is a book by Angela Saini which certainly does not live down to its title. The sub-title is How Science Got Women Wrong….and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, and it’s an excellent, very accessible, account of the assumptions that lie behind much of the research on sex and gender differences.

I speak with zero scientific authority, but the book seems to me to represent a very well-balanced approach to a range of issues that are often highly tendentious: differential brain size, the biological base of cooperative work, and domination, amongst others.  Saini never shouts, she just covers the ground, making it clear how our understanding has developed and where there is still a high level of dubiety or contestation. It’s an exemplary    overview, which I found really helpful in nudging my own understanding along.  (Her name,incidentally is tucked away in the top left-hand corner of the cover in about 8-point type –  she may be personally very modest, but I felt that the publishers might have given her a slightly bigger credit.) 

Saini does a particularly good job in debunking the notion that brain size has anything to tell us about gendered human intelligence, once you discount for body size.  I found her remarks on plasticity particularly interesting.  For her purposes, she wants to emphasise how the plasticity of the human brain means that there is a constant interaction between the body and its environment:  obvious enough, maybe, but crucial when we are considering, for example, why women’s mathematical performance drops off in some societies (not not others).  For anyone such as myself who is engaged in adult learning, plasticity is central to our arguments for lifelong opportunity.

This links closely to another of Saini’s themes: ageing, and how our longer lives affect the gender debate.

A long post-menopausal life is so rare that as far as we know humans share it with only a few distant species, including killer whales, which stop reproducing in their thirties and forties but can survive into their nineties.

I can see an interesting discussion developing on the parallels between women and killer whales…Anyway, greater longevity, and specifically the extension of working lives, are a crucial dimension of the Paula discussion.  Now women have working lives of 50 years, and even if they follow a conventional path of taking time out to bring up children they will have 30-odd years of further work when they reenter the labour market.  So it makes even less sense to ignore the competences they have built up in the first part of their working lives.  (And their pensions reflect the penalties they are currently paying – more on this in a future blog when I draw on OECD’s recent treasure-trove publication on gender and equity.)

Saini has a chapter on choice – but it’s on choosing mates rather than occupations.  Choice has been quite on my mind since I gave seminars on the Paula Principle on two successive days last week, and on each occasion ran into some flack over PP factor 5 – positive choice.  One person argued strongly that I – or we – should talk only about constraints. I asked whether she wanted us to drop ‘choice’ from our vocabulary altogether, but she stuck to her position.  I need to be clearer, maybe, on the distinction between simplistic reliance on choice in a market context (e.g. choice of school as the supposed solution to education quality) and the kinds of personal choice which pervade our everyday lives and identities.  But it’s something I’d like to have had time to explore at greater length.  I’d love to know how Saini would explain the strong tendency of Scandinavian women to opt for traditional female sectors and occupations.

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