Cordelia Fine on female brains, boys' toys and other delusions of gender


ANDREW LEIGH, HOST: Have you ever thumbed through men are from Mars, women are from Venus. Have you ever heard a new parents say well, I used to think gender was all nurture. But then I gave my daughter a truck and she just tucked it into a bed. Or maybe you've heard people talk about the female brain and the male brain. Today's guest is the best antidote for those outdated views. Cordelia fine is a professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Melbourne. She's author of three books including delusions of gender, and testosterone wrecks, and she's the recipient of the prestigious Edinburgh medal and the Royal Society science Book Prize. Cordelia is a brilliant thinker who's changed the way that I and many others think about gender. And I'm really chuffed to have her on the podcast today, Cordelia, thanks for joining us.


LEIGH: So how did you get into working on gender? What was the event that took you down, it took you down this research path?

FINE: Well, it was really a combination of both what I was doing professionally as an academic, and then my personal life as the parent of at the time, two young children to preschoolers. So I was working as a research associate on a project that was led by a philosopher, Neil Levy, who was sort of exploring and expanding and kind of establishing the field of neuro ethics, one question of, which is, How were the new neuro imaging technologies, changing our view of ourselves, as humans as people and so on.

And at the same time, you know, my kids are very young, I was working part time, being a sort of typical academic, I did a lot of research into being a good parent, sort of, you know, telling my children to go away because mums learning how to be a better parent. I read a lot of parenting books.

And one of the books that I read was, you know, arguing that there are hardwired sex differences in the brain, that means that we need to parent our children differently, as well as sort of educate them differently and generally treat them in different kinds of ways. And I was, I was really interested in this because in my PhD, I worked in the Institute of cognitive neuroscience, I studied particular parts of the brain. And I spent a lot of time studying a part of the brain called the amygdala. And this was one of the regions that was mentioned as being kind of profoundly different in boys and girls. And I was really interested in this because sex differences in the brain was not something that had been discussed, and I was doing my PhD. And so I looked up this study that was being cited as support for, you know, this claim that boys and girls needed to be taught differently. And I was really shocked at the disconnection between what the what the study actually showed, and the kind of practical implications that were being drawn from it.

So I started to look at other kinds of popular books, which were also sort of drawing on these findings, you know, more or less loosely, from the new neuro imaging technologies that of course, people will be familiar with, sort of say, you know, we put people in the scan cat scanner, and we got to do got them to do such and such a thing. And we saw which parts of their brain light it up. And, you know, a lot of these studies were throwing at differences between the sexes, and the popular writers were kind of picking up on this, and presenting it as a, you know, at last science that's shown what we knew all along, you know, the brains of males and females are completely different.

So I was looking at all these popular books and I looked at parenting books, books with teachers, but books for people to manage their relationships, books for business leaders. And I noticed you know, the same thing going on here that this this neuroscientific claim were being misrepresented, over interpreted sometimes even fabricated in ways that just sort of seem to prove the truth and inevitability of you know, old fashioned gender stereotypes and roles.

And and so I became because of the work that I was doing as part of philosophy department I kind of got interested in what is the effect of this popularisation of this, this new neuro imaging technology on this, you know, centuries old argument that the differences between men and women, and I, I wrote a book for the inaugural article is at the inaugural volume of journal called neuro ethics, which is called will working mothers brains explode, which was, which is based on one of the claims from a New York, New York Times bestselling book, The female brain, which claimed that the reason why working mothers lives are so difficult is because of their overloaded brain circuits, because they're having to sort of handle both, both parenting and their and their careers.

So that's, that's really what what set me into that journey that I was worried I was really concerned about the fact that there are all these books that we're presenting such information misinformation about, you know, what science has shown us, that was really just dressing up these old fashioned gender stereotypes with a sort of veneer of scientific authority. And it deeply troubled me. And I wanted to write a an accessible book that kind of explained what science did show and what it didn't.

LEIGH: Of course, and you refer to this to notion as neuro sexism, term, I love the notion of taking old fashioned prejudices and coding them in a veneer of science. What do we know about the extent to which male and female brains differ?

FINE: Yeah, so one thing that's important to say about the term neuro sexism, which was a bit tongue in cheek, it was sort of, you know, it was during that period when everything was neuro, this neuro that, you know, neuro architecture and your education and you know, making everything seem more grand and important, important and authoritative by putting Nero prefix in front of it. So there was a sort of a bit of fun around that.

But as for one thing that it's important to say about it, it is not that to say that something inherently sexist about investigating the effects of sex on the brain and behaviour. It's more just the drawing on neuroscientific claims and language in a way that does reinforce those stereotypes, but in ways that are not scientifically justified or warranted.

