From the opening joke about testicles as a key-fob, Testosterone Rex by Cordelia Fine is a lively read. It argues that gender roles arise not from testosterone, or from our evolution on the savannahs of Africa, but from Patriarchy, by close analysis of scientific studies showing that expected gender differences do not manifest in results, and that results found do not justify the large claims made.
There lies the difficulty for me. I am unable to delve into the primary sources. I would not know where to start. Political interests drive the confirmation bias of researchers, on both sides, and patriarchy affects the theorising which makes researchers or funders choose particular projects. Fine quotes Lewis Wolpert, CBE FRS FRSL FMedSci, the author of a number of popular science books: There is no doubt that biology, via evolution and genetics, has made men and women significantly different. Fine disagrees, and has assembled impressive evidence. I am aware of Wolpert, more as an author of popular science books than for his work on intracellular positional information that guides cellular development, but he is an eminent man. Why should I believe Fine over him?
She shows that research has been based on the idea of masculinity and femininity as opposite ends of a spectrum. In 1936, the Attitude Interest Analysis Survey asked 456 questions, each of which had a “masculine” or “feminine” answer. In the 1970s, the Personal Attributes Questionnaire, with two sets of questions to measure stereotypically masculine and feminine traits separately, showed one can have both “masculine” traits of “instrumentality”, like self-confidence, independence and competitiveness, and “feminine” traits of “expressiveness”, being emotional, gentle and caring. Or, neither. But also the masculine and feminine traits don’t necessarily go together. Always the argument that women can have gifts or interests thought masculine is fighting the assumptions of researchers. The concepts of masculinity and femininity get in the way of seeing how men and women actually are.
She shows how children are indoctrinated into gender, by the pink and blue toy aisles, and by peer pressure. I told my great-niece she was strong, as well as beautiful, for standing up and learning to walk. If girls were feminine at her age of ten months, one would expect them to work on talking first, to express themselves, and boys on walking for instrumentality. There is no such clear difference. Yet there is a great backlash against gender neutral toy-marketing, as if that were the indoctrination.
She describes the White Male effect. Are men more willing to take risks? In the US, a survey showed that men are; but not ethnic minority men. Privileged men are more likely to take risks. And it depends what risks are named, for people take risks where they are familiar with the matter. A risk of high taxation might provoke privileged male fear. And the “funnel plot”, a way of excluding publication bias: where studies show greater female risk-taking, they are less likely to be published. In Sweden, men and women were equal risk takers, but again immigrants, subject to discrimination, would take less risks. Of course: they are less safe.
Are men more competitive for mates, or less likely to be faithful? She accepts that men invest less in producing a baby, a few sperm rather than forty weeks’ incubation, but not that this means men want to spread it around, which might not produce children anyway. In evolutionary biology, sexual selection is in an exciting state of turmoil.
Does testosterone make men more likely to take risks? Not necessarily. Higher testosterone levels in men who take risks is correlation, not necessarily causation. The way testosterone fluctuation in the blood affects the brain is unclear, and women have testosterone too.
She ends with a call to arms. We can continue with our polite, undemanding panel discussions about gender equality, our good intentions and gentle tinkering, and patiently wait out the fifty to one hundred or so years it’s regularly predicted to take to achieve parity in the workplace. But… maybe it’s time to be less polite and more disruptive, like the first- and second-wave feminists. They weren’t always popular, it’s true. But look at what they achieved by not asking nicely.
And look at what she promises: valuation of your gifts as a human being, separate from preconceptions about how a man or woman ought to be. We could see ourselves more clearly. Women freed to express their gifts would benefit all.