Biological Determinism = Sexism? Dispelling some common myths…

Hey everyone!

First of all, I am aware this is not a gender studies class. Still, we are going to be examining biological determinism in class next Friday, and no sociological area has been more ‘maligned’ by biological determinism than gender. We have heard statements like these on countless occasions: ‘I’m a girl…that probably explains why I’m bad at maths’ or ‘My son is obsessed with toy cars, he’s such a boy!’ We do not think twice about these statements – they are embedded in our everyday communication with each other. Yet, what we are perpetuating is a simple form of biological determinism. We are like this because of our genetic makeup and more importantly, that one X or Y chromosome that determines whether we like pink or blue (See what I did there? I fell into the ‘evil’ trap of biological determinism myself!) . So while we may be sociologists-in-training who are aware of the equal significance of biology and culture, we all are susceptible to engaging in biological determinism or reductionist thinking.

The question to ask then is this: Is biological determinism necessarily sexist? We are quick to say it is, and this blog post I found encapsulates that feeling perfectly: http://unsolicitedopinion.wordpress.com/tag/biological-determinism/ 

The author claims to hate ‘gender-based truisms’ and I agree – which girl wants to have her genuine anger at a situation or a person be dismissed as ‘that time of the month’? She believes that biological determinism is basically thinking in stereotypes, and stereotypes often lead to discrimination. One’s sex should not unlock a barrage of assumptions about one’s personality, interests or behavior. In short, gender should not be used as a short-cut.

Still, we continue to employ this very short-cut. We live in a world with tons of information to sift through, and sometimes assumptions form an easy starting-point to this intimidating process. Yes, biological determinism should not be used as a launching pad for discrimination against women, but is biological determinism the main culprit of gender discrimination? Simon Baron-Cohen of the Guardian UK does not seem to think so –   http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/may/03/biology-sexist-gender-stereotypes

Women and men are biologically different – this fact is undeniable even if we subscribe to the viewpoint that society is a system of individuals who are unique because of their beliefs and not their biological make-up. Baron-Cohen talks about ground-breaking scientific research that links a woman’s greater propensity to feel empathy with her genes. Besides, he argues, biological differences are not necessarily equivalent to sex differences – it is your brain type, not your sex that determines your behaviour, and some brain types are simply more common in one sex than the other. And there are undoubtedly many outliers – you can be a male with a ‘female’ brain!

Thus, the acceptance of biological differences does not have to indicate biological determinism, and biological determinism does not have to imply sexism. So if women are not given opportunities in the workplace, structural shortcomings of the system have a role to play, as does the male-dominated culture of the workplace. (Of course, this is not to say that I am now endorsing a completely culturally deterministic perspective!) I am simply suggesting that in being quick to blame gender discrimination and sexism on biological determinism, are we not being rather deterministic ourselves?

Looking forward to your comments,

Anupama

One thought on “Biological Determinism = Sexism? Dispelling some common myths…

  1. Yep, a very good example of the “loose coupling” between levels. There are important biological , psychological , and, of course, social aspects of the male/female (and everything in between) differences. None of them determines the other level/realm, or represents the fundamental reality. They influence each other, disturb and irritate each other, but each proceeds on its own. 🙂

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