Review: Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine

Book cover of Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine

I know, I know – it’s a creepy ass cover. I’m pretty sure they couldn’t have found grosser toy to put on the front of this book if they tried. Anyway, Delusions of Gender looks like one of those popular science book that simplifies complicated theories for the common reader i.e. us. Unfortunately it actually comes across as a repetitive, stodgy and frankly boring scientific analysis of gender differences.

Summary – Drawing on the latest research in neuroscience and psychology, Cordelia Fine debunks the myth of hardwired differences between men’s and women’s brains, unraveling the evidence behind such claims as men’s brains aren’t wired for empathy and women’s brains aren’t made to fix cars. She then goes one step further, offering a very different explanation of the dissimilarities between men’s and women’s behavior. Instead of a “male brain” and a “female brain,” Fine gives us a glimpse of plastic, mutable minds that are continuously influenced by cultural assumptions about gender.

So I like gender books. I loved Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Female Chauvinist Pigs and a few other. However, I’d never picked up one that looked at the scientific differences between male/female brains, and that’s where Delusions of Gender comes in. Cordelia Fine’s book claims to examine the scientific reasons for sex differences to discover whether neuroscience or society is responsible for our different behaviours. Kind of a nurture v nature type thing.

The basic point of this one is that both women’s brains and men’s are exactly the same, but society’s expectations forces them into a playing particular role subconsciously. For example, men are said to outperform women in mathematics, but when tested for this study both genders did approximately as well. However, when instructed to tick a box at the start of the test to note their gender, women suddenly started doing less well. So the general idea is that women subconsciously think they should do less well,  and so they do. Trust me you can’t miss the message – if Cordelia Fine appeared on my doorstep with a sledgehammer, it wouldn’t surprise me

A lot of the reviews on Amazon claim the science is incorrect and wishy-washy, but I wouldn’t know about that – my degree really doesn’t help with this kind of thing. I think it says a lot about Delusions of Gender that the people who read it are the people who already know the science behind it, if that makes any sense.

It’s much, much more formal than I expected – Cordelia Fine herself has a phD in Psychology and it shows. Unfortunately she tends to assume that everybody else in the world does too. It’s pretty much just list after list of different studies and their results, without much attempt at her own opinion or analysis. It’s so very repetitive – she lectures about Math test results a lot, and cites four different (identical) studies when just one would do.  Yes, the bibliography and notes sections are huge, but that’s because she seems to have just regurgitated all of those other books.

So yes, I hate to admit it, but it did occasionally go over my head. It’s a simple concept really – men and women are only different because of society’s expectations – but it’s explained in a way that only confuses the layperson. Or this layperson, at any rate. It’s just not what I expected and I don’t really agree with the hypothesis. For me, it’s an unavoidable truth that men and women think differently and Cordelia Fine doesn’t really say much to change my mind.

Read my review of Cinderella Ate My Daughter!


  1. Books about gender constructs are interesting and the premise sounds great. But honestly, the whole PHD speak would not be my cup of tea.

    1. Hanna says:

      Yeah, that's exactly how I feel. I mean, I don't think I'm particularly stupid reader, but at the same time I did occasionally struggle to understand this.

  2. I own this and am looking forward to reading it. I studied neuropsychology for my degree so I don't mind if it's a bit formal. But if that's the case, it shouldn't be marketed as popular science.

    1. Hanna says:

      Oh that's great! I'd love to hear what you think of it, from an educated point of view.


    Ahh nature vs nurture.. As an ex-sociology student I love these debates. I'm totally on the side of nurture for this kind of thing.. in fact, somewhere on my blog is an oold post with my thoughts on this very subject.
    "the general idea is that women subconsciously think they should do less well" this argument annoys me though. That's not the case in the slightest, women just aim where they're happy to and if they don't get as far as they'd like, it's either because they aren't personally that good, or because they're pushed down (glass ceiling etc.). Just my two cents. Grr.

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