Science Book a Day Interviews Jane McCredie

jane-mccredieSpecial thanks to Jane McCredie for answering 5 questions about her recently featured book – Beyond X & Y: Inside the Science of Gender

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based writer on science and medicine. The former news and features editor on leading medical publication Australian Doctor, she has also worked for the Melbourne Age and contributed to publications including the British Medical Journal, the Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has written a book on the science of gender for UNSW Press. – From ABC Health & Wellbeing

Author’s Twitter:

#1 – What was the impetus for writing this book?

The idea for my book, Making Girls and Boys, came out of an article I wrote for a medical magazine on treating children who have a transsexual identity. A 12-year-old Melbourne child, born genetically female, had successfully sought permission from the Family Court for hormonal treatment to prevent female puberty as he strongly identified as a boy. This case and the research I did for my article led me to ask bigger questions about gender identity: how we come to know our gender and what it actually means to say we are female or male. In attempting to respond to these questions, I explored fields including evolutionary biology, psychology, anthropology and neuroscience and found there were no simple answers even to the most basic question of what is male and what is female.

#2 – What is the response of the public to the idea that our notion of gender isn’t quite as cut and dried as we think it is?

Everybody responds differently. For a lot of people, it’s a relief to read something that doesn’t just trumpet the tired old stereotypes about gender: that women can’t read maps, or men can’t express feelings, for example. Some people, though, are very attached to those stereotypes and perhaps feel threatened by anything that challenges them. So I’ve had a few hostile responses among the mostly positive ones. A few people have criticised the book for not going far enough, arguing for example the title Making Girls and Boys indicates it is still stuck in a binary view of sex and gender. As a writer, I think you have to accept that these are issues people have strong views on and you’re never going to be able to please everybody.

#3 – What are some of the ways we are trapped by such black and white thinking?

The black and white thinking on sex and gender has the potential to do enormous harm to people who don’t fit the stereotypes. I think this is particularly the case with boys because, as a society, we are more anxious about little boys who don’t conform and more likely to be punitive towards them. In the past at least, some of that anxiety seems to have been related to fears about homosexuality so it may be lessening as we become more accepting of the range of sexual preferences. I hope it is. I think we always need to be aware that even if stereotypes hold within them some truths about groups of people (and that isn’t necessarily the case), they are utterly useless when it comes to telling us about individuals.

#4 – What was your philosophy in communicating the science behind Making Boys and Girls?

My professional background is as a writer and journalist, not a scientist, though I am passionately interested in science and have written about it for many years. Not being a scientist has advantages and disadvantages when it comes to writing about it. Non-scientists sometimes ask different questions from the ones a scientist might ask and that can bring a fresh perspective. Something good journalists and scientists have in common is a healthy scepticism about grandiose claims. Unfortunately, some scientists are prepared to make grandiose claims about so-called “essential” differences between men and women. I’ve particularly noticed this among some researchers in neuroscience and in evolutionary psychology. I see it as my job to question the assumptions underlying some of the wilder claims.

#5 – Are you working on any new projects/books that you can tell us about?

I’ve just edited the anthology of The Best Australian Science Writing 2013 with Natasha Mitchell. Natasha was a wonderful collaborator and together we unearthed an array of inspiring, challenging, funny, moving writing about science. It was encouraging to see how much excellent stuff there was out there, particularly in these difficult times for journalism and publishing. I have two more books underway, both science-related, but I’m not quite ready to talk about them yet.

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