this report by Helen Beebee and Jenny Saul is a must-read (I wrote about it here). They draw on the book Delusions of Gender: How our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, by Cordelia Fine - especially on the notion of stereotype threat discussed in chapter 4. I read it for that reason, and also because I'd just read Simon Baron-Cohen's book The Essential Difference. That book deserves a drubbing, and Fine delivers (though possibly she makes some mistakes--see Baron-Cohen's review of Fine here). She also does an excellent job of excoriating other gleeful "vive la difference" books like The Female Brain, by Louann Brizendine.
The critical parts of Delusions of Gender are valuable--and I do highly recommend the book--but I find myself unable to swallow the positive picture, which is conveyed by the subtitle: "how our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference." I started getting nervous as early as chapter 3, which begins, "Pick a gender difference, any difference. Now watch very closely as--poof!--it's gone." Throughout the book, there's a lot of "poof!" and much of it's convincing, but deep down I'm resistant to the message. I keep asking myself why, coming up with reasons, discarding them, and then coming up with more reasons.
Ultimately, I think I'm inclined to believe in some innate gender differences because I don't see how it could be otherwise, given evolution, and the basic facts about human reproduction. Imagine (per impossibile) that once upon the time there was no gender. There was just the all purpose Human, who reproduced by cloning. Maybe we started off on another planet, with very advanced technology. The Human arrives on earth, and miraculously becomes more human. Randomly, Humans are endowed with male and female reproductive systems, etc. etc. Mothers gestate babies for 9 months, then lactate, so children (born every immature) are especially dependent on their mothers. In the beginning, we are imagining, males and females are exactly the same apart from their reproductive systems, and then they're let loose in the world.
Question: will the reproductive differences trigger gradual change over time, so that male and female brains come to differ from each other? I would think that, given the different roles played in reproduction by males and females, the males would seek females with certain psychological traits, and the females would seek males with other traits. And so over time, due to sexual selection, there would be hidden brain differences to go along with the visible body differences.
Of course, this is just a ridiculous thought experiment, and male and female reproduction systems actually evolved alongside the brain. But maybe there's some value in thinking about what would inevitably ensue, if humans started off with genderless brains, and gendered bodies.
Of course, if we have gendered brains, it could still be that "minds, society, and neurosexism" play a big role in constructing gender differences. Fine is very convincing on a variety of ways in which this happens. The evolutionary story only conflicts with Fine's rejection of all innate differences-- "Pick a gender difference, any difference. Now watch very closely as--poof!--it's gone."
Furthermore, whatever distinguishes male and female brains could have no relevance to why there are more men in math, or engineering, or philosophy. It could be the explanation for only the most crude and obvious differences--why there are more men in the military, for example,
But the "poof!" approach seems out of the question. It fits in better with the antiquated view that the mind is a pristine soul, and totally protected (by our thick skulls?!) from the forces of sexual and natural selection. But then--I am no expert, so I say all of this with humility. Next on my reading list: maybe Matt Ridley, The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature. I want to know more about the evolutionary psychology of gender.