Over the decades, a confusing litany of research and information has emerged regarding gender. Central questions have been posed: “How similar are man and women?” “What exactly is gender?” “What makes men and women different?” But still, no clear answers exist. These questions remain even more important, taking into account recent legal, social, and political concerns over bathroom use and other similar debates.
For a time, researchers believed that gender differences (and not necessarily “sex” differences) emerged in the womb. One of these advocates, Louann Brizendine, argues that “[m]en and women experience the world differently thanks to each gender’s vastly different exposure to sex hormones.” This view has gained prominence for the past 20 years or so.
But others such as Cordelia Fine, author of “Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference,” do not agree with Brizendine. In fact, Fine thinks that reducing gender differences down to brain hormones remains, itself, a type of “neurosexism.” Fine does acknowledge that “[t]here are sex differences in the brain” (her emphasis), but she maintains “. . . when we follow the trail of contemporary science we discover a surprising number of gaps, assumptions, inconsistencies, poor methodologies, and leaps of faith.” In other words, gender differences between men and women do, in fact, exist, but for Fine and others, it comes more down to how much, degree, and amount rather than recognizing men and women as completely separate entities.
Generally speaking, Fine—and other recent researchers—is attempting to redefine gender and call into questions the assumptions and methodologies of how gender is studied and understood in the academic realm. In some ways, Fine remains a “social constructivist,” a philosophical position, which, broadly, maintains that many things in life, including gender, are due more to societal constructs and perceptions rather than genuine “facts.” Social constructivism, especially when applied to gender, makes some sense, but if it is taken to an extreme, it produces a lot of strange conclusions.
Fine’s position, however, remains more in line with contemporary thinking in certain research circles about gender. Males and females do appear to have more in common than not. As a total percentage, the differences between men and women on the genetic level are very small, and yet, those small difference are what produces both sexes. Hormonal differences at the level of the brain do come into play, as suggested by Brizendine, but also, as Fine suggests, there may be a lot more to gender than just that.
Finally, as researchers such as Fine and Brizendine continue to probe gender—what it is, how it is formed, etc.—the public will undoubtedly remain locked in debates about bathroom use, gender identification and so on. I suppose more research is needed in order to have final answers to these fascinating questions.
Brizendine, L. (2006). The Female Brain.
Fine, C. (2010). Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference. W. W. Norton & Company, New York.