Excerpt: Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine

delusions of gender

Chapter 17, pages 190-196: regarding the fallacy of gender-neutral parenting.


It’s made me think a lot more about genetic influence, she’s got two X chromosomes, and that somehow, I don’t know, because we don’t push the Barbie stuff at all, in fact I would prefer her not to have it… so I’m kind of intrigued at how even though I am sort of doing the middle of the road, that she is nonetheless veering over toward being more feminine, and I think it’s genetic.” (White, upper-middle class, lesbian mother, describing her three-year-old daughter).

—Comment from Emily Kane’s interview study (2006)

When I tell parents that I’m writing a book about gender, the most common response I get is an anecdote about how they tried gender-neutral parenting, and it simply didn’t work. (The next most frequent reaction is a polite edging away.) This is a common experience, found sociologist Emily Kane. She interviewed forty-two parents of preschoolers, from a wide range of backgrounds, and asked them why they thought that their sons or daughters sometimes behaved in sex-typed ways. Many parents called on evolutionary or divine reasons to explain why there should be innate biological differences between girls and boys (although most also mentioned social factors). But over a third of the interviewed parents—mostly white and middle or upper middle lass—expressed the “biology as fallback” position as Kane called it. Only by process of elimination did they come to the conclusion that differences between boys and girls were biological. Believing that they practiced gender-neutral parenting, biology was the only remaining explanation:

It’s not as if (my sons) haven’t been exposed to all that princess stuff… they’re around it, but they show no interest, they haven’t been clamoring for any special princess toys or Ken and Barbie stuff… I think that’s the hard-wired stuff, to even see it and for it to be prevalent, and to not be interested in it.” (White, uppermiddle class, heterosexual father, describing his three and four year old sons’ lack of interest in their six-year-old sister’s toys).

Parents see their young children behaving in stereotypically boyish or girlish ways and, as Kane puts it, “assume that only something immutable could intervene between their gender-neutral efforts and the gendered outcomes they witness.”1

They are in distinguished company. As part of his suggestions regarding women’s possible intrinsically inferior aptitude for and interest in, high-level science careers, Lawrence Summers offered an opinion on the essential differences between the sexes, gleaned from the nursery hearth:

So, I think, while I would prefer to believe otherwise, I guess my experience with my two and a half year old twin daughters who were not given dolls and who were given trucks, and found themselves saying to each other, look, daddy truck is carrying the baby truck, tells me something. And I think it’s just something that you probably have to recognize.2

Likewise, in a scientific debate about the reasons behind the gender gap in science, Steven Pinker joked: “It is said that there is a technical term for people who believe that little boys and little girls ire born indistinguishable and are molded into their natures by parental socialization. The term is ‘childless.’”3

The frustration or the naively nonsexist parent has become a staple joke. An all but obligatory paragraph in contemporary books and articles about hardwired gender differences gleefully describes a parent’s valiant, but always comically hopeless, attempts at gender-neutral parenting:

One of my [Louann Brizendine’s] patients gave her three-and-half-year-old daughter many unisex toys, including a bright red fire truck instead of a doll. She walked into her daughter’s room one afternoon to find her cuddling the truck in a baby blanket, rocking it back and forth saying, “Don’t worry, little truckie, everything will be all right.”4

As it happens, I can match anecdote with counter anecdote. Both of my sons, as toddlers, behaved in much the same way as Lawrence Summers’s and Brizendine’s patient’s young daughters. They too, despite being male, tucked trucks into pretend beds and, yes, called them Daddy, Mommy, and Baby.

Yet parents are right when they say that young boys and girls play differently, even if the contrast isn’t nearly as black-and-white as it’s often portrayed. As the quotations with which this chapter began suggest, the received popular wisdom is that this happens despite the nonsexist, gender-neutral environment in which children are now raised: “Today we know that the truth is . . . [that] parents raise girls and boys differently because girls and boys are so different from birth. Girls and boys behave differently because their brains are wired differently,” says Leonard Sax.5

Well, as we now know, there’s more than one loophole in the “wiring” argument. And as we’ll see in this part of the book, there are many reasons, ranging from subtle to blatant, why a gender-neutral environment is not something that any parent does, could, or perhaps even wants to provide.

