It looks like identity politics is not going away

In The independent today, the Tories are using a consultancy called Pretty Little Head to help them attract more female voters. Well, it’s pretty brave for a start to actually build in irony to your own company name!! Although I’m pretty sure that many won’t get it!

But at least the Tories are trying something slightly less offensive to women than the Republicans – who thought that by just putting up a woman, any woman, even Sarah Palin, the 17 million women who voted for Hillary Clinton in the democratic primaries would switch their vote just like that.

No, gaining the female vote, if there is such a thing, is not just a matter of putting up female candidates. As I’ve mentioned before, being female is never just enough to get my vote, you have to do things that will benefit women as well.

So, back to the Pretty Little Head: well, having a quick look at their website, I’m not too offended. As a passionate sceptic of the concept of biological determinism and a strong believer in the power of nurture or socialisation (as it was called over 20 years ago when I took my ‘O’ level in sociology) I absolutely do not agree with their assertion that some of the differences between men and women are inherent gender (sic) differences. In fact, I am slightly worried that they don’t actually understand that gender, the social construct described by masculinity or femininity and sex, which is of course male or female, are different things.

I believe that the two socially constructed genders are different and that we are all socialised to a greater or lesser extent to conform to those genders. I think for some people it is easier than others. Those women of us who possess very strong, traditionally masculine behavioural traits (like logic, assertiveness, confidence) can find it very frustrating to have people make the assumption that they are not there just because we happen to have certain physical characteristics. Where as some men, who wouldn’t be able to recognise a logical argument if it came up and bashed them on the nose, only have to put on a suit to persuade people that there are in fact a very smart, stable and logical ‘businessman’.

Still although we all have masculine and feminine traits and very few of us manage to completely buck all our socialisation we get from our parents, our schools, our workplace, the telly etc, etc. Hence you get research like this that shows women know that society doesn’t like them asking for more and so they tend not to. And hence I’m still wearing impossibly high heels to work every day.

In addition, even if a majority of us do not naturally conform to these gender stereotypes, we are treated as if we do. We are stereotyped: blonde hair, must be ditzy: soft voice, must be meek; confident woman, must be a bitch. And because we are after all human beings the way we are treated impacts on the way we behave.

All of which means, that although I don’t agree with these two women that differences between men and women are rooted in biology, I do believe that men and women often respond to different things on the basis of how successful societal norms have been in determining acceptable behaviour. I think that because masculinity says the zero sum game is good and most politicians are men who have been socialised to think that masculinity is good, then we have an assumption that the zero sum game is the best; when instead, if we were to take a more feminine approach, perhaps we would not think that. And perhaps the world would be a better place for us all and not just those with established power and money.

Hence I think that any political party is well advised to look at how they can appeal to those with a more ‘feminine’ outlook and approach to life whether or not they happen to be male or female. Not just because it will probably attract new voters but because it will make the world a better place: for men as well as for women.

So, my guess is that identity politics is here to stay and we in the Lib Dems should ignore it at our peril. The fact that the Tories are looking at it already doesn’t automatically mean it’s a shallow idea.


Andrew said...
20 Oct 2008, 14:58:00

Hi Jo,

I am not sure if I have just misread you or not, but are you saying that differences between male and female are not down, at least in part, to biology?

Jo Christie-Smith said...
20 Oct 2008, 15:56:00

What I am saying physical differences do not relate to bahavioural differences.

So, the fact that I am able to give birth does not mean that I should wear high heels into work - socialisation and societal norms (esoeciallyin the City where I tend to work) says that a woman wearing a suit into the office should probably be wearing high heels.

The fact that I can give birth is neither here nor there when looking at whether I am comfortable with using logic versus. Intuiition to make decisions or come up with opinions.

Thee are apart from reproduction and phsical characteristics that go with that then I believe most of the differences between men and women are socially constructed. However, I think done of those social constructs are very, very strong.

Does that help? Sorryvif I didn't make myself clear before.


thomas said...
20 Oct 2008, 17:41:00

Um, so why do all us men sit spread-legged on the trains?

Andrew said...
20 Oct 2008, 18:00:00

So I kind of half agree with you and half not.

Certainly what you wear to the office everyday is defined by society. I don't wear high heels to my office everyday because people would think I was odd. Not that I particularly want to you understand :-) High heels are entirely impractical and there is no need to wear them whoever you are. Interestingly (a bit), I remember a woman at me previous job who wore high heels to the lab and everyone thought that was a bit weird so I guess that shows it is really down to the culture you work in: city job - high heels good, science job - high heels bad.

But the physical differences between males and females definitely do lead to behavioural differences. It is not that having a womb means that you have better emotional memory or verbal ability or use different strategies to solve complex problems, but the two may have a common underlying cause. There are marked differences in the size of hippocampus and amygdala (used for memory and emotional processing) between males and females and differences in activation of areas and differences in the expression of a whole range of neurotransmitters and all these things lead to certain behavioural traits.

