Why Gender Differences Don’t Matter (and Other Myths)


A few days ago, Harriet Hall wrote a post on Science-Based Medicine titled “Gender Differences and Why They Don’t Matter So Much.” The article left a bad taste in my mouth for a number of reasons.

Aside from what I feel is a gross misrepresentation of various criticisms of Michael Shermer (which I will leave to Ophelia and PZ to deal with as they see fit), the bulk of my issue with her post deals with how she discusses gender, particularly the blatant conflation of sex and gender.

Hall says:

No one can deny that there are real differences between men and women.

This is a truism—no one can deny that there are real similarities between men and women, either. So what? This tells us nothing and gets us nowhere.

She continues:

Women have chest bumps; men have dangly bits. Women menstruate, get pregnant, and lactate. Men have more testosterone and can grow beards. Women have two X chromosomes; men have one X and one Y.

This is where it becomes obvious that Hall does not understand the difference between sex and gender. The terms “women” and “men” are terms for gender; “female” and “male” are terms to refer to sex. She confusingly uses sex traits to describe gender differences. We certainly assign meanings to these different biological traits, but what Hall is explaining above turns out to be an excellent example of how sexed bodies come already wrapped up in our understandings of gender. Hall’s understandings of what it means to be “man” and “woman” (gender) affect how she categorizes bodies (sex).

Let me deconstruct this a bit further: having breasts, menstruating, getting pregnant, lactating, and having two X chromosomes are not inherently “womanly” things. Those are things that are more common to female-bodied individuals, but a person who identifies as a woman may go through her life not having or doing any of those things. Because “woman” is a cultural category, not a biological category.

Biologically speaking, Hall’s dichotomy is still way too neat. There are plenty of examples that further demonstrate how Hall’s idea of the clear-cut division between male bodies and female bodies is not so simple. For instance, people with androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS) who are born with XY chromosomes develop female bodies because their cells are incapable of responding to androgens like testosterone. These individuals are not men simply because they have XY chromosomes! Some of them may be men, but others may not be. Regardless, their bodies develop externally as female bodies (they may have internal undescended testes and lack a uterus). But the thing is, however their bodies develop, that does not necessarily tell us anything about their gender.

What Hall is doing here is playing into a biological reductionist view of sex/gender, where the thing that is most important in determining gender (and the differences among them) is biology. This sort of reductionist thinking was shot down back in 1975 when Gayle Rubin introduced a categorical split between sex and gender. Of course, gender theories have moved away from this split as a nice and neat division of nature and nurture (a false dichotomy for humans if there ever was one). The latest theories concerning sex/gender are biocultural (looking at the ways that biology and culture work together as opposed to privileging one over the other). This is quite evident in work by people like biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling and medical anthropologist Katrina Karkazis.

Aside from Hall’s obvious ignorance of what gender is, I am also disturbed by what appears to be a blind acceptance of research on sex/gender differences in brains, various developmental and health issues, and standardized tests:

Science has shown numerous less obvious differences. For instance, men’s brains are larger (but for intelligence as for penises, size doesn’t matter). The information in the Scientific American article about other brain differences is fascinating; you might want to read it now and then come back.

Boys are more likely to be autistic, to be dyslexic, to have Tourette syndrome, and to have ADHD. On standardized tests, boys have better spatial skills and girls have better language skills. Women are more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. Heart attacks tend to cause different symptoms in men and women. The effects of drugs can be different in men and women; this is why there has been so much criticism of drug trials that were done only on male subjects.

Some of these are innate differences grounded in genetic, anatomic and physiologic realities. And epigenetics tells us that environmental factors can influence how genes are expressed, not only in the individual but in the offspring.

She touts a 2005 Scientific American article that discusses some of the conclusions of the neuroscientific research that had been conducted on sex/gender differences in the brain up to that point. The article draws on Simon Baron-Cohen’s research, which has since been heavily criticized by many people, including neuropsychologist Cordelia Fine and sociomedical scientist Rebecca Jordan-Young.url-2

The differences that Hall presents as settled to be innate are actually far from it. If Hall is truly concerned with a scientific understanding of sex and gender, I would strongly urge her to read Fausto-Sterling, Fine, and Jordan-Young and stop promoting innate sex/gender differences as settled science. She should refrain from presenting gender differences as innate or hardwired because that position is not supported in the scientific literature. As Jordan-Young argues, the consensus behind the “hardwiring” paradigm in sex/gender studies “is both unscientific and unethical.” Further, it demonstrates a misunderstanding of human development—our bodies (including our brains) do not cease developing at birth. And we are not free of cultural influence while in the womb.

As an aside, Hall’s focus on breastfeeding as the penultimate form of bonding also does not jive with the scientific literature. According to this review of the literature, positive relationships resulting from breastfeeding is an assumption in the literature that is not supported by empirical evidence. While there are certainly health benefits, it remains an unsubstantiated claim that breastfeeding leads to stronger bonds between mother and infant. Moreover, claims like this tend to stigmatize parents who cannot breastfeed due to any number of circumstances, which can be detrimental to parental and infant health.