So I think it's important to point that out, because I certainly think there is importance to looking at sex effects in the brain. In terms of what we know, the simplest thing that we could say is that it's that it's it's really complicated. And I think that one of the kind of real conceptual shifts that we've had, in recent years, is moving away from thinking in a very binary way, I can't feel excuse that language of, you know, either there are the brains of there's such a thing as a male brain and a female brain, or the males, the brains of males and females are completely identical.

And there are no differences to thinking about the complexity of how biological sex, so that's the genetic and hormonal components of sex, interact with a number of different factors in the brain, to create differences between the brains of males and females, but not in such a way that you kind of create something that we can say this is the male brain, and this is the female brain.

LEIGH: I like your, the way you phrase it in your most recent book, testosterone Rex, where you say that you could guess your sex from your brain. But if you knew someone sex, you probably wouldn't do a very good job is to guessing the makeup of their brain, just because there's so much overlap in the way in which you need neuro neuro imaging looks for men and women.

FINE: That's right, and what and the way that those differences add up within an individual are quite different. And of course, you don't need to be an expert in neuroscience to sort of understand the principle I mean, if if you know somebody took an accounting of my gendered characteristics, they might, they might see that I have more feminine characteristics than masculine ones if that if indeed that's the case, and have a really good chance of guessing correctly that I'm female.

But if you simply say to someone, you know, hear someone behind the screen, there are a woman Tell me what they're like. I mean, you were far more complex than that, because everyone is somewhat idiosyncratic and unique, even if there are average differences at the population level, for whatever reason.

LEIGH: And I really liked one of the observations you made about the mental rotation test where it initially been suggested that men always outperform women and then subsequent research. It showed that if you lied to men and said that they there was a systematic bias in their favour, then they did better. Similarly, if you lied to women, and you said there was a systematic bias in their favour, then the women outperformed them in. So the priming seemed to make a huge impact on people's ability to perform what had been thought of as some kind of an innate test.

FINE: Yeah, look, I mean, I, I think there's a sort of general principle to be extracted here, you know, beyond any one particular priming study, since as you all know, some of these priming studies have, you know, the victims of the replication crisis, but to say that people's people's abilities, to some extent, are, are contextual, and you know, they will be a product, not just of what sex they happen to be, but also things like, what are the expectations, and how that how is that affecting the person, not just in the moment, but also in terms of the developmental path that they've taken, taken, the kind of toys that they've been encouraged, encouraged to, to play with, or the kinds of experiences or hobbies or, or educational subjects that they've studied, it's really thinking about, you know, whether you're looking at someone just their behaviour, or you're looking at their brain in the scanner, appreciating that you're just taking a snapshot in time, and that there's a whole developmental history behind that particular brain that you're looking at.

Now, of course, the problem in a lot of the functional neuroimaging studies is that often the scientists will just measure sex, so they'll say, you know, are you male or female. And that's the only data that they actually have. So if they do find a difference between males and females, in behaviour or in the brain, that's the kind of only thing that they can link with. And they haven't measured all the many other things that correlate with being male and being female, which of course is the sort of systematic way in which a sort of gendered society influences the kinds of experiences that people have and the expectations that are externally or internally imposed.

So when you when you do a neuroscience study that compares takes a snapshot comparison of the differences between males and females, of course, any neuroscientist understands that in the brain doesn't mean innate, fixed, inevitable. You know, there's lots of excitement about neuroplasticity. But if that's all you ever measure is a snapshot comparisons of the sexes, you're guaranteed not to produce any data that can challenge the idea of essential mutable universal differences between the brains of men and women.

LEIGH: In terms of the way in which the socialisation operates, I think the most powerful passage for me was a section in delusions of gender, where you imagine that rather than using the labels, boy and girl, we use the labels left hander or right hander, I wonder if you might read us a little bit of that, that passage to give listeners a flavour of the argument.

FINE: Sure, so I said, Imagine for a moment that we could tell at birth or even before whether a child was left handed or right handed. By convention, the parents of left handed babies dressed them in pink clothes, wrap them in pink blankets, and decorate their rooms with pink hues. The left handed babies bottle bibs and dummies, and later cups plates and utensils, lunchbox and backpack are often pink or purple with motifs such as butterflies, flowers and fairies. parents tend to let the hair of lefthanders grow long, and while it is still short and babyhood a brettell bow often pink serves as a standing. right hander.

Babies, by contrast, are never dressed in pink, nor do they ever have a pink accessory or toy. Although blue is a popular colour for right handed babies, as they get older any colour excluding pink or purple is acceptable. clothing and other items for right handed babies and children commonly portrayed vehicles sporting equipment and space rockets, never butterflies, flowers or fairies. The hair of right handers is usually quite short and is never prettified with accessories.