Now, it could be argued that these differences are reinforced during development by environmental factors and no doubt to a certain extent they are, but there is also an underlying genetic determinant to 'female' or 'male' traits. It could be a 'male' has 'female' traits and vice versa, but it seems to be a differential genetic expression that determines this at the base level, spurred on by X and Y chromosomes. Environment can come in to tinker throughout development and later life but I would say there has to be a basis there to start with. I just don't agree with tabula rasa.

Also from a quick read of the literature this morning (this isn't my field but have found a couple of good reviews on the subject which I would be happy to pass along if you want to read) it seems that the prevailing view so far that there are no physical differences between the brains of males and females may well have had serious repercussions for neuroscience and related fields - researchers have used only one sex in their studies thinking that the results would be the same, only to find now that this might not be strictly true.

So I agree that determining who is a man or a woman behavioural just through their external physical characteristics is fraught with error, better just different shades of colour from pink to blue, but I don't agree that the behavioural differences between males and females are entirely, or even mostly, to do with society, rather that although they can be independent of external physical differences, the underlying cause of both could well be the same.

Laban said...
20 Oct 2008, 21:41:00

"a passionate sceptic of the concept of biological determinism and a strong believer in the power of nurture or socialisation"

I'm just getting round to reading Steven Pinker's "The Blank Slate". You should give it a whirl.

Random said...
20 Oct 2008, 22:05:00

So what evidence do you have that gender differences are entirely socially constructed?

There are many reasons to believe that is not true, yet you effectively dismiss any idea that you might be wrong about the subject of immense discussion through many years by people far more knowledgeable than you are. Remarkably few of them would agree with your extreme assumption.

Jo Christie-Smith said...
20 Oct 2008, 23:00:00

Hi Andrew,

You say:

"but it seems to be a differential genetic expression that determines this at the base level, spurred on by X and Y chromosomes. Environment can come in to tinker throughout development and later life but I would say there has to be a basis there to start with"

but can you really link those chromosome differences to behavioural differences.

Or might not the physiological differences in men's and women's brains be as a result of exercise.

I know that it is nothing like the level of you research (so I am not trying to compare, just explain myself better) but I saw a very interesting programme a couple of months ago about Vanessa Mae. A child prodigy violinist, she was looking to see if she was an innately talented musician and they did a lot of investigation around whether the way her brain was built was different or she just did a lot of practice. Using various experiments they came to the conclusion that she was born no more a musical genius than the next person, but it was practice that made a difference. Her musical genius was in fact a social construct.

She had created very efficient pathways for the messages in her brain to work their way around.

Could it not be that females from the moment they are born get more practice at certain pathways and male's more practice at different pathways?

(Apologies for lack of technical language)

And moving into the slightly less nuanced world of gendered behaviour - I'm not sure masculine and feminine traits are as subtle as the way neurotransmitters work in male and female brains. So, perhaps what I am saying is that I do not believe that stereotypical gendered behaviour is biologically determined.

Plus in terms of the way neural transmitters and emotional responses work, aren't we talking about a range here, rather than a binary difference?


Thanks for the suggestion...when I have polished off the rest of the Booker short list, the the long list and then a half read biography of Asquith...I will!!


Why don't you engage in the substantive points of the discussion rather than just having a go at me for daring to hold a strong opinion?

Jo Christie-Smith said...
21 Oct 2008, 10:22:00

Sorry Thomas - I forgot to reply.

why do men sit spread legged..because they've been taught that yu can be selfish and still live in a world that is geared up to ensure they, as men, succeed!

thomas said...
21 Oct 2008, 14:23:00

No worries, but is it nothing to do with the fact it's more comfortable physiologically? Or is that just me?

Jo Christie-Smith said...
21 Oct 2008, 15:18:00

Thomas - more comfortable for whom?

Thank you for illustrating my point so well!

Andrew said...
21 Oct 2008, 20:52:00

Hi Jo,

I haven't seen that series, I'll try and find a copy of it on the web and have a look. The immediate thing I would say is that although I could quite believe she was not born a musical prodigy and would be surprised in there was not some subtle difference in her that helped her along the way, for instance she describes herself as competitive, wanting to do better - now is that due to her strange childhood or was it already an innate characteristic, and her musical abilities are due to a unique confluence of genetics, environment and practice?

"can you really link those chromosome differences to behavioural differences."

Well, I would say yes. In fact you can link genetic differences, particularly in response to the different effects of the X and Y chromosomes, to behavioural changes.

Rett's syndrome results from a single mistake on the X chromosome but due to it girls may experience seizures, fits and motor problems, as well as more subtle symptoms such as avoidance of eye contact and lack of empathy and social ability. I say girls suffer from these symptoms because boys rarely survive to birth.

Fragile X syndrome results from a repetition in a gene sequence on the X chromosome. This leads to strange behavioural complexes such as hand-waving and again social problems. In this disease males are generally affected because females have another X chromosome to take the sequence from.

On a more general level it is really easy to find behavioural differences caused by genetic differences: Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, Schizophrenia, Depression, Autism - all either definitely do have an underlying genetic aetiology or the individuals genetics allow a greater susceptibility to the disease. It is also easy to find differences between men and women in these diseases. In Alzheimer's disease, a single gene increases the degeneration of the hippocampus in females and thus inhibits memory formation, but the same isn't true in males. In addiction, women are more sensitive to the reinforcing effects of drugs such as cocaine. In female addicts, when you show them images containing drug use, you see a decrease in activity in the left amygdala, yet the same images shown to men show an increase in activity in the right amygdala.

