When I was a little girl growing up in the 1950s, the toy I wanted most for Christmas was a Lionel train set. My cousin Tommy had one in his basement. It had tunnels, trees, railroad stations and tracks that crisscrossed each other. The trains had whistles and flashing signals and the passenger cars lit up inside. That train set was way better than any doll could ever hope to be. Here’s the thing: I’m reasonably sure my parents would have bought me a train set — my dad, the father of six girls, would likely have been ecstatic. I didn’t get one because I never even asked. Even as a preschooler, I had picked up on the social signals: A train wasn’t the sort of toy a girl was supposed to want.
“Children are born into a world in which gender is continually emphasized through conventions of dress, appearance, language, color, segregation and symbols,” writes Cordelia Fine in her 2010 book Delusions of Gender. “Everything around the child indicates that whether one is male or female is a matter of great importance.” It seems likely that, with gender stereotypes pumped out at little boys and girls through every imaginable medium, their influence today is considerably more powerful than it was 50 years ago.
Fine, who studied at Cambridge and Oxford and holds a Ph.D. in psychology from University College London, is currently a senior research associate at the Centre for Agency, Values & Ethics at Macquarie University in Sydney. As she notes in her book, even 2-year-olds know about gender, and virtually all preschoolers are so sensitized to their position on the pink vs. blue divide that they enforce the rules in their peer group. “Girls don’t do that,” they say. “That’s for boys.”
However, Fine also points to a dim ray of hope in the results of several small studies. One study chose a group of 8 preschoolers — 4 boys and 4 girls — because they consistently avoided toys associated with the opposite sex. Researchers told them two stories, one about Billy Bunter “who finds and cherishes his talking doll” and the other about Sally Slapcabbage, whose mother was a pilot. After hearing the stories, 2 of the boys began playing with toys they had avoided and all 4 girls traded their dolls and strollers for fire trucks.
Toys are one thing, but the kind of gender stereotyping we subconsciously apply to ourselves can do serious damage. Fine writes about implicit beliefs — concepts so ingrained that we are not consciously aware of them. One of those implicit beliefs tells us women are bad at math and science. Studies find that no matter how good a woman may be at math, something as simple as a gender checkbox on a test will trigger self-doubt and damage her performance.
Over the past century and a half scientists have trotted out an array of laughable justifications for male superiority — things like the distance from the spinal cord to the pelvis, the ratio of skull length to skull breadth, the weight of the brain, fetal testosterone and (my favorite) “snout elongation.”
The latest trick in the pseudo-gender-science toolkit is what Fine calls “brain scams” — false claims made about the findings of fMRI brain imaging studies (fMRI scans show brain activity while subjects perform specific tasks). She has particular disdain for Louann Brizendine, a Yale School of Medicine graduate who did her internship and residency at Harvard and is currently on the faculty of the University of California at San Francisco. Brizendine has made a career of gender stereotyping with books like The Female Brain and The Male Brain. According to Fine, Brizendine knowingly manipulates study data to prove points not shown in the research.
To be clear, Fine is not saying there are no differences between the genders. She is saying that, with so much bad information floating around, it’s difficult to know what the real differences are. In other words, proceed with caution before accepting any claims you see about gender differences.
Here’s something to think about: While it may seem that pink for girls and blue for boys is somehow encoded in our DNA, the association of those colors with gender has only been around since the end of World War II. Fine points out that through the end of the 1800s, children of both sexes wore long white dresses. When sexual color-coding was introduced in the early 1900s, pink was the color for boys — a paler version of red, which was associated with masculinity.