LEIGH: And then you wonderfully go on to talk about how people would then refer to their children as well go and ask that right hander if you can have a turn on the swing now. left handers love drawing, don't they? And you ask a new a new mum. Are you hoping for a right hand at this time? It's just such a beautifully powerful reminder to me of how much we use gendered language when we're raising kids.

FINE: That's right. And and you know the insight here from the gender psychologists is that children from a very early age they see that gender is such an important social category. And from birth there, they're soaking up information about what it means to be on either side of this of this gender divide. And then around about the age of two or three, they come to develop their own gender identities that they know whether they're a boy or a girl. And, of course, this has impact on what kinds of things that they think of as being, you know, for them, or definitely not for them.

LEIGH: As interesting before you told us that you have two children, normally, people would have referred to the gender of their children, you haven't, are there other ways in which you look to, in some sense, reduce the salience of gender as a parent?

FINE: Look, I suppose, like many parents, I, you know, I did my best to counter the sort of tsunami of gender stereotyping that, that children encounter that bizarrely enough, is, in some senses, stronger than it has been, even in earlier generations. So yeah, I suppose there's, there's that sort of offering my children a lens through which to see the world and that can feel like a hopeless task when they're two or three or four.

But as as they get older, my, my, my sons are teenagers, now, you realise that? Yes, you've you have given this them this, this lens through which to see the world. And I think what's really interesting about about gender norms is that, like any, like any other powerful social norm, it takes a huge amount of courage to not conform to those norms.

And I think that one thing that parents can equip their children with, when they sort of teach them to, to not conform to those gender norms is they're, they're giving them a form of moral competence. So this ability to not simply do something or not do something, because, you know, that's what everyone else does. And everyone knows that pink isn't for boys and whatever it is, but you're actually in in a kind of age appropriate way you're equipping them to, to stand up for egalitarian values that colours should be for everyone, or, or whatever it is.

And, you know, it's funny because I, for a number of years, I taught ethical leadership at the business school. And it was sort of funny, because in some ways, the sorts of things that the students there are, you know, often quite senior executives and organisations, you know, often, we were talking about their struggles of, you know, this, there's some kind of norm that isn't, isn't ethical isn't that's not in keeping with our own ethical values of fairness or responsibility or compassion. But we all know how difficult it is to speak up against the silent or the vocal majority and the pushback that one gets, and in a sense, the skills, the moral skills that you teach children, when you sort of Teach them, actually, you don't have to conform to gender norms, and you don't have to police those who don't conform to gender norms are the same kinds of skills that we all need in organisations to, to stand up against norms that are that are harmful and unnecessary.

LEIGH: Yes, certain occupations have stronger gender norms than others. When I'm moved from being a professor to a politician. I remember having a conversation with a colleague, who was wearing a pink shirt, and I said, Oh, that's good. I'm not going to have to throw away all my pink shirts. And he said, Oh, my dear, you can wear them occasionally. But I wouldn't go much pink than this one. And it's just a reminder of the subtle ways in which all of those norms run through. You make a point in Testosterone Rex that there's an irony that now, executives in a whole lot of firms are worried about unconscious bias in hiring, and yet seem remarkably untroubled by having a section in the department store for boys toys, and a separate section for Bill's toys. How much of a problem is the way in which we have these highly gendered categories of toys?

FINE: Yeah, look, I think I think that's an interesting question. I mean, some people will say, it's, it's just toys, what's what's the big deal, but I do think there is something when when we think about what we know about how gender stereotypes operate, in the workplace, and how they are the basis of both direct forms of discrimination, and indirect discrimination and effect forms of sexual harassment, which of course includes these kind of gender, gender based put downs.

You know, these gender stereotypes that we're trying so hard to overcome in organisations, kind of reinforcing them, you know, harder than ever in our children's early education when they're laying down these kind of associations. So, you know, there is a sort of strange contradiction there.

And it doesn't, you know, often the response is, Well, look, we're just letting children play with the kinds of toys that they want to play with. You think well, if that if that's the case, then you know, do we need to really label them quite so overtly as being you know, this is for girls, and this is for boys. And of course, even pre verbal children become aware of what kinds of colours and motifs are associated with girls and which ones are associated for boys. And actually, when you look at the data, on children's toy preferences,in that preschool era, through around the ages of two and three, while there are average differences, there's actually a huge amount of diversity in what girls and boys like to play with. And there's plenty of counter stereotypical play amongst amongst boys and girls. I think when once those sort of social forces of you know, knowing which side of the gender divide kick in, the play can become much more stereotypical. But, but prior to that, there's really a huge amount of overlap.