The obstacles to gender-neutral parenting begin well before a baby born. When Emily Kane asked her sample of parents about their preferences for sons or daughters before they even became parents, the themes of their responses showed that they had gendered expectations or even hypothetical children. The men tended to want a son, a common reason being that they liked the idea of teaching him to play sports. “I always wanted a son … I think that’s just a normal thing for a guy to want. I wanted to teach my son to play basketball, I wanted to teach my son to play baseball, and so forth. Just thinking of all the things you could do with your son” was how one father put it. (An alien researcher from outer space, reading Kane’s transcripts, might be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that human females are born without arms and legs.) Mothers in the study, too, seemed to fall in with the assumption that boys and girls are good for different things. Kane found that if mothers wanted a son, it was to provide their husbands with a companion with whom to do things, like sports, that apparently couldn’t be done with girls. Daughters, by contrast, were expected to offer very different kinds of parental experiences: “A girl, I wanted that more … to dress her up and to buy the dolls and you know, the dance classes … A girl was someone that you could do all the things that you like to do with more than you could a boy.” More often, though, girls were wanted because of the emotional connection they would provide. Only a daughter would be naturally inclined to emotional intimacy and the remembering if birthdays, was the unspoken assumption. Not yet conceived, and already the sons were off the hook for remembering to call or send birthday flowers.6

Postconception, the gendered expectations continue. Sociologist Barbara Rothman asked a group of mothers to describe the movements of their fetuses in the last three months of pregnancy. Among the women who didn’t know the sex of their baby while hey were pregnant, there was no particular pattern to the way that (what turned out to be) male and female babies were described. But women who knew the sex of their unborn baby described the movements of sons and daughters differently. All were “active,” but male activity was more likely to be described as “vigorous” and “strong,” including what Rothman teasingly describes as “the ‘John Wayne fetus’—’calm but strong.’” Female activity, by contrast, was described in gentler terms: ”Not violent, not excessively energetic, not terribly active were used for females.”7

Then, there are the intriguing experiences of Kara Smith, an educational researcher with a background in women’s studies, who kept pregnancy field notes. Throughout the entire nine months of the pregnancy, Smith noted all the words and feelings expressed to the unborn baby. And, in the sixth month of the pregnancy, an ultrasound revealed his sex:

He was a boy. He was “stronger” now than the child I had known only one minute before. He did not need to be addressed with such light and fluffy language, such as “little one.” Thus, I lowered my voice to a deeper octave. It lost its tenderness. The tone in my voice was more articulate and short, whereas, before, the pitch in my voice was high and feminine. Wanted him to be “strong” and “athletic,” therefore, I had to speak to him with a stereotypical “strong,” “masculine” voice to encourage this “innate strength.”

What startled Smith most about this exercise was that someone like herself, well-versed in the negative consequences of gender socialization, was inadvertently drawing on stereotypes in the way she responded to the baby. “I was, quite honestly, shocked by the findings,” she writes. Here was a mother—and, let’s not forget, not just any old mother, but the sort feminist mother so beloved of unisex-parenting-gone-wrong stories—finding herself socializing her child into gender roles before he was even born.8

This is just one person’s experience. But Smith’s observation– that her behavior was undermining her values—is backed by a large body of research. If all of our actions and judgments stemmed om reflected, consciously endorsed beliefs and values then not only would the world be a better place, but this book would be several pages shorter. Social psychologists, who have been unraveling how implicit and explicit processes interact to make up our perceptions, feelings, and behavior, stress the importance of understanding “what happens in minds without explicit permission.”9And this is particularly important when implicit associations don’t match the more-modern beliefs of the conscious mind. Implicit attitudes play an important part in our psychology. They distort social perception, they leak out into our behavior, they influence our decisions—and all without us realizing.10

Parents’ gender associations are firmly in place well before a child is even a twinkle in daddy’s eye. 1 he scant but suggestive data of this chapter hint that beliefs about gender—either consciously or unconsciously held—are already shaping expectations about a future child’s interests and values, already biasing the mother’s perception of the little kicking baby inside her, and are already molding a mother’s communication with her unborn child,

And then, the baby is born.

It’s a Boy! “Rob and Kris are thrilled to announce the safe arrival of Jack Morgan Tinker. Proud grandparents are Hollis and Marilyn Clifton of Ottawa and Larry and Rosemary Tinker of Montreal. Welcome little one!” It’s a Girl! “Barbara Lofton and Scott Hasler are delighted to announce the birth of their lovely daughter, Madison Evelyn Hasler. Grandparents are both joyful and overwhelmed.”

