MEN Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. That’s certainly a popular notion and has been for a while. The idea that men and women have entirely different brains and it’s all down to their biology and the way we evolved, has had us in its grip. Until, that is, Cordelia Fine came along and slayed it. The Melbourne University professor and psychologist, in her two books, Testosterone Rex and Delusions Of Gender, didn't just debunk much of the science that has been used to back it up – she did it with the kind of wit and flair it takes to make a message popular.

The result is that she is one of the most influential figures in the field of gender science. So ground-breaking is her writing that Testosterone Rex was awarded The Royal Society’s science book prize last year, and next week the 43-year-old will receive The Edinburgh Medal from the Edinburgh International Science Festival, which is given to scientists who have made “an outstanding contribution to our understanding of humanity”.

Fine’s books are right at the centre of a battle over who we are. Feminists frequently brandish her Delusions Of Gender, because it so thoroughly discredits the notion that there are two distinctly gendered brains, a male one and a female one. Meanwhile advocates of sex difference science, like Simon Baron-Cohen, have accused her of polemic.

But what also makes Fine stand out is that she is a brilliant and witty science communicator. The daughter of the children's book author Anne Fine and the philosopher Kit Fine, raised in England, she combines incisive thinking with a colourful and entertaining turn of phrase.

She can, for instance, take the assumption that men could father a huge number of babies if they were to spread their semen around a bit, in the time a woman can have one, and smash it. Using a series of calculations, based on those by psychologist Dorothy Einon, she reveals that the chance of this is infinitely small, a tiny fraction that barely flickers into life. It is vastly, as Fine points out, less likely even than a man being hit by a meteorite in his lifetime. “And they feminists are wishful thinkers,” she quips.

She also knows just when to bring some anecdote from her own life into the story, whether it’s from her own career, an early dating experience of a boyfriend who gave her designer sunglasses, or stories of her family life with her two sons.

Fine’s work has changed the way we look at the world. What started her out on this mission was a book about parenting she read when her two sons were small, titled Why Gender Matters. It told a story, prevalent throughout our culture, about how boys and girls had two very different brains, using scientific studies to back it up. Fine thus began her investigation of the slippery, often distorting world of gender neuroscience.

In advance of her visit to the Edinburgh International Science Festival on Wednesday, I put to her a few questions about where science is taking us in our understanding of sex and gender – and how we should change our approach now we know that, as it turns out, both men and women come from Earth.

VA: You have made your mark breaking down the myths we have about gender – for instance that there is such a thing as a distinctly male brain and a female brain – and the science that is used to back them up. Testosterone Rex, your latest book, is subtitled Unmaking The Myths Of Our Gendered Minds. What do you feel is the chief myth that we need to bust about testosterone?

CF: The Testosterone Rex of the title of my book refers to the powerful myth that squashes hopes of sex equality by telling us that risk-taking, competitive masculinity has evolved more strongly in men and is therefore wired into the male brain and fuelled by testosterone. But the science has been evolving in important and fascinating ways – in evolutionary biology, neuroscience, behavioural science, behavioural endocrinology – since the legend of Testosterone Rex was forged.

The biggest myth we need to bust around testosterone specifically is the idea that it is a powerful driver of masculine behaviour in men.

VA: You write a bit how your own son has been a risk-taker since very young. I particularly enjoyed the story you described of him aged 10. “I left him happily engaged,” you write, “in the normally hazardless activity of assembling a cake batter, only to return five minutes later to discover him about to plunge a roaring hairdryer into the mixture.” He was, you say, trying to melt the butter.

I was interested in the research you have done around risk – particularly the idea that people, whatever their gender, are generally risk averse, so it’s not that some people enjoy risk more, but that some perceive the risk as less.

CF: This was a really fascinating area to research – the way academic understanding of risk-taking has been evolving from a stable, domain-general personality trait, to a conception of risk-taking propensity as multifaceted and idiosyncratic. We also tend to think risk, think male, and as a result this implicit association of risk-taking and maleness serves to further confirm that link. My colleagues and I recently devised new versions of risk-taking surveys that sought to redress that bias by including activities that women might more typically pursue such as going horseback riding or making risky purchases online. We found that in these new measures women and men rated themselves as equally likely to take risks.

VA: Testosterone Rex was published just last year, but so much has happened since then that has impacted on how we view women and men. I’m thinking particularly of the #MeToo movement. I wondered whether that would have got a mention in your book if it had taken place before its publication. I noticed for instance you had that section in Testosterone Rex where you mention the survey of Australian surveys which revealed that bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment were rife.

CF: I think what is powerful about the #MeToo movement is that it has recast risks in the workplace. The risks of sexual harassment for women are now more visible, as are risks of making a complaint, in terms of the potentially severe effects on a career or the loss of a job sorely needed to pay the rent.

As for the idea that testosterone drives certain men to sexually harass, the question to ask is whether these men would behave in this way in an organisational culture in which sexual harassment was simply not tolerated by colleagues, and reliably led to disciplinary action even for the most powerful and successful? I think we'd find those norms would overwhelm any hormone that supposedly make men unable to control their sexual urges in the workplace.