So these kinds of divisions of you know, these toys are for boys, these toys for girls, doesn't really match the complexity and overlap of what young boys and girls are actually interested in. And there have been studies showing that these kinds of implicit labels in terms of colouring do have quite a strong influence on what kinds of toys boys and girls are interested in playing with us.

LEIGH: I mean, just as an aside, I was fascinated by one of the findings you refer to showing that the colour of the toy seems to have more gender salience for kids than than the design of the toy, whether it's pink or blue matters more than whether it's a tracker or adult.

FINE: That's right. And also, one thing that often gets overlooked is that even where you where you see differences, average differences between boys and girls in you know, whether they are interested in playing with girl toys, and boy toys. Often the girls are actually more interested in playing with the boy toys, and they are interested in playing with the girl toys so that that's something else that can also get get overlooked often, boy toys, particularly ones that aren't sort of really hyper masculine can actually be more interesting and mentally challenging kinds of toys than, you know washing machines or, or makeup sets.

LEIGH: I have seen a lovely cartoon that suggests that there's a simple flowchart to determine whether a toys for boys or girls, the opening question is, do you operate the toy with your genitalia? Answer, yes. Therefore, it is not for children, and to know, therefore it is for either boys or girls.

But why are these sorts of views so popular? And why is it so common for us to hear parents saying, well, I used to think it was all nurture. But But now that I've had kids, I realise realise its nature?

FINE: Yeah, I think that I think that's a good question. And it's a question that I really started to understand a bit better when I did the research for delusions of gender. So I should explain that when I wanted to write delusions of gender. And my initial proposal was, you know, really to as an as a corrective for the popular misrepresentations that I was seeing about six different supposedly hardwired sex differences in the brain. And then when I was researching it, you know, I looked at the science in this area, you know, science on the effects of prenatal testosterone on toy differences and sex differences in the brain and what they supposedly mean for behaviour. And really, my initial goal was, okay, let's, let's just summarise what the science tells us. And in particular, trying to overcome this kind of exaggeration of, you know, how much of the variability in children is being explained by whether they're their boys, and whether they're girls. And so it wasn't really intended as a critique of the science itself.

Now, when I, when I came to look at the science itself, I realised that there were all kinds of unexpected problems with with the scientific research that was, you know, purporting to show that there are these particular kinds of effects of prenatal testosterone on toy interests or, you know, sex differences in the brain and what they meant for brain and behaviour. So in that sense, the the book was really quite an unexpected journey for me into the flaws in the science. But another way in which the book was surprising to me was that I hadn't studied.

Other than in my degree, I started to study developmental psychology, but I didn't come from an expertise in developmental aspects of gender differences. So I probably had a kind of similar view of socialisation, that many parents and you know, educators and so on have which is that gender socialisation is something that is kind of imposed by parents and other caregivers onto the child. And it's sort of passively received by the by the children. And when you have that kind of view of gender socialisation, and you're a kind of, you know, good feminist, egalitarian parent who doesn't want your children to be constrained by what sex they happen to be, then when your child does start to behave in very gendered ways, it can seem as if this must be something that is, you know, internal, in a kind of deep biological way has been described as this sort of fallback explanation. Well, it's not me imposing this on my children, so it must be something deep within them.

And what I realised from the research in developmental psychology was the extent to which Yes, there is, of course, kind of external forms of socialisation. But the children are actually active self socializers. So, you know, as we've talked about, before, they see how important gender is as a social category, at a very early age, sort of, from two onwards, they know which side of the divide they belong, and then they kind of actively want to, you know, behave in ways that is consistent with what what the society tells them, you know, it's extremely important facet of what they're what they're doing. And, you know, I think one thing that's really interesting about childhood is that when you're a child, you tend not to have as many different kind of social identities as you do when you're an adult.

So, you know, adults will have identities in terms of many of their different relationships, their professional identities, their identities, in terms of the hobbies that they do, or their political identities, whereas children, you know, their children, that's like a really primary identity for them. And then they're also a boy or a girl. So that like that gendered identity can can be very, very powerful. And I think, if you don't understand, if you don't have that sort of full picture of how gender socialisation actually happens, which I didn't when I started to research delusions of gender, I think it's very easy to attribute that very gendered behaviour that you are not encouraging and may even be discouraging, to, you know, to jeans to hormones to some sort of deep biological essence.

LEIGH: Your new book delves away from just human animals towards looking at fruit flies, and Andrew's cross spiders, horn dung beetles, marmoset monkeys, and tying it all together is this research around the role of testosterone? And in the eye in the argument that often poor? testosterone simply explains the power dynamics we see in the world? What did you come to discover about some of these, some of these studies over so called natural sex differences?

