Interview with neuroscientist Cordelia Fine

Here at Let Toys Be Toys, we are huge fans of Cordelia Fine, Australian neuroscientist and author of the best-selling book “Delusions of Gender”. In her book she takes a critical look at the science behind the popular claims that boys and girls are “hard-wired” differently, and finds it severely lacking.

Cordelia_FineSo you can imagine how thrilled we were when Cordelia said that she was a supporter of our campaign and agreed to answer our questions (of which we had many!). No-one is better placed to talk about the harmful effects that the gender stereotypes perpetuated by the toy industry and the media have on children. 

Cordelia, thanks so much for joining us. We have some followers in Australia who say that the situation there is similar to the UK. When you walk into a toy shop in Australia what can you expect to see?

My casual observation is that many toy shops, especially within large retailers, have a ‘pink’ section, a ‘dark-tough’ section, and then more ‘neutral’ parts. And, as in the UK, there are ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ versions of just about anything you might want to buy for a child, from bikes to recorders. It’s worth pointing out too that people of course often shop for toys online, and some online business quite explicitly categorise their toys as being ‘for boys’ and ‘for girls’.

What do you think is the most harmful message that this type of segregation sends out to children?

When certain kinds of toys are marked quite clearly for one sex, it not only reinforces inaccurate stereotypes that only girls are nurturing, or that only boys are competitive or aggressive, but it also makes those toys less appealing to the children of the supposedly ‘wrong’ sex. Developmental psychologists have called it the ‘hot potato’ effect.

So gendered marketing hinders children from developing a whole range of skills and interests?

Gendered marketing contributes to a culture in which girls have less opportunity to benefit from the positive play activities and values facilitated by ‘boy toys’, (e.g., physicality, competition, construction) and boys have less opportunity to benefit from the positive play activities and values facilitated by ‘girl toys’ (e.g. fine motor skills, caring, co-operation). Emphasising gender has also been shown to reduce children’s interest in mixed-sex play.

I think we need to ask ourselves if this is what we want in the twenty-first century? Surely our goal as parents and as a society should be for our children to believe that what sex they are makes no difference to what they want to do, what they are interested in, or what they want to be. We should be equipping all children, regardless of their sex, to be caring, empathic, competent, ambitious and assertive. These goals are undermined by a childhood culture that relentlessly genders children’s toys.

Many of our followers have pointed out that it is only recently that toys have become so gendered. Why do you think that this regression has happened, especially whilst in the real world barriers of gender division are being broken down?

Some might say that it’s because gender divisions are being broken down in the real world, given that change to the status quo is always unsettling! I don’t have an answer to this question myself, and I’m sure it involves many interacting factors, but the contradiction between a twenty-first century societal belief that one’s biological sex shouldn’t constrain a child’s interests, hopes and aspirations, and the relentlessly gendered world of toys, is truly remarkable.

There’s been a lot of focus on the effect of these stereotypes on girls and their accessibility to STEM industries (quite rightly so). What do you think are the negative effects of gender stereotyping on boys?

It sometimes seems to me that the way we currently talk about boys and reading is how we talked about girls and maths twenty years ago – which obviously wasn’t very helpful. And one particular problem for boys is that it is much harder for them to ‘cross-down’ to ‘girl’ things then it is for girls to ‘cross-up’ to ‘boy’ things. (In fact, girls often love ‘boy’ toys, which has sometimes created problems for researchers who have assumed that they won’t.) So, when something – like reading or art or nurturing – becomes labelled as a ‘girl’ thing, sadly, it becomes stigmatised for boys.

A lightbulb moment for me in your book was learning about Stereotype threat. As a female in IT I suffer from this regularly! Do you have any advice on how to counter it?

There are now a handful of interesting studies suggesting that it’s the belief that sex differences in ability arise from ‘innate’ differences that give stereotypes their potency. The same differences presented as being due to socialisation factors don’t have the same effect. So, reading a book that counters those kinds of claims could help …

So, the science behind “innate” differences itself is effectively becoming part of the problem because it suggests a permanency and inability to change. Why do you think this idea has been so popular and why are people so ready to accept these stereotypes?

I’m sure there must be many factors at play here, but one important one may be that it makes explaining sex inequalities a whole lot more comfortable.

We are sometimes accused of being in denial for ignoring “innate psychological gender differences”. What would you say to this??

There has been a lot of criticism in the academic literature of the research supposedly showing evidence of ‘innate’ sex differences in psychological tendencies. Even setting that aside, I think it’s a misconception to think of hormonal contributions to behaviour as being somehow more ‘real’ or fundamental than social ones. Studies that manipulate the gender labelling of toys find clear effects on children’s preferences, and it has also been found that making gender psychologically salient increases in-group favouritism and out-group prejudice.