Can you link normal female or normal male behaviours to genetics?

Probably the best evidence of a link from genetics to behaviour that has been presented recently is the work originally done on one of the few monogamous species: voles. Male voles were found to have a specific gene that coded a neurotransmitter receptor that increased pair-bonding behaviour and social interaction. When scientists scaled this up to humans they found a similar circumstance - variations in the gene encoding this receptor in men were linked to how well the men 'bonded' in life i.e. where they likely to be married, or experience marital problems. Interestingly, in female voles this gene and neurotransmitter had nothing to do with pair-bonding.

"I'm not sure masculine and feminine traits are as subtle as the way neurotransmitters work in male and female brains."

Neurotransmitters are anything but subtle - try taking some cocaine tonight to find out! All cocaine does is stop you recycling your dopamine so that it stays around constantly exciting your brain cells. Ecstasy increases the amount of serotonin in your brain and the effects of that drug (decreased hostility, increased social ability) could be seen as 'female' traits.

"Plus in terms of the way neural transmitters and emotional responses work, aren't we talking about a range here, rather than a binary difference?"

True, due to the uniqueness of each individual brain, then all these processes work together to produce the whole, but quite often that whole will be remarkably similar between individuals. The bit of your brain that moves your arm is in the same place as the bit of my arm that moves my brain. The underlying millions of brain cells that move your arm may well be wired differently but the outcome will be the same. That is why I made the somewhat trite remark about 'shades from pink to blue' - everyone is completely unique through a mixtures of genetics and experiences

Research concerning human development is some of the hardest to do. You can't just take a male child and birth and raise them female - it would be supremely unethical so we will always have a hard time deciding, in humans at least, what is nature and what is nurture, but saying it is either...or... is simplistic from either side. Learning has a gigantic effect on the human brain and I perfectly believe that you can learn to be a certain way but the basic brain structure will already be there before birth and whether this will ever by entirely 'natural' I am not so sure.

The way I look at it is this: Your genes made your outward physical appearance female and my genes made my physical appearance male. If genes can have that vast an effect on whether we have mammary glands, ovaries and womb or testis, body and facial hair, long or short limbs, a wide or narrow pelvis, a fused coccyx or a movable one, why wouldn't you expect the same genes to be having an effect on the brain? All those characteristics have evolved over time due to evolutionary pressures and the same is perfectly true of brain function.

In relation to why men spread there legs, one of your pet peeves, again there are physical differences - the size and shape of the pelvis and how this relates to the angle of the hip joint being the main one so it can be uncomfortable for men to keep there legs together. Should they splay out like the are at home on the sofa? No. It is just a matter of common decency. But then, there are plenty of 'female' traits that I find annoying in public, so I guess you just have to live and let live.

butterflywings said...
21 Oct 2008, 21:54:00

As someone who has studied psychology and neuroscience...I think Jo is right.
There is no such thing as hardwiring.
No I don't believe in 'tabula rasa' but I do believe that a. differences between *individual men and individual women* are far greater than those between the sexes and b. nature and nurture interact with each other; you can't separate 'genetics' with the environment a person grows up in.

And I'm also with you on the men sitting with legs spread thing on public transport. Men are socialised to think they own public space and women don't. It's nothing to do with being uncomfortable ffs, surely women have wider hips *compared to the rest of the torso* than men so it should be the other way round, and no your private bits don't need *that* much room! It is just thoughtlessness and selfishness. The number of times I've been sitting in utter discomfort because some di*ckhead can't keep to his seat but takes up half of mine too....grrrrr.

Falco said...
21 Oct 2008, 22:42:00

As to the nature / nurture debate, it certainly seems that the sexes show a range of tendencies in different proportions. It is not that most behaviours are exclusively male or female but that one sex is far more likely to display them. Society does tend to reinforce such behaviours, polarising them as either male or female but it does not create them.

One example is extreme sports, men are overwhelmingly more likely to enjoy doing them because they have a greater tendency to enjoy risk taking. Some women also enjoy this but far fewer of them do and so this is marked out as a more male area of activity.
Other behaviours are even easier to measure, pupil dilation when seeing a naked baby, (maximum dilation for the vast majority of women), or naked woman, (ditto for men).

I think the important thing is to recognise that not all people will fall into the classic male / female roles and to let them be free to behave as they wish. This does not however, mean that sex differences are a purely social construct; on average the differences are entirely real and hardwired.

Andrew said...
21 Oct 2008, 23:06:00


If you are still in the field and able to get a copy you might like to read this review of the subject from Nature Reviews Neuroscience a couple of years ago essentially looking prevailing views such as whether within group differences are larger than between group differences. It seems, along with other ideas, people have always believed this without any real evidence (and the people include the scientists).

re the leg thing, exactly, women do have larger pelvises, it is the narrow-pelvis+thick-femur/thigh muscle which helps to push male legs apart.

Not that I am condoning it of course :-)

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