FINE: Yeah, so look, what I discovered is that the evolutionary science, evolutionary biology has been complicating the traditional story of sexual selection that sees competition as the kind of purview of the male of the species and a kind of coy, sexually risk, risk averse, characteristic, you know, the female who, you know, waits for the very best smile to come along as a sort of purview of the female. And there's a sort of economic basis to the traditional story, which has to do with sperm being cheap in reproduction, and egg eggs being more expensive, yeah, big, plump egg compared to that tiny little sperm. And in addition, of course, when you have mammals, there's the expense of gestation, lactation, protection, and so on.

So this, this difference between sperm and eggs and the kind of reproductive investments between males and females was the kind of core of stories about sexual selection, I shouldn't say stories, I mean, sort of scientific accounts of sexual selection. And that is still a important principle.

But I think what evolutionary biology has been discovering is that actually, it's much more complicated than that, in the sense that there are many other kinds of factors that play a role. For example, you know, it's not, when you think about the investment of a male, it's not a single sperm, they've, you know, it might be multiple sperm, he might be facing sperm competition. He's got to engage in courtship, he's got to beat off the competition, you know, it's actually a much more expensive exercise for the males than had been previously been appreciated.

And on the other side of things, for females, it's you know, it's not The case that you know, any old media mediocre female can achieve, you know, achieve reproductive success. You know, if you, for example, amongst female chimpanzees, there's a link between your your status, your dominance status and your likelihood of reproductive success are the amount of offspring that you produce and their likelihood of sort of thriving and surviving. So there's been a sort of growing interest and importance of competition for females in reproductive success, where until recently, competition was something that was seen as only being important for males.

And so the sort of take home picture is that yes, the difference in reproductive investment is important part of explaining sex roles across animal species. But there's, there's actually a surprising amount of diversity across animal species. And there's also even a surprising amount of diversity in sex roles within a species, because species are responsive to their ecological conditions, and their social conditions.

It's a really fascinating story of the kind of progress of correction of evolutionary science, much more complex story now than it than it previously was. But it does mean that it does complicate the kinds of narrative that you'll find in popular books about evolutionary psychology that still tell this very simple story of you know, sperm, cheap female reproductions expensive and therefore, you know, here's a pattern of sort of timeless, male behaviour that we see universally across the across the animal kingdom.

LEIGH: Yes, I was fascinated by the surveys, you reported about attitudes to monogamy, for example. So by the time you're getting to people from their mid 30s, to their mid 40s, desire for monogamy is found in 86% of men and 92% of women, which is not exactly the theory that that you would often get from this this sort of raw biological account.

FINE: Yeah, that's right. And look, you know, in I should say that evolutionary psychologists, you know, they they don't put forward a sort of simplistic view that, that men are only interested in promiscuity and women are only interested in monogamy. I mean, there are cancer, I certainly more nuanced than this. But you know, it's one of these examples of where, you know, this, the way that you choose to characterise your data can emphasise different kinds of things.

So if you simply want to look at the sort of average differences between men and women in interest in casual sex, you see quite a decisive difference between men and women, with men showing more interest on average, in casual sex, the degree of that gap there, it can vary quite substantially across countries, and of course, across time, but then when you look at, you know, what's the, what's the most common response for men and the most common response for women?

Well, as you just said, it's it's the same it's you know, that that one person who you who you love, and I liked your observation too, that if you imagine sex to be biological, rather than bio cultural, you're probably not going to end up having very much of it. That in our society that so much of sexual activity is determined by nurture and culture rather than simply nature.

Yes, I mean, sexuality is, it's a very, it's a it's an obvious banality to say that it's a that it's a complicated, a complicated thing. But you know, even within our scientific models, one of the insights of an endocrinologist social endocrinologist who works in this area, sorry, Van Anders, is that because we have tended to think of things to do with what because we have these sort of powerful schemas around, you know, what is masculine, and what is feminine, you know, we tend to think about sexuality in a very kind of competitive way.

So, you know, we assume that, that testosterone is correlated with sexual activity in men, because we think of it in terms of this sort of being driven by, you know, competition for access to mates. But of course, as she points out, sexuality is not simply about that, you know, we can we could want to have sexual activity because of a desire for, for love and intimacy, which, of course, we tend to think of as being more feminine traits.