It’s also interesting to think about children’s toys in the context of relevant psychological traits. Nurturance is strongly associated with ‘girl toys’, and aggression and competitiveness with ‘boy toys’. Yet girl/boy differences in nurturant and aggressive behaviour are surprisingly small, with huge overlap, while sex differences in competitiveness aren’t consistently seen. In other words, the sharp gender segregation of toys simply doesn’t reflect the psychological similarities between girls and boys.

Have you ever been accused of being in the same state of denial?

delusions_of_gender_web_girlSometimes people assume that I came to this book with a ‘feminist agenda’ to deny scientific reality. Unfortunately, this well-known stereotype of the ideologically-driven feminist is both inaccurate and unproductive, as I pointed out in a guest blog for the Public Library of Science, Biology.

Delusions of Gender actually started out as a much simpler book pointing out that popular writers were misinterpreting, abusing and sometimes even fabricating neuroscientific results in the service of old-fashioned gender stereotypes. But when I looked to the science itself I gradually came to realise that confident claims about innate sex differences in abilities and interests were based on poor methodologies, spurious results and unsubstantiated assumptions. The book therefore ended up very differently – much more complex, but also interesting – to how I’d originally imagined.

Many parents try to raise their children in a “gender-neutral” fashion but report that the usual sex-typed toy preferences emerge anyway. How can we ever know if this is down to “innate” biological preferences or is caused by socialisation?

First of all, unless you have kept your children in a box, exposed them to no media, and had them cared for by a robot, I can guarantee that you have not raised your children in a ‘gender-neutral’ fashion!

Second, differences in interest in ‘boy toys’ versus ‘girl toys’ is actually extremely subtle in the earliest years. One recent study, for example, found that when offered a range of ‘boy toys’ and ‘girl toys’ in the lab, one-year-old boys and girls did indeed play in sex-stereotypical ways. But the differences were modest. The boys spent 46 percent of their total playing time with the ‘boy toys’, but 37 percent of their time with the ‘girl toys’. At this point, it is too early, scientifically, to chalk up these subtle differences to biological dispositions.

Why is that? Babies don’t know whether they are a boy or a girl.

What do we know about infants? We know that they prefer what is familiar – and we know that by the time they are one year old, boys and girls have had different exposures to colours and toys. We know that infants are very sensitive to caregivers’ responses, including nonverbal behaviour, and mixed messages. And what do we know about caregivers? We know from a vast body of data from social psychology, that all of us often behave in ways we do not intend, and of which we are unaware, when unconscious expectations and attitudes leak out in the way we respond to, and perceive, others. (And it’s worth pointing out that some parents see it as desirable to socialise children – who do, after all, have to live in a gendered society – into gender roles.)

Could subtle, inadvertent socialization effects explain some, or even all, of the modest sex differences in play preferences seen in infants? It’s plausible and we just don’t know.

So the differences at that point are small anyway. What about when they get older?

Once children reach the age of about two, and realize what side of the great gender divide they belong, all bets are off. Babies are born into a world in which sex is the most important and obvious social division, continually emphasized, and absolutely saturated with information about what goes with being male and what goes with being female. You can’t rear children in this kind of strongly gendered environment, yet expect them to ignore it, expect it to leave their behaviour and preferences untouched, once they know what side of the all-important gender divide they belong.

In your experience what can parents do to counterbalance the effect of gender stereotyping?

I think one of the great things about your campaign is that it is putting pressure and responsibility onto marketers and retailers. While of course parents can challenge stereotypes with their children and support counter-stereotypical play, they don’t have massive marketing budgets at their disposal to promote an egalitarian perspective of the world.

That’s so true – and thanks! Lastly,we’ve been called some crazy things by our opponents – my personal favourite is a “tree hugger”! What is the silliest insult that has been thrown your way as a result of your book?

One journalist described me as a ‘nurture-fascist’, wrongly assuming that I subscribe to a behaviourist or social determinist view of development. I don’t – my perspective is one in which the developmental path is constructed, step by step, out of the continuous and dynamic interaction between brain, genes and environment. Only my children are entitled to call me a ‘nurture-fascist’, and even then only when I’m trying to wipe a nose or make them eat their vegetables.

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us. What is your next project?

You’re very welcome! I’m currently working on a third book which I see as a kind of sequel to Delusions of Gender. I’m also working on various academic papers, including one that discusses ethical concerns with gendered toy marketing.

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