Writing at the intersection of motherhood, feminism and my Latinidad

08 November 2009

Book Review: Pink Brain, Blue Brain by Lise Eliot


Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps - and What We Can Do About It by Lise Eliot, Ph.D. is a must read for all parents.

Eliot takes a much debated issue - are girls and boys fundamentally different? - and sets out with a well restrained heart. And that frustrated me the most. Yes, I was hoping that this book would lay down that law that there are no real differences between the genders. That the differences we see are all our fault. Yes, even this science grrl sometimes wishes against reality.

Eliot painstakingly goes thru all available scientific research and popular culture books to sort out the truth. Are men from Mars and women from Venus? In a nutshell, no.
What Eliot does is walk us thru the research, data and the facts about the differences. I say painstakingly because this 315 page tome has almost 40 pages of endnotes and 45 pages of bibliography and zero fluff. Some might find this book too much - to that I say, read the sections you want to read. Even a paragraph is worthy of your time. Take small bites if you must, you won't be disappointed.

By now I hope you get the idea that Eliot has given us a book that puts all the research in perspective. She's not far left nor far right. As the mom of two boys and one girl, she has personal interest in each side of the debate.

Eliot does a great job at taking the popular culture literature that tells us that boys and girls are so different they can't be taught together and rips it to shreds WITH DATA! Yet, she also acknowledges the boy crisis as a real phenomena WITH DATA!

And this is where I think the book is genius. Eliot gives us so much data to prove her conclusions that you find yourself nodding along with one idea, then she switches over to the "counter" issue and you nod along. Here's what I mean:

* Prenatal testosterone does make a difference to how boys and girls act and think, but not as much as we think. There are biological differences to the hormone levels, but it is not the end all be all reason why boys are more aggressive, better at math or whatnot.

    Eliot shows us that nature does give boys and girls their own small advantages in life, but it is our socialization that exasperates them to such an extreme that we think that bravery is masculine and the need for emotional attention is feminine. Example: In an experiment where moms were asked to guess how steep an incline their infants can climb down - face first - the moms underestimated the girls by 9 degrees. This suggests that even at infancy moms already believe that girls can't be as brave or agile at such a young age. "Girls attempted and successfully descended slopes ranging in angle from 10 degress to 46 degress, while boys attempted slopes between 12 and 38 degree (pp 66-67)." Thus no difference in performance, but a big difference in expectation. Does this mean that moms are holding back their girls?

    Eliot also points out that boys are, on average, larger at birth than girls. We usually think about how tough this might had been on the woman pushing an extra few pounds of baby out, but Eliot reminds us that this is tough on the newborn too. This could be why boys are fussier babies. Where our gender ideas come into play is that Eliot points to research that shows that parents are more willing to let baby boys cry longer than baby girls. This is the beginning of toughening our boys out AND where they start to learn that expressing their emotions doesn't pay. Are we shushing our boys into their un-emo ways?

    Eliot covers the gamut from in utero thru the teen years, from emotions to math skills.

    What I learned here is simple and honestly pretty much what I've been saying for years too. Yes, girls and boys are different, they have biological differences, but most of the differences we see are created. Eliot shows us the research that proves over and over that there are bigger differences within genders than between them. That the differences that are there are small. SMALL!

    But it also challenged me to reexamine my views of gender and how we are socializing our kids. This book didn't just reaffirm my beliefs, but it taught me a lot about how we see gender. 

    I was lucky to interview Dr. Eliot over the phone and will post it very soon.

    Get yourself a copy thru an indie bookstore or Powells.com.

    Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book from the publishers by my own request. I saw a piece on Dr. Eliot on TV and knew I needed to read and review this book. Thank you.

    3 comments:

    Thanks for your thoughts on the book. I'm more likely to pick it up now that I have your permission to read it in sections because I don't think I'd make it cover to cover.

    Interesting anecdote about the incline study, I wonder who has attempted to explain the smaller range for the boys by saying, "the boys seem to know their limits and the girls don't." {rolls eyes}

    LOL! Even from the womb, we're wild women!!

    I've been told as part of our TLC show that they'll be interviewing an "expert" on the subject, and I will have some input into the expert they use - so I'll definitely be recommending this author as that person. I think she'd make a nice addition to the piece.