Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Go away, I'm busy

I've just been listening to an interesting talk by Cordelia Fine (YouTube vid below the fold). It's over an hour long, but the takeout is quite straightforward - the evidence base for the whole Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, Why Men Don't Listen and Women Can't Read Maps gendered brain meme is flimsy to non-existent.

Although I'd always assumed that the Mars/Venus thing was a mountain of ridiculous headline-grabbing pop psychology based on a molehill of hard evidence, personal experience and anecdote did make me think that there really was a kernel of truth under the hype of the gendered brain hypothesis. If, as Fine says, scientists aren't finding convincing evidence to support hypotheses like inherent gender differences in brains being caused by foetal testosterone levels and so on, how come the gendered thinking styles meme seems to match a lot of peoples' experience?

This is where it gets quite interesting. People are suggestible and Fine cites experimental evidence that people are more prone to conform to stereotypical gendered thinking styles in tests when they are prompted or primed to view a particular gendered thinking style as the expected or 'normal' result (see also groupthink, conformity bias, confirmation bias, social desirability bias and the experience of pollsters trying to frame unbiased questions).

If the case for instrinsically gendered brains is weak and the evidence that people routinely conform to social expectations is strong, who benefits from 'gendered brain' meme? Maybe it's all about power.

Take multitasking. The stereotype is that women can multitask, but men concentrate a laser-like focus on a single task. There's some evidence that the cognitive load imposed by multitasking will make anyone - male or female - less efficient and that most of us would benefit from just being allowed to get on with stuff without too many interruptions or distractions. Perhaps the difference between men and women in this respect isn't down to native ability, but status. If you're a high-status individual, your time is seen as important and social convention dictates that you shouldn't be interrupted because whatever you are doing is, by definition, important. If you're a low-status individual, you're assumed to be available to perform tasks assigned by higher-status people and refusing to take on another task on the grounds that you're already too busy is seen as an unacceptable display of insubordination, or proof of idleness.

Given that gender discrimination exists and women often end up in lower-status occupations than their male peers (including unpaid occupations like childcare), the stereotype of the focused, analytical male brain, versus the multitasking female brain may be more sociological effect than inherent cause - high-status males have the power and autonomy to say 'go away, I'm busy' if interrupted, but lower status females are assumed to be doing less important stuff, are assumed to be interruptable and are expected to juggle conflicting requests, rather than having the autonomy to prioritise one thing. We might all be equally bad at multitasking, but women might have to do more of it (and perhaps get better at it) because that's what the social hierarchy demands.

There may also be an emergent element of self-fulfilment coming from the expectation that women are particularly well suited to low-status occupations involving lots of multi-tasking. If the cognitive load caused by multitasking will inevitably impair the performance of anyone (male or female), then you'd expect to see people who are expected to engage in a disproportionate amount of multitasking performing below their full potential. Pile enough conflicting demands on someody and you can use any inefficiencies resulting from lack of autonomy and overload as evidence that they are, regrettably, only suited for a low-status occupations without any autonomy...