You can learn a lot from birth announcements. In 2004, McGill University researchers analyzed nearly 400 birth announcements placed by parents in two Canadian newspapers, and examined them for expressions of happiness and pride. Parents of boys, they found, expressed more pride in the news, while parents of girls expressed greater happiness. Why would parents officially report different emotional reactions to the birth of a boy versus a girl? The authors suggest that the birth of a girl more powerfully triggers the warm, fuzzy feelings relating to attachment while the greater pride in a boy stems from an unconscious belief that a boy will enhance standing in the social world.

Parents may also be slightly more likely to place a birth announcement for a boy than for a girl, discovered psychologist John Jost and his colleagues. Male births make up 51 percent of live births, so one would expect the same percentage of birth announcements to be for boys. However, in their data set of thousands of Florida birth announcements, more were for male babies than one would expect: 53 percent. It’s a very small (although statistically significant) difference, it’s true. (And it only held for traditional families, in which the mother had taken on the father’s last name.) But as the authors point out, “[t]he fact that gender differences show up at all for a family decision ion that is such a clear and significant reflection of parental pride is both surprising and worrisome. We suspect that most parents would be shocked and embarrassed to learn that they might have publicly announced the birth of a son, but not a daughter, and this suggests that the effect s subtle, implicit, and yet powerful.” 12 Not so long ago in Western societies, males were quite openly valued over females (and this is still the case in many developing countries). Today, we don’t think one sex better or more valuable than the other—and yet, at an implicit level could we still be holding males in higher regard?

A close look at the names given to the babies in this data set suggested that we might. Jost and his colleagues also analyzed the thousands of birth announcements to see how often sons and daughters were given a name that began with the same initial as either the father’s or mother’s name: for example, Russell and Karen calling their son Rory versus Kevin. How, you may well wonder, does this exercise reveal anything at all about the machinations of the implicit mind? The reason is that, remarkably, not all letters of the alphabet are equal in the eye of the beholder. People unconsciously place a special value on the letter that begins heir own name. With this phenomenon in mind, Jost and colleagues looked for evidence of “implicit paternalism” in the names hat parents chose for their children. They found that boys were more likely to be given names that began with the paternal first initial than the maternal initial, but girls were equally likely to share a first initial with their mother or father. (And this wasn’t because of sons being named after their dads; kids with exactly the same name were excluded from this analysis.) In other words, parents seemed to be unconsciously overvaluing fathers’ names and perhaps also boys, who were more often bestowed the higher-value male initial.13

Clearly, naming a child is a highly personal, multifaceted process. It’s impossible to know for sure what is behind these surprising findings. But as Jost and colleagues point out, contemporary manifestations of sexism and racism are often “indirect, subtle, and (in some cases) non-conscious.”14 In modern, developed societies, males and females are legally—and no doubt also in the eyes of most parents—born with equal status and entitled to the same opportunities. Yet of course this egalitarian attitude is very new. And it’s poorly reflected in the distribution of political, social, economic, and sometimes even personal power between the sexes. It’s a “half-changed world,” as Peggy Orenstein put it 15 and here, in the naming of children and composing of birth announcements, are little strands of evidence of parents’ half-changed minds. Without meaning to, and without realizing it, we may be valuing boys and girls differently, and for different qualities, within hours of birth.

From this starting point, unequal even before conception, parenting begins.



  1. Christina Hoff Sommers was right.

  2. Tobysgirl · ·

    This is a super book. Social psychologists busily demolish the so-called findings of neuroscientists who “prove” there is a male brain and a female brain. The only problem with reading Cordelia Fine’s work or Elizabeth Hungerford’s blog is that one becomes hyper-sensitive to the absurdity of gender expectations and behavior that surround one. Fortunately, I stay home on my 44 acres most of the time, and my horse and cats, and all the flora and fauna that surround us, never put on dresses, talk in squeaky voices and tell me how they know they’re female because they feel so feminine (ditto: drink beer, belch, watch nascar and tell me they know they’re male because they’re such real men).

  3. This is an interesting article. I agree with one of its central themes, that completely gender-neutral parenting is more or less impossible, even for people who are very aware of it.

    I have watched our kids grow up, and we have been careful to allow them access to toys of both “genders”, as well as equal access to neutral toys such as puzzles and games. We have also been careful to allow them expression of whatever emotional state they were in; so (for example) our son is allowed to express vulnerability and the need for cuddles and touching (this is something notably absent from my own upbringing).

