Interview with Cordelia Fine

The academic psychologist talks testosterone, gender and the joy of being paid to read and write

August 17, 2017
Cordelia Fine
Source: Paul Burston/University of Melbourne

Cordelia Fine is professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Melbourne, an academic psychologist and writer. The author of three books, she rose to widespread prominence with her 2010 work Delusions of Gender, which was shortlisted for the 2010 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, among others. Her latest work, Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of Our Gendered Minds, has recently been shortlisted for the 2017 Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize.

Where and when were you born?
Toronto, Canada in 1975.

How has this shaped you?
Not at all (unless there was something in the water). My family was there only very briefly, while my dad was working at the university. However, this doesn’t stop me from feeling entirely unwarranted pride whenever Canada sets a shining example to the world.

What is your key argument in Testosterone Rex?
The target of the book is that familiar, interconnected set of beliefs that tells us that risk-taking, competitive masculinity has evolved more strongly in males than females because it enhanced their reproductive success in our ancestral past, and is therefore wired into the male brain and fuelled by testosterone. I show how the relevant science – in evolutionary biology, neuroscience, gender psychology and behavioural endocrinology – has evolved since this account of sex differences was forged.

What drew you to focus on this subject area?
Being a typical academic parent, I read a lot of books about how to be a better parent. (If there were a book called The Over-researched Child, I would have read it.) One of the books I picked up claimed that hardwired sex differences in the brain mean that boys and girls should be parented and educated very differently. I became curious because the book referred to a part of the brain I’d studied quite intensively in my PhD, the amygdala. I looked up the scientific study being cited as evidence for treating boys and girls differently, and was shocked at the disconnection between what the research (a functional MRI study) showed, and the supposed implications. That was the start of my interest. Gradually, this interest expanded from popular "neurosexism", to more subtle issues within the scientific research itself.

What is the biggest misconception about your field of study?
There are two. One is that if you have a daughter and a son, and they show any stereotypical interests or behaviour, then that’s pretty concrete evidence of innate sex differences. The second is that the science that claims that neurobiological differences between the sexes help to explain gender gaps is "objective", whereas all critiques of that science – questioning its assumptions, models or methods – are merely "ideological".

You're an academic but your works are accessible. Do you think academic works should have the ability to be picked up by those outside the academy?
I’m definitely not a fan of needlessly obscure prose, and the more clearly academic work is written, the greater the chance that people looking at the same phenomenon from a different discipline can come to know about your area of research. Writing for a popular audience can also sometimes force clarity about what you mean and why it’s important, which is why I think that this kind of writing can be a useful exercise for postgraduate students.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
The best part is being paid a salary to read, think and write. Perhaps the worst part is never having a satisfying sense of completeness, of being done for the day or the week – particularly when there’s a book in process.

What advice do you give to students?
At the moment I mainly teach executive and senior executive MBA students. To be quite honest, since they hail from high up in a range of industries, the advice often flows in the other direction. I’ve had great tips on everything from where to find the best mortgage to how to make your own chemical-free shaving cream out of pig lard.

If you weren’t an academic, what do you think you’d be doing?
Perhaps like some other academics, I’m uncomfortably aware of how ill-suited I would be to most other jobs. I remember going to the library once with a house-guest who had been bemused that my answers to all her questions of the form, “Where do you keep your X’s”, were “Well, either in Place A, Place P or Place M.” But in the library, I glided swiftly down aisles and past shelves, to pounce unerringly on my literary prey. My guest commented that she was finally seeing me functioning in my natural habitat. If I weren’t an academic, I would probably be a writer in a garret.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I was very dutiful. I don’t think I ever had a late-night essay crisis.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Do yoga for an hour every day so that current and future self can enjoy the benefits.

What keeps you awake at night?
Our cat, Pippi, who is currently under the impression that my pillow doubles as her nocturnal grooming parlour.

What do you do for fun?
I’m much more fluent in pleasure than in fun, but I do like watching comedy shows with the kids. And watching their eyes roll when I offer feminist commentary on the characters or plot.

What saddens you?
Wasted lives.

If you were the higher education minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce to the sector?
I would cull the currently proposed funding cut, aka “efficiency dividend” (paging Mr Orwell!), for Australian universities.


Stephen Bach has been appointed the inaugural executive dean of King’s College London’s new business school. Currently the head of the institution’s School of Management and Business, he will oversee the creation of the school, which becomes the ninth faculty at King’s this month. Professor Bach has previously held positions at Cornell University and the University of Warwick. “The school will combine the agility of a start-up with the heritage of King’s,” he said. “We will build upon the success of our School of Management and Business and aim to build the premier undergraduate business school in conjunction with specialist master’s programmes.”

JoAnn DellaNeva, professor of Romance languages and literatures at the University of Notre Dame, has been appointed academic director of the institution’s UK outpost, the London Global Gateway. During her two-year tenure, Professor DellaNeva will oversee the undergraduate programme and efforts to enhance Notre Dame’s research profile at the Gateway, one of the university’s five global hubs. An expert in Renaissance literature and imitation theory and practice, she has held numerous positions over more than three decades as a Notre Dame faculty member. “I’m looking forward to embracing this new challenge,” she said. “I am eager to forge stronger ties with UK universities and intellectual centres to enhance academic programming at the Gateway in ways that benefit both faculty and students.”

Dame Helen Ghosh, currently the director general of the National Trust, has been announced as the next master of Balliol College, University of Oxford. She takes up her position in April next year. The University of Bradford has appointed John Bridgeman as pro vice-chancellor (research and knowledge transfer). He joins in October. George Caird has been appointed interim principal of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Jane Pavitt has been appointed Kingston University’s new head of the School of Critical Studies and Creative Industries.​​ 


Print headline: HE & me

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