 And one of the insights that she talks about, which I, which I mentioned in testosterone, Rex, is that, you know, when we framing what testosterone is for in terms of masculinity versus femininity, we actually misunderstand what's going on. And actually, when we look at the what, what seems like paradoxical data, for instance, that there aren't these strong links between testosterone levels and libido when we actually start to think of testosterone as being high testosterone is being about competition across a range of domains that are relevant both to men and women, and lower testosterone being around nurturance, which, of course, is a part again, part of both men's and women's lives, we actually can start to make much more sense of what at first seem to be paradoxical findings within the testosterone behaviour and literature. And I think sexuality is a good example of that, that sexuality, you know, we can have complex reasons for being sexually desirous or having sex or wanting to have sex.

LEIGH: Yes, and of course, the sort of very simplistic model doesn't go very far in terms of explaining why homosexuality exists in the population. I wanted to turn to thinking about the flip side of this, which is the argument you sometimes hear that men and women are very different, and the under representation of women is harmful to society. So for example, the argument that Carol Gilligan makes that women employ an ethic of care, men deploy an ethic of justice and the lack the under representation of an ethic of care is damaging, or the contention that if Lehman Brothers had been called Lehman sisters, the global financial crisis might not have happened. What do you make of that argument?

FINE: I think it mistakes what's what's going wrong? The first problem with these kinds of arguments, is it's just mischaracterizes what we actually see in terms of the kinds of characteristics that are relevant to the workplace, whether it's risk taking behaviour, whether it's ethical behaviour, whether it's, you know, leadership style, whatever it is, you know, to come back to the point made before there are these these small average differences, but knowing that someone is a man or knowing that someone is a woman, is not going to tell you a huge amount about what that person is actually like and what they're going to where they're going to be scoring on those kinds of those kinds of behavioural traits.

A second problem with it is that, you know, of course, these are the kinds of stereotypes you know, men are risk taking competitive, dominant. Women are caring, collaborative, sensitive, empathic, of course, these are the kinds of stereotypes that have sort of been the basis of excluding women from positions of power and leadership for a long time. And there's a kind of growing body of research that shows that to the extent that people endorse those kinds of men are from Mars, women are from Venus views, they actually tend to be more comfortable with the gender or status quo, whether it's in you know, at work, or education, or in relationships, then those who are less likely to see men and women as being fundamentally different.

So there's a worry here that framing, you know, there's a sort of empirical worry that the kinds of characterizations that people are putting forward to make this case are actually, you know, highly inaccurate. But also that simply framing it this way may actually sort of trigger people's views that actually or perhaps women aren't cut out for these kinds of historically masculine roles.

Having said that, that doesn't mean that it doesn't matter if you don't have, you know, women in positions of power and leadership, because, of course it does. And I think there are, there are kind of a couple of important ways that it does matter. And I've actually recently published work on this together with Victor saho, who's from the centre of workplace leadership at the Faculty of Business and Economics at University of Melbourne, and my colleague, Holly lawford Smith, who's in philosophy department, in my school of historical and philosophical studies. And so we point out that, first of all, you know, when people's behaviour, of course, is influenced by the surrounding context, and one context that is quite salient is whether you're in a male dominated context or female dominated context or a sort of gender balanced context. So that in and of itself, can influence people's kinds of behaviour.

And we do know that male dominated organisations and industries tend to sort of be more likely to endorse sort of hyper masculine norms, that of winning at all costs, you know, toughness, having hyper competitive and so on, which is, you know, bad actually, often bad for organisations and bad for individuals. So, you know, having women can matter not because individual women are sort of fundamentally different to men, but because it's part of creating an environment which isn't, isn't male dominated.

But another way is that when you when you tend to when women are a kind of an exception when they're a token, those gender stereotypes may act in more kinds of powerful ways so that if we want to try and reduce the effects of it unintended or intended discrimination against women in traditionally male domains, that's going to be actually kind of hard to do to the extent that those women still are, still are minorities and just seem like an unusual to, to be there.

But I think the third reason is that we've started to talk a lot recently about a kind of male centeredness in the way that decisions are made. So it's been great that during this particular pandemic, people have been drawing attention to the way that that things have differently affected women and men, for instance, but also have been talking about, you know, the need for female political representation in making sure that the responses and the ensuing policies are actually taking care of the interests of women, as well as of men.

And we can expand that kind of thinking to organisations more generally, you know, organisations create, create value, they produce, you know, they create products and services. And we need to make sure that we have female leadership to ensure that those products and services that are being created, are actually attending to, to women's interests and concerns. We've seen this in, in science, I'm in history and philosophy of science. And, you know, it's always hard when you run a kind of controlled experiment, you know, let's have one society where we keep women out of science, and let's have another where we let them in and see what happens.

