[I received a copy through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]
That was pretty much preaching to the choir here, so I’ll admit my bias from the beginning—I’m absolutely not convinced, science or no science, that gender has very legitimate foundations, and that your genitals determine how you behave, what you like, who you are, and so on. It doesn’t make sense to me that so many people insist putting everybody in a tidy little “man OR woman” box (and when you stand out of the box, you’d think it threatens the very foundations of -their- identity, which makes me think that there’s something fishy here anyway). So, I was definitely interested in reading more about this concept of gender mosaic, and… well, -this-, on the other hand, makes sense to me.
“Gender Mosaic” explores the binary perception of gender, how people in general tend to ascribe this behaviour as “masculine” and that behaviour as “feminine”, but also how we’re actually very, very seldom made of only masculine or only feminine traits. Most people have a bit of both, but due to the importance placed on gender (re: the little boxes I mentioned), what is seen as “deviations from the perceived norm” is usually also seen as something to stamp out, to hide, to reject (another of these things that make no sense to me: what does it matter that a little boy likes playing with dolls? What’s so frightening about it? That this kid will become a good father later?). Our genitals are part of our biology, sure, but they’re not the only factor that plays a part in how our brains develop: it’s not only about hormones, it’s also about external influences, social ones, stress, etc. Especially stress: this isn’t something I would have researched in relation to gender, not at first sight, and yet, in hindsight, studies that focus on this don’t look out of place.
Which begs the question: what truly affects us? Does a man behave “like a man “because he was born with a penis, or because external (social) pressures exerted on him since birth have affected him? If “boys don’t cry”, is it because they can’t (beats me why they have tear ducts, then), or because they are repeatedly told almost since birth that “real men don’t cry” (and shunned accordingly if they dare cry)? Are girls naturally better at cooking because they have a vagina, or because they’ve been traditionally stuck into staying at home and cooking? Are such differences between genders valid, or are they here in the first place because social expectations have increased them? And what of people whose traits don't lean enough towards one gender—too often, they're dismissed and conflated into the gender other people think is theirs, and this is harmful. A mosaic is a much healthier approach to this, to understanding what makes us human first and foremost.
Having a look at the various studies referenced throughout the book, I don’t think I’m an exception in leaning towards the latter explanations rather than the former ones. Said studies are also quoted in understandable, laypeople terms, and I found their relevance easy to grasp. Finally, I liked that “Gender Mosaic” discusses the scientific side, but also goes further in exploring what it means from a societal point of view: how we raise children, especially, and how so many pervasive behaviours that look “innocent” are actually deeply biased.
While I enjoyed these aspects, though, I’d also have liked seeing more clarity in terms of actual differences. “Men are like this and women are like that” arguments are all too easily used to claim that “men are superior to women” or “women make better parents”. However, science has also shown that there are physiological differences (not necessarily in brains—for instance, the way symptoms announcing impending cardiac arrest aren’t exactly the same in women as in men, causing too many of the former to be misdiagnosed, just like “male” is still too often used as the default template for “human” in many medical studies). It’s not that “Gender Mosaic” doesn’t mention it at all, but I found the line a little blurred here. For me, the problem is with gender (= the social & formative aspect, what it imposes on human beings, how it shapes them through peer pressure), which doesn’t mean that sex (the biological/genetical aspect) should be downplayed. I think the book wasn’t too clear on that, or perhaps went a little too quickly about it, and as a result, it would be easy to misunderstand it in parts.
This said, when it comes to genders, behaviours perceived as associated to genders—then, yes, my own perception of it, my own experience, definitely point me towards “this is indeed blurry, because we’re not made of all or nothing, and that blurriness is expected”.