Are we from Mars, from Venus, or all just human?

A series of debates aims to explore the big issues in gender-related research. Matthew Reisz reports

November 4, 2010

The light that science can shed on gender differences, and the huge challenges presented by new reproductive technologies and gender realignment therapies, are being debated by experts in a series of events in London.

Carl Djerassi, emeritus professor of chemistry at Stanford University and inventor of the contraceptive pill, spoke at the first debate at Kings Place this week. On 1 December, Jack Halberstam (formerly Judith), director of the Center for Feminist Research at the University of California, San Diego, will assess the challenges of gender transition.

A debate on 16 November promises some sharply divergent perspectives on the topic "Gendered behaviour: what can science tell us?"

The participants include Deborah Cameron, Rupert Murdoch professor of language and communication at the University of Oxford, and Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge.

Their contrasting views are captured in the titles of their respective well-known books: The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really Speak Different Languages? (2007) and The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain (2003).

The events have been organised by the Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies, which holds symposia, seminars, PhD and visiting scholars' programmes as well as public lectures. In 2009, it set up a one-year MPhil in multidisciplinary gender studies.

Andrew Tucker, the centre's assistant director, said this course "radically rethinks not only the way gender can be taught at university, but also highlights the importance and relevance of presenting a programme that is truly multidisciplinary".

By asking experts from 23 university departments to conduct close textual readings with the class, students are exposed to gender analyses in fields ranging from the biological sciences through to poststructuralist linguistics, he said.

"The students get thrown in at the deep end with a specialist and have been amazed by the range of scholarship that presents itself for gender analysis, from genetics to poetry," he said.

Dr Tucker was keen to stress that the study of gender at Cambridge is not simply the study of women. Neither is it focused only on social relationships and inequalities. He said students had carried out research on topics ranging from the Chinese Enlightenment to senior executive recruitment and Cypriot nationalism.

Jude Browne, the centre's director, added that no serious scholar today explains gender solely in terms of nature or nurture, biology or culture, so "the interesting debate is about the degree to which science can explain or predict our behaviour".

"The tension between the various perspectives on 'degree' is generating extremely exciting engagements between the natural and social sciences," she said.

"Gender as a category of analysis is one very productive way of exploring those debates because it touches on and informs so much of what it means to be human."

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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