But, you know, many disciplines were transformed in very positive ways, by by having women sort of, you know, battling down the doors and entering and being able to become scientific practitioners. So they, they looked at the kinds of questions that had that affected girls and women that had been neglected they, they challenged long standing assumptions, and they asked different kinds of research questions. That's the kind of sub theme and in testosterone, Rex, actually the way that that science has changed, often through the scientific work of a female scientist.

And, you know, we can we can sort of expand that to thinking about, you know, organisations and industries, whether it's business, whether it's not for profits, whether it's the legal system, you know, when you have a homogenous group of people, leading organisations and institutions, they will rightly be a lack of trust. Yes, and diversity seems to be productive in a whole lot of different contexts. But just extending on your comment about the role of structures as well as individuals.

LEIGH: So recall a study from a few years back by dubay and Harish which looked at how often European rulers went to war between 1480 and 1913. And asked the question as to whether kings or queens are more likely to go to war. Now turned out queens were more likely to go go to war than kings. But that was a structural factor, it was that they were seen as soft touches, and so other male ruled states were more likely to to attack them. So there's this notion that if you just have a few more female heads of state, you won't have any wars. It's not It's not that simple.

FINE: I think you've referred to the notion as benevolent sexism.

LEIGH: Yes. I mean, it also it puts, you know, when you're talking about the, you know, the financial, the global financial crisis, and the idea that, you know, if only we'd had some of these risk averse women, perhaps it might not have happened.

FINE: I mean, that's a really good illustration of these points. Yes, I think having more gender balance in finance would certainly help to de stigmatise, what are perceived as being feminine traits, like, caution, consideration, responsibility, as opposed to sort of recklessness and so on.

But yes, the idea that you can sort of simply solve this problem by bringing in bringing in some women rather than doing all the hard work of thinking about the culture of those organisations, the regulatory context in which they operate and so on. Yes, that is that is a bullet that is,has no magic to it whatsoever, put it that way.

LEIGH: I did a study a number of years back with Alison booth in which we sent out fake CVS to a range of female dominated entry level jobs in waitstaff and data entry. And we found that when the CV had a female name on it was more likely to get a callback than when it had a male name on it. It seemed to suggest that our stereotypes about who would make a good hospitality work or a good data entry person skewed towards women.

And there's also this, this research on the glass cliff, suggesting that women tend to be given top management or leadership positions when an organisation is in trouble. That notion that now is that now is the moment to turn to a woman and Joan kirner and Carmen Lawrence, I'm sure could tell us plenty about this. Do you? Do you see that stereotyping as being a challenge? And how do we address it?

FINE:  Yeah, certainly. So they're both grounded in these kinds of gender stereotypes. So if you know, men are being stereotyped as being not suited to particular kinds of jobs, and occupations that are seen as needing, needing, you know, emotional sensitivity and interpersonal skills and so on, then, you know, that is that is discrimination. And this, there shouldn't be any place for that in the hiring, and promotion. And likewise, you know, that there's been sort of ongoing research by Michelle Ryan and others into this glass Cliff phenomenon that you describe.

And again, it does seem to be around this kind of stereotype of women being ones who are kind of good at good at cleaning up the mess, as opposed to, you know, but then when times are good, and we need to charge ahead and take risks, and so on. Like, that's, that's when we want to a man at the helm, and particularly a white man. So yeah, I mean, these are the sort of the tendrils of gender stereotypes extend in all kinds of all kinds of directions, and all kinds of interesting ways that we're still exploring.

LEIGH: Do you think we're getting better at this as a society? Do you learn you've, you've written about the pernicious pink ification of little girls, you seem to be calling for people to be maybe a little less polite and a little more disruptive? Taking a cue from the first and second wave feminists? Do you think that perhaps society isn't doing as well as we might imagine on issues of gender? And we feminists need to step it up?

FINE: Yes, there's always there's always room for improvement. And it does feel as if we're in a bit of a plateau at the moment. And I think there's often a sense that, you know, we have, we have an equal playing field now. And so any resulting inequalities that we see, are simply, you know, it's that biology as fallback explanation again. And what that kind of comfortable conclusion overlooks is just the many, often extremely subtle ways in which, you know, people's lives and preferences and choices are shaped in particular kinds of directions, rather than another.

Now, that's not to say that there isn't a really, you know, interesting scientific debate going on about, you know, what are the causes, what are the biological contributions to these kinds of differences. But, you know, I think at the same time, we need to recognise that there's still so much work to be done to actually level the playing field. That in a sense, you know, energies can be can be put there before we sort of throw up our hands in despair and say, well, it's just nature. There's, there's nothing, there's nothing to be done about it.

LEIGH: Yes. Cordelia, what advice would you give to your teenage self?