VA: Delusions of Gender had such an impact on the feminist community. I feel there was a point when so many feminists I talked to were talking about it, or quoting it in your book. But Testosterone Rex seems set to reach beyond that community. Do you feel more men are reading it?

CF: If the audience at my talks is a guide to my readers, then it’s likely that many more women than men read my books, although my impression is that the audiences are much more balanced than they were. In terms of being taken seriously, what troubles me is an assumption on the part of some that critiques of science in this area are ‘political’ – to be contrasted with the objective science. Unfortunately, dismissing as ‘political’ work that makes visible and challenges long-held scientific assumptions licences a failure to engage. This stifles productive scientific debate.

VA: Your books reminded me that culture has such a profound influence on scientific research and the way it’s interpreted. What it gets me wondering is if this is just a swing of the pendulum, and that we could in the future enter a phase in which research is guided by the idea that men and women are the same.

CF: I don’t think the goal for science should be to become ‘sex-blind’, and it has been great to see several constructive commentaries and debates in mainstream neuroscience journals about how to study sex and gender in an informative, reflective way, and how to avoid common pitfalls.

VA: Your books are really sharp and funny. I know your mother is the wonderful writer Anne Fine, and your father is the philosopher, Kit Fine. I wonder if you feel that your own career has been influenced by them both. Also, do you feel that you had a childhood in which strong gender stereotypes were pushed on you, or not?

CF: I’m sure my professional path has been influenced by both of them, in all sorts of ways – probably not least growing up with a house crammed full of interesting books. As for gender stereotypes, certainly not at home; more generally, in many ways it seems that the period of my own childhood involved less gender stereotyping than there is now.

VA: I, like you, have two sons. I’m always interested in how other parents, particularly those interested in gender and identity, approach raising their kids. Are there things that you have done so that they feel less pressure to conform to stereotypes?

CF: This is such an interesting question. The reality of gender norms means that, as with so many dilemmas of parenting, feminist parents have to work out for themselves how best to navigate the gap between the way they would like the world to be, and the way the world actually is.

When you raise a feminist son, you give them an important lens on the world. But I also think you give them even more than this. When I teach ethics to MBA students, we talk about the role of norms and conformity in facilitating unethical behaviour in the workplace. Then we work on developing strategies for speaking up and responding effectively to those norms. Responding to sexual harassment in the workplace as a bystander would be exactly such a moment when having the confidence and skills to speak up is useful. Mary Gentile, who developed the curriculum we use, describes it as developing "moral competence". One thing I've noticed is that parents trying to raise feminist kids are often imparting and coaching these very same skills.

VA: How do you think the fact that you are a woman has impacted on your own career within science and academia? Do you think there are particular struggles you’ve had that you wouldn’t have had if you were a man?

CF: Having worked part-time for a number of years when my kids were younger, as well as spending a lot of time and energy in writing for a general audience, I think my primary feeling about my career is one of gratitude towards those within the university system who have challenged the traditional view of what a ‘proper’ or committed academic career trajectory looks like.

More generally, any industry or organization that makes single-minded, uninterrupted, full-time devotion to a career a requirement for success is going to be fishing from a limited talented pool, and what’s ‘good for women’ is often good for everyone. I was chatting recently with the director of a science lab about his concerns about the difficulty for women of combining family responsibilities with the intense, relentless demands of a scientific career. I asked whether he thought the long hours and pressures, despite currently being necessary for success, were also perversely detrimental for scientific creativity. It was obviously a bit of a leading question, but even so I was a bit surprised by how emphatically he agreed. “It’s killing us all,” he said.

VA: I wonder if you have any reflections on the tensions currently between some feminists and trans activists – for instance the discussions around whether trans women should be allowed in women only spaces, or who should be allowed to identify as a woman? I’ve actually seen your work quoted by both sides of this particular debate. Are there any learnings from science and research that could help illuminate it?

CF: This isn’t something I feel I have much to say about since my work has focused on ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ traits like empathising, systematizing and risk-taking, rather than gender identity. But it’s also unclear to me to what extent these tensions can or should be resolved by scientific research. Is there something we could find in the brain, or in empirical data on gendered traits, that would answer the question of who should be allowed into women’s spaces, or what defines the category of woman?

VA: How do you think we are progressing on liberating the two genders from their culturally defined roles? I sometimes think that when I look at the segregation with regard to toys and activities that happens for young children that there’s been back-sliding. But then on the other hand, actually teenagers seem to be finding much more freedom with regard to their gender roles and sexuality.

CF: An interesting analysis of toy catalogues over several decades, by sociologist Elizabeth Sweet, supports the perception that the "gendering" of childhood is more intense now than it used to be. As for how we’re progressing, I agree that it's probably a mixed scorecard!

VA: The sex difference books that made you want to write Delusions Of Gender are still popular. There’s even a film based on one of them, The Female Brain, which was recently released in the United States. Why does it matter if people believe these things?

CF: I recently helped a journalist from Newsweek sift through some of the claims made by the original book. One of the things I observed is that encouraging people to think in this kind of gender essentialist way is associated with more lenient evaluation of sexual violence (in men) and makes people less supportive of progressive gender policies and more comfortable with the status quo.