Ten Questions

July 14, 2013 11:59 pm

Women at Business School: Cordelia Fine

Cordelia Fine©Dean Cambray

Cordelia Fine: "My motto in life is panic first, think later. But then I tend to just focus in on the problem and deal with it."

Cordelia Fine is an associate professor of psychology at Melbourne Business School in Australia and author of Delusions of Gender: How our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference, which has been longlisted for the UK Warwick Prize for Writing, an international cross-disciplinary award to recognise excellence in the English language in any genre or form. She is also an Australian Research Council Future Fellow in Psychological Sciences, researching neuroscientific and pseudoscientific explanations of gender inequality.

Prof Fine was born in Canada but grew up in Scotland, the US and the UK. She has an MPhil in criminology at Cambridge university and a PhD in psychology at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London.

Before joining MBS, Prof Fine worked at the School of Philosophy & Bioethics at Monash University, the Centre for Applied Philosophy & Public Ethics at the Australian National University and the Centre for Agency, Values & Ethics at Macquarie University.

1. What is an average day at work like?

I have a very quiet and solitary life thanks to my research fellowship and this suits me perfectly. I once went on a leadership course for science PhDs, and at one point everyone in the group took one of those personality tests. I came out with the lowest possible score for “team player” – I’ll never forget the look of dawning comprehension mingled with alarm in my peers’ eyes. So, on a typical day at work I happily spend the day alone striking ungainly poses at my desk as I read articles or books, interspersed with sessions of writing and head-clutching. I maintain fitness and alertness by walking to the tea room hourly.

2. What do you enjoy most about your job?

I get to spend all day reading, thinking, learning and writing about things I find interesting. And then I can communicate to both academic and general audiences. It goes without saying that academic work improves the quality of popular communication, but I’m convinced that the benefits run both ways. It’s surprising how trying to convey complex ideas simply, without jargon, forces you to clarify your own understanding.

3. Where is/would be your favourite place to teach?

I moved to Melbourne eleven years ago and love it here. Some day, though, I would probably like to go back home to the UK.

4. What is the best piece of advice given to you by a teacher?

My A-level music teacher, whom I adored, once wrote in a school report that I should shed my diffidence. I didn’t take his advice, of course, assuming that he had overestimated me. But then many years later, just after the publication of Delusions of Gender, I was given the opportunity to be interviewed, live, on a very influential BBC radio morning programme. After much dithering, I turned it down. But, my goodness, the frustration to have to listen impotently to the segment that morning, unable to put in my penny’s worth. I would never turn down an opportunity like that again, no matter how terrifying it was.

5. What academic achievement are you most proud of?

My second book, Delusions of Gender. It started out as a much simpler book pointing out that popular writers were misinterpreting, abusing and sometimes even fabricating neuroscientific results in the service of old-fashioned gender stereotypes. But when I looked to the science itself, I gradually came to realise that confident claims about innate sex differences in abilities and interests were based on poor methodologies, spurious results and unsubstantiated assumptions. The book therefore ended up much more complex, interesting and provocative than originally planned – but I was determined for it to remain accessible to a general audience.

6. How do you deal with male-dominated environments?

Even though my research is directly relevant to the question of why certain occupations and roles are male-dominated, I don’t really have any strategies. However, one thing I’ve done that goes a bit against conventional wisdom is that my two informal role models are not women, but two men I greatly admire both professionally and personally; both senior academics, fathers and writers. There are certainly still often extra difficulties to be navigated by women both at work and at home, but I’ve started to suggest to younger academic women that they not assume that their role models need to be women. We’re all people, doing the same job and it’s not just female academics who become parents.

7. What is the strangest thing you have ever done when teaching?

It wasn’t intentional, but once, in my enthusiasm to draw attention to the furthest reaches of a PowerPoint slide, I fell off the podium. I wouldn’t especially recommend it as a teaching technique, although it did help to break the ice.

8. What is the last book you read?

Alison Lurie’s Truth and Consequences, aptly described by The New Yorker as “a comedy of adultery with a comedy of academia thrown in”; far safer to read than participate in, I imagine. I’m currently reading Edith Wharton’s brilliant book The House of Mirth, about the ravishing but poor Miss Lily Bart who can’t quite submit to either the wealthy, high-status marriage that society expects her to make, or the materially unappealing alternative, and so spirals down the gap in between.

9. How do you deal with pressure?

My motto in life is panic first, think later. But then I tend to just focus in on the problem and deal with it.

10. What is your plan B?

I may only be speaking for myself but the worrying thing about academia is that it sometimes seems as though you become increasingly unfit for anything else out in the real world. I suppose I would become a freelance writer and implement some serious cuts in the household budget.

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