanding why males and females have different conditions at different rates, it’s also important not to overlook potentially gendered experiences.

We’re a group of parents who are going to design some research into gender stereotyping.

PSG G: One of our strengths as a group is there’s lots of us!   Our three main areas of interest are broad:

the messages that affect our children (peers, grandparents, media etc) and working out what influences them most
gender stereotypes in schools and nurseries
gender bias in the the way adults interpret children’s behaviour

One of the things we’ve found tricky is working out where there’s a lack of research / where we could usefully contribute. We want to design a narrow question, under one of these broad topic headings.

Please could I ask if you have any tips for us  for these areas? Possibly where you think the gaps in research might be or emerging new evidence we’d find interesting on these topics?

In our potential research, we might compare the effect of stereotypical/non stereotypical messages on children’s opinions. Do you think it could be important to try to gauge the prestige of the person giving the message?

PSG B: I think some research shows that messages from higher status people might have more impact? How could we judge who had higher status before? Would a parent who worked have higher status than one who didn’t for example?

Cordelia: Cultural evolutionary scientists definitely regard the prestige or status of an individual as important, but also I think group identification.

There are studies showing that even preschool kids already are more drawn to activities and objects modelled by children of the same gender (also the case for trans kids)

PSG B: Thanks Cordelia, I think we should bear that in mind for our messages or books we might read to them.

PSG J: Cordelia can you clarify on that preschool gender interest? When you say trans kids – do you mean children who follow stereotypes of the opposite sex, prefer to do things that children of the opposite sex are doing? Or do you mean they prefer to follow things that children of their own sex are doing?

I don’t actually believe you can have a preschool “transgender” child but I’m also a bit confused by that sentence!

PSG B: My son was most frustrated that the girls at our preschool wouldn’t play with him as he was so used to playing with his twin sister.

Cordelia: The work I’m referring to was done by Kristina Olson. She found that trans kids show a preference for things modelled by kids of the gender with which they identify.

PSG H: How is she defining trans kids? Seems a bit circular.
What does she understand gender to mean in this context?

PSG J: Ah so those will be the children who dress like them? (Please can we use non-gender-conforming not transgender children – it’s a spectrum)

PSG E: But isn’t it the adults/society who impose gender classifications on what kids “should” be playing with in the first place?

PSG D: Yes. There’s no reason for gendered toys!

PSG J: It is though still interesting that they prefer to play with things that children who dress like them are playing with. In theory their preferences could be unrelated to dress.

And it would be interesting to see if they also prefer messages/persuasions from children who dress like them.

Cordelia: I was going to go on to say that this same research method (that is, whose lead do you follow) was recently used in a really interesting study led by Melissa Hines, with girls with congenital adrenal hyperplasia, a condition in which the girls are exposed to very high levels of testosterone prenatally. These girls have been found quite reliably to have a greater than usual interest in ‘boy toys’ which has been attributed to the effects of the high levels of testosterone on the brain prenatally. But Hines and colleagues found that girls with CAH don’t show the typical effect of being influenced by gender labels or the gender of the model

In other words, their more ‘boyish’ toy preferences may be due to this lesser influence of gender norms/models rather than a brain ‘wired’ to be interested in cars, etc.

PSG F: I listened to that section in your book but I still find it a bit confusing.  What mechanism would there be for testosterone exposure to make children like typical boys toys?

Cordelia: The traditional explanation is that in boys (and girls with CAH), high levels of testosterone masculinize the brain, and part of the masculinisation predisposes boys (and girls with CAH) to be interested in ‘boy toys’ (though what quality of boy toys is supposedly appealing to a masculinized brain is never really explained)

PSG J: Cordelia – I used to work with Melissa – that’s really interesting – I tried to persuade her once that practicing with “aiming toys” could account for increased skill rather than just being better due to the biology of the condition. Hopefully she’s come round a bit now.

Cordelia: I should clarify that Melissa Hines doesn’t suggest in the paper that her findings speak to the greater preference of girls with CAH for boy toys, but in my view her findings are very consistent with that alternative explanation

PSG F: Yes it’s the quality of boys toys that are attracted by testosterone that I find completely baffling.  Cave men never had cars or guns.

Cordelia: Hines’ study used neutral (non-gendered) objects. And whereas control girls strongly preferred objects that were either labelled ‘for girls’ (as opposed to ‘for boys’) or were modelled by a female (rather than a male), the girls with CAH didn’t show this preference

PSG H: Ah I *see*, how interesting, must read Testosterone rex

PSG G: The time has flown by, that’s all now folks!

PSG C: Thank you, the point about moral competence being a skill we can build is particularly heartening.

PSG E: Thank you Cordelia! Off to read Testosterone Rex now 🙂

PSG Q: I just wanted to thank you, Cordelia for giving me and my husband a new way to talk about boys and girls as “right and left handers”. That example on “Delusion of Gender” opened a new world on how arbitrary is the way us (adults) and society shapes our kids’ brains through our daily actions!

PSG O: I’d just like to express a massive thank you for Testosterone Rex. The world needs more of that!

Cordelia: Yes, I stumbled into this area over a decade ago, and have been fascinated by it ever since.

I’ll have a think about your questions, PSG G:  – I’m afraid my corpus callosum isn’t thick enough to answer questions and think about research questions at the same time … [just a little joke there for anyone who’s read DoG …]

PSG E: but but but multi-tasking?

Cordelia: Ha ha … good luck, everyone! And hope the wriggly baby had fun too.

Related Links

Cordelia Fine

Testerone Rex:

Cordelia Fine at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas: Delusions of Gender

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