Responding to essentialism

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our commenters.

Some of us are professional scientists, or are studying to become professional scientists (me), or like to read about science as a hobby, yes? How do we deal with the idea of biological essentialism (the idea that there are innate biological/psychological differences between the sexes)?

I started thinking about this after a particularly insulting pop-sci article. It’s worth noting that this article is insulting above and beyond the usual the “boys-trucks girls-barbies” dichotomy; this one never even considers the possibility of women having their own perspective. We’re just creatures with crazy brain chemistry that men must learn, so they can trick it into wanting them.

And what if there’s a grain of truth? Raven Kaldera’s essay discusses, in part, his experiences beginning testosterone supplements as part of transitioning, and he admits that he did notice changes in his psychology. Nothing that superseded his conscious thinking, but more than he expected. How do we objectively approach evidence of fundamental gender differences, however small? It frightens me a bit, both because it fuels some of the uncertainty I feel as a woman in a male-dominated field (irrational, I know, but still), and the related dread of others using such differences to justify inequality (I know that equality is not predicated on equivalency, but not everyone does.)

How do you respond to essentialism, evidence-based or otherwise?

Digging around from the Finally Feminism 101 FAQ But men and women are born different! Isn’t that obvious? material may help.

Does anyone else have suggestions for accessible overviews of the actual findings of biology and psychology about sex and gender-linked traits in humans? Here’s some possibilities:

  • Lise Eliot’s Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps — and What We Can Do About It about the neuroscience and behavioural findings about sex differences in young children, and the influences on them.
  • Anne Innis Dagg’s Love of Shopping is Not a Gene: exposing junk science and ideology in Darwinian Psychology. See Cory Doctorow’s review.

18 thoughts on “Responding to essentialism

  1. Mel

    It’s not cutting edge (1992), but Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Myths of Gender is very good.

  2. Eivind

    I think it’s wrongheaded to argue, as a few feminists (but not the majority, I think) do, that there can be -no- differences in psychology.

    We all know, as the FAQ acknowledges, that there -are- infact fairly obvious differences physically. Our skeleton, our muscles, our skin, our reproductive organs, our hormones, all are unquestionably different.
    Yet, a few argue that our brain and psychology -MUST- function identically. i.e. that every other organ in our body is possibly-different EXCEPT the brain, and the arising essential psychology.

    But there’s very little, if any, evidence that we’re all that different, and even if evidence -should- arise that there’s some difference, this is zero justification for sexist oppression. If we -do- find evidence of differences, it’s likely to be hugely overlapping bellcurves anyway.

    If men perform on the average 100 on some test, with 40 standard deviation, and women perform on the average 110, with 40 standard deviation, this is no evidence at all that “men can’t do that”, (or vice versa)

    Furthermore, if we SHOULD find such evidence, I would consider that evidence in favor of a better (i.e more equal) gendermix. In most challenging tasks, having a team with diverse strengths is a benefit, not a drawback. The exceptions to this rule tend to be simple one-skill-only tasks that are decreasingly common anyway because machines do those better. There’s not many tasks where “we need brains, but we need identical equal-thinking brains!” much more common that “we need a variety of different ideas to find the best way of solving this!”.

    1. Elysia

      But there’s very little, if any, evidence that we’re all that different, and even if evidence -should- arise that there’s some difference, this is zero justification for sexist oppression. If we -do- find evidence of differences, it’s likely to be hugely overlapping bellcurves anyway.

      To build on this: even an observation that there are sex and/or gender differences in specific assessments doesn’t take into account environmental influences on development, which we biologists know are important in a good many traits/systems. (We pretty much expect inter-individual variability among all organs and systems. Or at least some of us do!) So even if we do observe differences between men and women, we need to be sure we fully understand the causes of those differences, and there’s no reason to exclude developmental explanations (which include social influences).

      There was a study that just came out in PNAS that documented drops in girls’ performance in math when their elementary school teachers expressed anxiety about math. (I don’t know if anyone has followed up on achievement studies to see if there are parallel signatures in, say, brain activity. Would be cool to see that kind of info.) But if you can see such changes in performance during a single school year, there’s reason to suspect that there would be accumulated changes over the course of schooling; studying the brains of adult men and women, you’d expect to see the oucomes of those influences, but also the outcomes of exposure to a number of other factors.

  3. Helen Huntingdon

    I’ve noticed that most gender-essentialist arguments put forth by men are pretty darned insulting to men. I usually respond by pointing that out, saying that I have a lot more faith in men than Mr. Gender Essentialist does, and wondering why he’s such a big meanie who hates men so much.

  4. AMM

    Stephen Jay Gould wrote a nice book (_The_Mismeasure_of_Man_) debunking the idea of race-based differences in intelligence, and in the intro he refers to _The_Mismeasure_of_Woman_, by Carol Tavris.

    Does anybody know if that book is any good, and if it’s relevant to this topic? (Amazon lists it as “out of print,” so I don’t know how easy it is to get hold of.)

    It’s interesting to compare what one might call the “racial essentialism” debate with discussion of gender essentialism. The former has had a pretty high profile over most of my lifetime, _The_Bell_Curve_ being only the most recent scholarly attempt to “prove” that Black people are less intelligent. By contrast, I can’t think of any high-profile book on gender essentialism, either for or against, nor do I recall widely publicized (and protested) lectures and debates on the subject. It’s not that there aren’t people who’ve spent their lives studying it, but their work never makes it to the front page (or the editorial page.)

