A psychology student’s rant about patriarchy within academia

The title might be a bit hyperbolic. I’m not sure that what I’m going to write really constitutes sexism, and I’m very sure that if it does, it’s not intentional sexism. Still, I was quite shocked and annoyed to see that what I had written was completely dismissed in a completely unjustifiable way.

So, I’m sat in the library, reading up on the topic of my Psychology lab report – a pretty boring, standard undergraduate (pre-honours) investigation of the similarity of human and non-human primate personalities. I’m immediately struck by the section on ‘gender differences’. By this point I had had 18 months of ‘gender differences’ and was starting to get pretty, well, pissed off.

I simultaneously had my introduction to FUCK YEAH feminism – the kind of gender is a construct/gender isn’t binary/sex doesn’t equal gender/liberal-feminism-isn’t-a-thing/intersectionality or GTFO feminism you are exposed to after hanging out with people who study gender studies and generally awesome feminists – and the “hate to break it to you guys, but ‘gender differences’ are a thing as proven by all of this SCIENCE. Also binary sex is a thing otherwise I can’t use my statistics software” world of psychology, and I knew that the latter was wrong, I just didn’t quite know how I could articulate that, what evidence there was for it, and how I would begin to challenge it.

Enter Cordelia Fine, author of ‘Delusions of Gender’ and my new favourite human. I had recently been reading Delusions of Gender (an absolute must-read for any feminist. Go read it. NOW) and was absolutely inspired by her unwillingness to accept (as a well-established member of the psychology community and notable academic) the ridiculous notion of ‘innate’ gender differences. And she had evidence, SCIENCE. The science that all the studies I had so far encountered just somehow happened to miss. So, I was going to use some of this science to question the validity of the study I was writing a report on. Here’s what I wrote:

The results of this experiment showed that gender did have a significant effect on agreeableness; females scored as significantly more agreeable than males. This supports the finding of McCrae and Terracciano (2005) and of the much wider body of literature surrounding gender differences in personality. However, such generalisations must be made tentatively, especially considering that the demographics section of the NEO-FFI may have primed gendered behaviours and personality stereotypes. Steele and Ambady (2006) found that when they primed women with a gender-specific identity, they acted in accordance with this stereotype, performing poorly on tests of mathematical ability, and better on tests of artistic ability (in comparison with the control, non-primed group). A similar effect may be taking place here. It might be more effective, then, for future studies that seek to measure ‘gender differences’ (and other identity-group differences) to pay attention to this priming effect…and hand the participant the demographics sheet after filling out the questionnaire.

I’d say that’s common-sense, and if any psychologist reads this, they’ll probably agree. My tutor did not, and I’m really annoyed about it. It was the first time that I had called patriarchy out in my academic writings (not that I’d been avoiding it, but I just didn’t really know how to do it), and had basically been told ‘what the fuck has this got to do with anything?’. It irritated me, nobody around me had ever challenged the notion of ‘gender differences’ or questioned their occurrence, so I thought I’d get credit for thinking about it.

Sociologists/anthropologists/social philosophers- you’re going to hate me for this next paragraph, but my attitude towards mental functioning is one of extreme reductionism, and I consider myself a functionalist. I conceive of humans as fantastically complicated computers made out of meat (and I’m also one of those crazy nerds who believes in homonoid robots), so I believe everything that makes us human happens at a very basic neurological level, and this includes our gender identity and its manifestations. But I also think, like any computer, we respond to symbols, and these symbols, for me, are the outside world. They are everything that exists and is perceivable. This includes gender stereotypes, cultural norms, historical norms, and the gender ‘binary’. Our brains are malleable, they take this in, process it, and most often act in accordance with those perceptions, perpetuating the grip they have on society. It’s quite a vicious cycle. But – to get my psychology cap on – the direction of causality is quite clear. Of course if you’re told that women are more caring, and that is how you are valued as a woman, you’re likely to make that part of your identity. Humans are social creatures and we seek almost constant validation; conforming with norms is one of the easiest ways to find this validation.

Society, and its fucked-up gender norms/stereotypes conditions and shapes our brains so severely that anyone who doesn’t comply with them is a statistical anomaly, an exception to the rule. Get. To. Fuck. I can conceive of a post-gender society (by the way, it’s awesome), and these ‘differences’ don’t exist. I don’t believe that humans are born a blank slate to be manipulated, and of course our biology does actually play a rather large role in our actions/emotions/personality, but, we must not lose sight of the fact that because we are so fantastically complicated we have the ability to override our basic biology. It’s purely anecdotal evidence (not actually evidence), but everyone I know that rejects the gender binary seems to ‘violate’ a lot of these ‘differences’ so often assumed to be, well, ‘natural’. THE WOMEN DON’T ALL WANT KIDS AND THE MEN CRY.

As a psychologist, you have to be fully aware of things like correlation =/= causality, direction of causation is never certain etcetc, yet, when it comes to gender, nobody is challenging these notions (I should add that the same is often the case for racial stereotypes, though people are (thankfully) less willing to argue for ‘innate’ differences there, rather people’s reactions to race. (if anyone wants references, I’ll try and dig some out)). I’m really unhappy and quite disturbed by the fact that ‘gender’ is so deeply ingrained in our consciousness that it seems inconceivable to challenge it outwith the world of philosophy/social studies. So yeah, despite being a good psychologist and scrutinizing the validity of my study, because it challenged the accepted notion of ‘innate gender’ it wasn’t relevant. Anyway, This blog started with a point that I have now forgotten after ranting. Oh well, enjoy x

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