Gender Mosaic by Daphna Joel and Luba Vikhanski (Non-fiction)

This book was fantastic — one of the few I’ve read that managed to completely shift the way I thought about something because the clear evidence-based ideas made so much sense in an area that has been utterly confusing to me for a long time.

Beginning with scientific studies on the structure and function of brain components and their correlation with sex, the book proceeded to question our concepts of sex and gender and ended with a discussion of what the world would be like without gender at all. The main message: get rid of the gender binary — it’s artificial and not linked (on a group level) to anything biological. Or as the authors put it — “stop dividing people by their genitals.”

Quick definitions: sex is what you are born with: XX chromosomes (female), XY chromosomes (male), and less than 1% born intersex (a mix). Gender is a social construct — socially acceptable options used to be man and woman, but the latest number of options on Facebook is 58!

Some of the main points (each illustrated with anecdotes and substantiated with solid research findings):
• There is no such thing as a male brain or a female brain — each human brain is a unique mixture — or mosaic — of features traditionally thought of as “male” or “female.”
• While there are some structures and functions in the brain (and hormonal systems) that are on average different for males and females (for example, males on average are better at spatial rotation), individually people fall on a spectrum of values for that aspect of brain function. For example, many females will be better at spatial rotation than the average for a male and the overlap for potential spatial rotation capabilities between males and females may be quite large. Very few individuals have an “all male” or “all female” brain based on those averages.
• Brain systems are not static — many influences such as stress, competition, or even spending time with an infant can shift the level of hormones in the system — including the “big 3”: testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone.
• Bias — often unintentional — exists. Most people do not want to be biased, and when it is pointed out to them in a non-confrontational and private way, they may even take steps to correct it.

The text is calm, measured, based on copious (and referenced) research and not political (thank you!). The examples and results from various research projects are absolutely fascinating. It is just technical enough to be interesting and sensical, but not overburdened by technical jargon that can muddy the point. The authors present a balanced view, explaining how gender norms can be problematic for both males and females, and they address many common questions and concerns that have been brought up during lectures. I really appreciated the non-confrontational approach to explaining bias and privilege.

On a personal level, I would be so much happier to get rid of thinking about gender at all rather than take on the cognitive load of trying to remember exactly which category each individual person wants to be part of for that particular day and having to use all the correct pronouns, names, and other associated gender paraphernalia. Wouldn’t it be easier to treat each person as an individual, complete with his or her (or some new pronoun) own preferences, habits, and interests? I know I was born female and never thought twice about it, but I never felt I was a “typical” woman — I hate shopping, don’t wear makeup, always paid my own way, and worked very comfortably in a male dominated field (computer science). I’m lucky that societal pressures never had much of an effect on me, but obviously it could have been much harder.

I underlined just about everything in this book, but here are some good quotes that I think get to the heart of their messages:

“Sex does affect the brain, and there are average differences between females and males in many brain features. But because of the interactions between sex and so many other factors, the effects of sex — that is, of being female or male — mix up in a unique way in the brain of each individual.”

“Even when they don’t find themselves in a shipwreck, men often get a raw deal by virtue of belonging to the group empowered by the patriarchal order. It is mostly men who die in droves in wars, are injured in work-related accidents, and feel compelled to become providers, often at the expense of following their hearts to a career in the arts or other non-bread-winning fields.”

“I hope that in the not-too-distant future, this idea will be taken for granted; that gender studies will be a history course; and that when the topic of gender comes up, children will need to ask their parents (or grandparents) to explain why on earth someone had once thought people had to be grouped by their genitals.”

“On the other hand, many people are happy to discover their own and others’ implicit biases, especially if you point these out to them in private and in a nonjudgemental manner (nasty comments on their Facebook wall are less likely to be welcomed). And if in the course of these revelations you become aware of the power or privileges granted to you by the gender system, why not use this power and these privileges to try to eliminate this system from our lives?”

“One objection that’s been raised at a lecture of mine is that even without gender, women and men would still behave differently because they differ biologically. I see no problem with that. On the contrary, if we believe that biology would drive the behavior of females and males apart, there’s surely no reason to introduce all those gender conventions to achieve the same end.”

“Gender is one of the prisons within which we live. It divides the world into things for males and things for females. And if we want things that are not on “our” side, we are punished by society.”

Thank you to Little, Brown and Company and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 17th, 2019.

3 thoughts on “Gender Mosaic by Daphna Joel and Luba Vikhanski (Non-fiction)”

  1. Very interesting review. I want to read the book! I’m curious though – does this book define a “typical” women as loving shopping, wearing makeup, not paying their own way, and not being comfortable in male dominated fields? Perhaps a 1950’s definition of typical?

    1. Ha! No — she was very careful not to define people of either sex in those kinds of specific terms. Those were my personal observations of most women and how I was not the same. Still the same from my perspective 🙂

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