‘That’s exactly why calling out even seemingly minor points of sexism matters. It all adds up, and if no one sweats the small stuff, the big stuff will never change.’
As a father of two daughters – the eldest of whom has just started secondary school – I’ve been considering the question of gender increasingly deeply. It’s also central to my job as a teacher, watching teenagers grow and doing my best to be some kind of role model at a complex and often bewildering time in their lives. For all of them, I ask myself: what sort of world will they grow into, and what can I do to better prepare them for it? These are big questions, for which I don’t have – and for which there probably aren’t – any easy answers. But reading helps – hell, reading always helps – and in particular, challenging books like Cordelia Fine’s excellent and provocative Testosterone Rex, which I’ve been thinking about a lot since I read it over the summer. Not least because of the ways in which it has made me re-think many of my assumptions around gender, both inside and outside the classroom
Fine’s thesis is simple: to challenge the idea that men and women have fundamentally different brains and biologies. It’s a myth summarised in the all-pervasive and seemingly indestructible idea that boys will be boys. That’s just how men are – get over it. Yes, but are they? asks Fine. Which men are we actually talking about? And are these ideas always true?
As with all generalisations, when examined closely it begins to break down – and Fine is both methodical and ruthless in her dismantling of the idea that gender is fixed and immutable. Her tone throughout the book is engaging, and she’s not afraid to throw in examples from her own life where they help illuminate a wider point. I particularly enjoyed her dismantling of the idea that men are naturally more drawn to risk-taking behaviours – something often supported by the ‘testosterone rex’ of her title as just plain biological fact. As Fine rightly suggests, it depends what you mean by risk – and indeed, who is making it. Risk-taking behaviours amongst middle-class white men are not replicated in non-white male groups. If risk-taking were to include gambling with one’s personal financial future – rather than something more obviously adrenaline-driven – the issue suddenly becomes a lot less clear-cut.
Rather than biology, Fine suggests that gender differences are much more down to social factors. And after reading her book I’m much more inclined to agree with her. The pressure on boys and girls to conform to a certain gender stereotype is enormous, and something that I see happen at school on a daily basis. I do my best to try and rebalance the scales – Year 9 had much mirth when I proudly admitted to crying at the film Inside Out in a recent lesson – and books like Testosterone Rex make that process much easier. Which is surely no bad thing. As Fine says, if small changes can’t happen, what hope for anything more seismic?