As far as Hall’s claim that she doesn’t “foresee a day when as many men as women choose that occupation” (I assume she means the “occupation” of primary caregiver for children), I’m not so sure. Again, this is Hall speaking from her own biases, blithely unaware of the fact that the number of stay-at-home dads in the US has doubled over the last 10 years. This is a pretty massive shift in a short amount of time. While stay-at-home dads still only make up 3.4 percent of stay-at-home parents, I don’t think it is fair to dismiss the idea that at some point in the future men and women might be equally willing to be the primary caregiver in their family.

Aka Pygmies of Central Africa. Fathers are known to “breastfeed” their infants.

Oh, and by the way, there is ethnographic evidence of male “breastfeeding” among the Aka of central Africa, who have been dubbed “the best dads in the world.” Also, many trans men can breastfeed.

Ultimately, it is pointless to argue that either biology or culture is more important in human development. Culture does not simply elaborate upon already existing biological qualities; culture and biology are co-productive. They both play a significant role, and they both interact with and influence one another. Culture affects how our brains develop—if there is a “hardwiring” for something like gender, how are we to tell that it happens pre-culturally? I cannot think of an ethical way to test this hypothesis.

Hall is right that it is problematic to apply understandings of differences among groups to individual qualities or abilities. But she’s wrong that gender doesn’t matter. To those of us who are gender variant and do not adhere to the very strict binary that Hall and most Western societies espouse, it is rather offensive to tell us that gender does not matter. Would Hall ever tell people of color that race doesn’t matter? Would she begrudge queer people or people of color joining together in solidarity in the same way that she poopoos on people identifying as “women skeptics”? Is Hall advocating for a diversity-blind society where we pretend that differences don’t exist? It sure feels that way. And I think it’s important to think about who benefits from such a worldview.

See, it’s easy to argue that gender isn’t important when you’re in a position of benefiting from a heteronormative/cisnormative gender system. It’s much more difficult to critically examine the biases that underlie your worldview. If you want to adhere to a scientific or rationalistic worldview, you should be more aware of how your culture and your lived experiences can blind you to normative biases. And you should be open to examining your position when these biases are pointed out to you.

ETA (2/9/2013 at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time): It has come to my attention that Harriet Hall has already answered my question if she would begrudge queer people or people of color joining together in solidarity. The answer is yes. On Brian Engler’s Facebook post (screenshot) promoting Women in Secularism 2, Hall wrote:

I don’t see the need for a separate conference, any more than we need a separate conference for African Americans or for men or for LGBT. I would rather attend a conference with a mix of prominent men and women secularist speakers. I think men have a lot to say about women in secularism, too. Efforts like this tend to divide the secular movement. Why can’t we all just get along and cooperate on our mutual goals? I think conferences like this only tend to postpone the day when the sexes will truly be treated equally and no one will pay attention to whether a person has chest bumps or dangly bits.

Hall is clueless. These conferences are not mutually exclusive–it is not as if WiS or AAH erase all the other conferences where straight white men get to speak up. These conferences do not erase straight white men’s voices from the movement. Rather, they provide a space where those voices are not privileged by default. The idea that minorities joining together in solidarity to speak about issues important to them is somehow divisive is horseshit. What Hall deems “mutual goals” aren’t actually mutual–they are the goals of a certain segment of the population, and for her to pretend that the goals she sees as important are the goals of the skeptical/atheist/humanist movements is not only arrogant, it’s evidence of a patriarchal bargain.

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  1. This is an excellent response. I love it!
    There is a lot of anecdotal evidence in the trans community of how hormone therapy changes how you perceive the world around you, both through your senses and emotionally. I have also seen references to research suggesting there are changes in the brain as well. I don’t have these references at hand, and I haven’t checked their validity either, but it is at least interesting, and agrees with what a lot of us experience. Julia Serano also discusses this in her book “Whipping Girl”. I can’t remember if Faust-Sterling does, it’s been a while since I’ve read “Sexing the Body”. The point is that neither gender nor physical differences are necessarily fixed or innate to the extent Hall seems to claim.

    • How hormones affect people who are transitioning is something I’m interested in looking at when I start my PhD research. I think it’s an under-researched area.

      I can’t remember if Fausto-Sterling addresses it in Sexing the Body, though she does spend a lot of time on hormones and brains from what I remember, so it’s certainly possible.

      • She discusses how it affects the lab animals, but makes a point about how this does not necessarily (or at all) mean we can extrapolate how it affects humans.

  2. Thanks for this! Great points here. On an unrelated note, I’ve noticed that the right side of the blockquotes in recent articles tend to get jumbled together with the stuff in the right side bar. This may be a formatting issue that only the Skepchick folks can fix, but I figured I’d mention it.

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