FINE: You know, I had so much advice, as a teenager from, from my parents, it was all very good advice, that it's hard to think of a piece of advice that I wasn't already given the teenager, but probably just to worry a bit less about everything.

LEIGH: Did your parents have other good pearls of wisdom that you'd share with others?

FINE: Look, they've they've both, I think, wonderful role models in terms of just doing what they love and are passionate about in terms of their work. And that was something that they always encouraged in me as well. You know, think about what you love what you find interesting, what you what you want to contribute, and try and find a way to make that happen. And I've always been very appreciative of that advice.

LEIGH: What's something you used to believe, but no longer do?

FINE: Well, I think I believed until very recently that we'd reached rock bottom in terms of devaluing the humanities. But of course, we've had our recent news reports about the government's fee increase proposal for humanities students, so that's, yes, that's a belief I no longer hold.

LEIGH: And you also have shifted your view on on gender based quotas to I understand.

FINE: Yes, I used to, I used to hate the idea of gender quotas, quite honestly. And and look, I think this was something that often would come up, you know, in the ethics teaching that I did. And often women would say, you know, we don't want gender quotas. And I think that one has to listen, you know, listen to the intended beneficiaries of these kinds of forms of affirmative action, and appreciate that, you know, particularly if these kinds of initiatives aren't framed, well, they can come across as tokenistic. And they can stigmatise the beneficiaries, and they can elicit backlash.

But I think, you know, I feel persuaded now that it's simply sort of abiding with the anti discrimination duty that the organization's have is not enough when you have such as legacy of inequality and this kind of cumulative disadvantage. And, you know, I'm persuaded by this idea that when we're thinking about merit, we do need to, well, first of all, see, you know, accept that, that our perceptions of merit are not necessarily completely objective, but also that we need to think about merit, not just in terms of what the individual person's sort of individual capacities, but the merit in terms of that person within the organisation and what they bring to that organisation, in terms of making it more diverse in particular kinds of ways. And so, yes, in certain kinds of domains, I think that it can be probably an effective tool and and adjust tool as well.

LEIGH: When are you most happy?

FINE: Um, well, you know, obviously, my children make me very happy. I had a, I had a colleague who wants describes parenting is being like an opera, that that, you know, this sort of long periods of recitatives that, you know, I find but nothing special. And then every so often, there is this sort of glorious Aria that, you know, is just wonderful and fills you with joy. And I do think that that parenting and family life is like that, you know, I don't feel ecstatic, doing lunchboxes and telling people to pick their dirty socks off off the floor. But you know, my children, there are these areas of family life that really are, you know, very joyful and make me make me very happy.

LEIGH: What's the most important thing you do in your life to stay mentally and physically healthy?

FINE: I read well, I sort of stick to the basics. Try and eat fairly healthily and make sure that I get fresh air and exercise and plenty asleep side, I do tend to be a bit of an early bird. The sleeping and eating I'm pretty good at already. I do struggle with prioritising getting fresh air and exercise. So about a year ago, we got to we've got a dog called Gunter. And I have to say he has been marvellous for me because you know, he, he takes me out every day. We have a walk, we have some fresh air switch off from work and other kinds of things. He's really yes going to is my mental and physical health guru. Do you have any Guilty Pleasures? Um, well, so probably sitting on the sofa watching sitcoms with the kids that I have to admit, I don't feel terribly guilty about that. I just enjoy it.

LEIGH: And finally Cordelia which person or which experience is most shaped your view of living an ethical life?

FINE: I think probably like many people, it's really hard to point to one experience or or one particular person. I think I would say for me, I'd have to say it was it's been reading. So I've always, I've always been an avid reader from an early age, we went on family holidays, we sort of pack a swimsuit and a suitcase of books and we'd sort of sit around swapping books.

And you know, I've always loved reading. And I love that proverb that says that a book is like a garden carried in the pocket. So for me reading is, you know, it's that pleasurable place that you go to, but it's also, you know, it's an entry into the thoughts of feelings of other people of fictional characters of real characters, and it's an entry into new ideas and facts and perspectives and standpoints. You know, to me, just reading is I think, probably been something that has shaped me too. To a very significant degree.

LEIGH: Professor Cordelia fine. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom on the good life podcast today.

FINE: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

LEIGH: Thanks for listening to this week's episode of the good life, Andrew Leigh in conversation. If you enjoyed this discussion, I reckon you'll love past interviews with Libby Lyons, Kate McGregor, and Julia Gillard. We appreciate getting feedback, so please leave us a rating or a comment on Spotify or Apple podcasts. It really helps others find the show. Next week, we'll be back with another inspiring guest to discuss living a happier, healthier and more ethical life.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.