Good News, Ladies: You Can Be Good At Math, Bad At Feelings

Probably you’ve always had a knee-jerk annoyance reaction when people bring up “facts” of “evolutionary psychology” like how there are fewer women in math and the sciences because our brains are wired to love puppies and rainbows and not mass spectrometry. But it’s sometimes hard to argue with those people, because they are convinced at least that they have science on their side, and sometimes all you have to argue with is “I don’t know, I have a degree in biochemistry and you dropped out halfway through a philosophy degree, so anecdotally speaking you’re full of shit.” These conversations are not often productive. BUT NOW someone has written a book that you can hold up like a magic shield of thorough research to protect yourself from those well-meaning aunts who give you books on “Men’s Brains, Women’s Brains” because “you’re getting to an age where you need to be able to understand men.” (No? Just me?) Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender has a crazy amount of real science and solid research to counteract the sloppy and poorly interpreted neurological findings that other people wave around on this topic, and I don’t know about you but I feel better already.

Aside from the girls-are-bad-at-math-and-science trope, which I feel like I personally hear more about, Fine also brings up another angle – the idea that women are naturally more empathetic and able to understand people’s feelings and emotional needs, while men are wired for watching Jimmy Kimmel exclusively and anything that has to do with anyone’s soul is completely incomprehensible. To this, Fine says that:

There is a very common social perception that women are better at understanding other people’s thoughts and feelings. When you look at one of the most realistic tests of mind reading, you find that men and women are just as good at getting what their interaction partners were thinking and feeling. It even surprised the researchers. They went on to discover that once you make gender salient when you test these abilities [like having subjects check a box with their sex before a test], you have this self-fulfilling effect. The idea that women are better at mind reading might be true in the sense that our environments often remind women they should be good at it and remind men they should be bad at it. But that doesn’t mean that men are worse at this kind of ability.


For people as obsessed with feelings as we are, we frequently feel completely incapable of understanding them – any feelings, including our own. It’s an unexpectedly huge relief to be told by someone who knows that this is okay, and that we don’t have to be emotional superstars because we’re women; it’s normal to be confused because we’re human. And since this idea is so restrictive and suffocating for men, who have to suppress all emotions because they’ve been taught that they’re never supposed to have any, it feels liberating.

Who knew that we get to be actual people no matter what gender we are? Delusions, indeed.


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Rachel

Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1142 articles for us.

33 Comments

  1. AGREE with ALL of the things! except for the bit about loving mass spectrometry. NMR on the other hand…

    to go along with that part in italics- a common example study is one that gave kids a math test- they all performed similarly on it. but if you remind the girls first that they’re girls (like checking a gender box or idk something that would seem irrelevant) they do worse on the test. ack sorry I don’t know the details of the study, i’ll try to look it up… the point is social conditioning sucks!

  2. This, forever. Especially the “Who knew that we get to be actual people no matter what gender we are?” part. I think stereotypes will never die, it’s just funny that we are still clinging to such old ones. I’m ready for new stereotypes people!

  3. Not to be a stereotype or anything, but I really am bad at math. I mean, I know the basics. Obviously 2+2 = 5. Duh.

    I blame my hatred of math on the fact that I always had to take the MCAS math test on my birthday. I resent this.

    briannahasfeelings dot com

  4. I did a degree in engineering and the girls in my year *way* outperformed the guys academically. 20 girls in a year of 120 people, our average grades were significantly above the overall average.

    I put it down to the fact that we felt we had to work harder to avoid the stereotype of women (and our supposed lack of mathematical and rational abilities) – so it bumped up our grades.

    A lot of us went on to do PhD’s – and I’ve heard many of these girls in grad school say how they feel they have ‘imposters syndrome’ – feeling like at any moment someone is going to find out that you’re not a good engineer and that you’re faking it somehow.

    • I’m also going to guess that the women doing an engineering degree are going to *really* want to do engineering and aren’t just doing it because they have to do something.

      My boss did an engineering course too (back in the 70s, so she was one of like 3 women) and she reported similar anecdotes!

  5. I’m definitely better at science than feelings/interactions with non-geeks. I’m that person who jokes about having slut flies in genetics lab because they are no virgin females for the crosses, but stumbles over her words in women’s studies class because the cute queer girl sat next to me today. FML.

  6. Yeah, I really have begun recognizing that I don’t really pick up on other people’s feelings as much as my girlfriend or our other female friends.

    I’ve kind of thought before that I have a bit of an “androgynous mind.” According to the Jung personality test, I’m an INTJ. It means that while I can have very strong emotions, I’m still not and overly emotive person. I do a good job with recognizing and analyzing a person’s overall patterns of behavior and thinking, but I really sort of suck at sensing her needs. I sometimes don’t understand why people feel like they do, or what how they feel is like.

    I get extremely disturbed if I can’t control or understand my own feelings. I spend probably far too much time treating my feelings like they’re my enemies. I also have a bit of an ego, and I have real trouble being submissive. I don’t want to be dominant, but I also don’t tolerate being fucked with.

    All this, and I still really, really suck at math.

    • That pretty much describes me too. I’m horrible at picking up on other people’s feelings (or dealing with those feelings)and I’m an INTJ too.

      And I suck at math. Well, I was the master of geometry in school, but anything related to algebra was my nemesis and made no sense.

  7. This reminds me of the other day when I was walking to class through the mechanics hallway on campus. There was a group of male teachers talking. One of them asked another if he thought ‘those two girls in the class would actually learn anything.’ WTF!?! I was really pissed and wanted to yell at them, but I was already late for Spanish…

  8. Oh my goodness thank you. I read Delusions of Gender about a year ago and had a happiness aneurysm because it reassured me I wasn’t crazy for not wanting babies and boys and long giggly talks about emotions, and now I can go and study neuroscience and not feel like a fake and a poseur because I’m a girl. It was easy to understand (I was 14 when I read it!)and it’s certainly reassuring, in this time of warped scientific studies proclaiming that girls and boy are so different they should be separated and taught according to bullshit societal standards, which scares the hell out of me. I especially loved (slash hated)that anecdote about the medical students in the hospital with a female teacher, who strictly reminds the young women in the group to not under any circumstances faint, no matter how bloody or putrid the specimens, because fainting would be taken as reflection of feminine weakness. The men in the group could faint whenever they wanted; no one would see that as a sign of fragility inherent in their gender and attempt to block them from entering universities. Augh. She also brings up a good point about how people with smaller heads (most women, some men) have smaller brains, which aren’t just scaled down versions of larger brains. Smaller brains are constructed differently; this accounts for why women and men may use different parts of their brains for tasks- both genders end up with the same result, in the same amount time, they’ve just arrived at it through different methods.

    Anyways, I am a huge fan of Cordelia Fine. She takes any facet of the subject that you could have a question about and covers it thoroughly and with generous wit. It’s one of my favorite books. I’ve tried to get my mom (an early childhood educator/ preschool teacher) and she still hasn’t finished it, 9 months later… I recommend it in any conversation where the topic of male/female psychological differences come up. Still no feedback, sadly! I’m just disappointed no one else was as excited as I was and now I don’t have anyone for group discussions.

    Also: INTP, motherfuckers. Get your feelings away from me.

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