    In addition, we have been careful to teach them equality of the sexes, the races, the creeds and the sexualities. My first question to you is: what need is there to do more?

    I believe children’s personalities are innate. Our kids certainly show considerable differences in their outlook on life, and their preferences. How much of that is gender? How much of that comes from us? How much of that is simply personality?

    I also believe that responsible parents attempt to equip children with both cognitive and moral structures which help them to make sense of the world. (If we don’t, then sure as eggs someone else will, via the TV or the Internet or their peers or popular music). Therefore, it is inevitable that some of the parental biases and ideas (and neuroses and hangups) will be communicated to the children. I believe it is an essential part of growing up to weigh those parental structures and decide to keep some and abandon others.

    Where I am going with this is that there is a tone in this article that parents are failing to be gender-neutral in the way they raise children, and that is somehow a bad thing. I think provided children are raised in a loving home with a degree of balance, by parents who are doing the best they can, I do not see that any reasonable society can ask more.


  4. Tobysgirl · ·

    Vivienne, the above is an excerpt from Fine’s book, not an article. She is not writing a book about parenting, she is writing a book about gender illusion. Many people think they are parenting in a gender-neutral style, but the entrenchment of gender norms in our culture and our minds makes that nearly impossible. I think my mother thought she was parenting in a relatively gender-neutral way, but there was an incredible emphasis on appearance in our household (three daughters), and it was not as extreme as that in many other families.

    I highly recommend reading the entire book, simply for the fact that it’s an eye-opening experience.

  5. Jonathan · ·

    I agree with one of its central themes, that completely gender-neutral parenting is more or less impossible, even for people who are very aware of it

    Or at least, it’s incredibly difficult. Parents are almost never rigorous enough. For an account of two parents who went to very great lengths to try and neutralize the gender environment, read Sandra Bem’s An Unconventional Family. Fine mentions Bem quite a bit in Delusions of Gender (though, surprisingly, not in this excerpt).

  6. Gender neutral parenting is impossible, because neither parent is gender neutral. There is no such thing, unless your parent is a true intersex person, and in which case, there are very few intersex conditions that are beyond the male/female chromosomal definition.

  7. Intersex does not mean gender neutral. Intersex people are also socialized in a gender saturated context.

    Female socialized people with XY chromosomes are women. Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome.


  8. Great video explaining how people treat male and female children DIFFERENTLY in infancy and early childhood:

  9. Mary Sunshine · ·

    Brilliant video! Thanks for that. Gives me a lot of memories.

  10. Tobysgirl · ·

    Regarding the video, what is not mentioned in such a short time, is that human babies require a great deal of direct eye contact with their caregiver for BRAIN DEVELOPMENT. Babies identify their caregivers through the shape of the whites of the eyes, which is why humans have visible whites of the eyes. Without this direct eye contact, the brain does not develop fully, in particular the area that is responsible for development of empathy. Think about this when considering how male babies are treated, and to a degree how all babies are treated, particularly in our society (put in plastic boxes in the hospital, put in isolation at “home,” often held infrequently, etc).

  11. jdmarsh89 · ·

    Nobody talks about external gendering forces which are everywhere. Kids receive pressure from lots of non-parental sources… grandparents, teachers, other kids, television etc. I feel that gender neutral parenting should be less about enforcing certain toys over others or avoiding gendered clothing (how do you really do that, anyway? make the kid wear khaki robes?) and more about instilling ideas in girls that they are strong, important, have worth, and are more important than their looks, and in boys that they are not inherently better or more valuable than girls just for having a penis, which is one of the earliest things boys learn from their parents and society. Leveling the playing field in your home for girl and boy children will make them more ready to reject controlling social gender roles when they are out in the world. A girl who was used to being respected for her humanity at home and playing outside without worrying about ruining her clothing (because presumably she will have been given a set of practical play clothes instead of frilly pinafores) will not react kindly when someone tells her that “girls can’t climb trees” or “girls aren’t as smart as boys” when she is at school or at the playground. Ultimately, you can’t control your child’s environment… that’s insane. You can only help them to think critically and equip them to navigate the minefield of everyday sexism that they are sure to encounter.

  12. […] men alike to be free from the rules of appearance-behavior-expression assigned to us all since even before birth. We want men to be as involved with housework and child-rearing as they want women to be—to […]

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