    I wonder if that says something….

  5. Elysia

    Within the United States, the National Academies have a Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine, which might have some useful info. Their most recent report is available for free on this page. It’s been awhile since I reviewed the information they have produced in their reports, so I’m not sure how much they address gender essentialism, but at a quick glance, I’m seeing plenty of references to primary literature that could be helpful resources. If nothing else, at least some of the NA reports discuss the non-biologically-based reasons that women remain underrepresented in science (hiring, recruitment, support, etc.).

    The American Association for University Women also has some research on their site. Their Why so few? report seems to be more user-friendly and accessible than the National Academies stuff.

  6. Restructure!

    Going from statistical differences between sexes to biological essentialism is logically unsound. Essentialism is the idea that all members of category X have property Y. When it comes to sex and gender, it’s not clean-cut like that at all. It’s still about averages, normal curves, and other statistical measures about general trends.

    I’ve read Raven Kaudera’s essay a while ago and also read more trans men’s experiences with testosterone, which convinced me that testosterone causes a higher sex drive. However, I do not think that this supports “fundamental gender differences”. “Gender” is different from “sex”, and the existence of trans men who do not take testosterone and trans women who do not take anti-androgens destroys the idea that all men have a higher testosterone level than all women. I just view testosterone level in humans as something that can be manipulated with technology. It does not represent to me the essence of “maleness”. Different cis women have different natural levels of testosterone. We shouldn’t get caught up in the Greek or Latin origins of how hormones were named and confuse the naming conventions for gender essentialist biological categories. (Sadly, testosterone is already understood in terms of pop-culture gender stereotypes at this point.)

    How should we confront the idea of gender essentialism? Learn more science! Don’t get science news from mainstream newspapers or magazines, because they basically use scientific studies to troll and get noticed. There are excellent science blogs out there by people who are actually interested in science, not sensationalism. If you read a biological essentialist science article, you can try to get the original paper (although paywalls sometimes get in the way). Learning about gender diversity is also a great thing.

    1. Eivind

      You use essentialism correctly. In that strict interpretation, essentialism is pretty obviously nonsense. We all know that not -all- men possess mathemathical skill, and that noe all women are particularily compassionate, for example.

      I think the idea is often suggested in a weaker form though. Men are stronger than women — generally speaking, and this is not just a result of upbringing, it’s a biological fact. Nevertheless, not ALL men are stronger than ALL women. It’s a bell-curve too, but one where there is a clear difference in average strength.

      Strictly speaking, essentialism is the idea that all members of a set must possess certain characteristics, regardless of context. So if you interpret the word that strictly, then it’s clear that it’s nonsense. If not even “men are taller than women” is true, then it’s pretty clear that any claim about mental differences is going to fall flat.

      But I think it’s a strawman: I’ve heard many claim that women biologically are less apt at, say, math. But I’ve not heard anyone claim that ALL men are biologically more apt at women than ALL women. Thus, from where I’m standing, it seems that nobody is supporting gender essentialism in the strict sense. (atleast not beyond the “has an y-chromosome” level)

      The ones who do believe in it, seem instead to think that there are clear biological differences in AVERAGE performance. There is pretty much zero evidence for this belief, but atleast it’s not as obvious nonsense as the strict essentialism would be.

      1. Ashera

        I’ve known people who, if pressed, claim that they only subscribe to the average differences form of essentialism, but act and speak as if they believed the strict version.

      2. Restructure!

        The weaker form of strict essentialism would be claiming that all men have an innate tendency to do X, and all women have an innate tendency to do Y, e.g., Kanazawa‘s claim that men evolved to prefer blonde women, that polygyny is natural but polyandry is not, etc.

      3. AnneC

        “But I’ve not heard anyone claim that ALL men are biologically more apt at women than ALL women. ”

        Really? Wow. Granted the people I’ve heard making such claims haven’t generally been scientists or demographics researchers, but on an everyday-experience level I run into people ALL THE TIME who (among other things) are shocked that I, a woman, can do such apparently astounding-for-a-girl things as read maps. I’ve also been told by fellow engineers that the reason I am capable of decent engineering work (my degree is in electrical engineering) is because I “think like a man”. So what seems to be happening there is that, rather than updating their notions of what things are “essentially” male or female skills to include more variation, people are considering, upon meeting a woman with non-stereotypical skills, that she represents some sort of rare mutant exception.

        So in my mind, that is significant EVEN IF actual scientists/researchers/etc. aren’t generally subscribing to the “absolute essentialism” you’re referring to as a probably strawman. On an everyday level — not a formal-study level — is where decisions about hiring, promotion, workplace duty assignment, etc., are made, and those decisions most assuredly affect real people’s lives. And given that, I don’t see it as a compliment when someone is shocked I can (gasp) read a map using my (apparently) Manly Powers of Spatial Awareness — but rather a warning sign.

  7. gnat

    Not sure if it’s been mentioned before, but I liked Janet Hyde’s paper ‘The Gender Similarities Hypothesis’. I don’t remember how I managed to get a hold of a full copy of it, probably through my univeristy, but here is a link to the abstract on pubmed, and here’s a blog post that discusses it. That’s just from mimimal time spent searching. Some more in depth googling might yield more results.

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