Why aren’t more women in science?

As I mentioned a while back, I came across a compilation of essays by researchers in the field debating the question: “Why Aren’t More Women in Science?” I saw it by chance in the library at work, and grabbed it.

It wasn’t a particularly easy read. I quickly became entangled in a spaghetti bowl of different strands of questions and answers as I read my way through the essays. As is the way with research! But I’ll do my best to organise what I learned and explain what I’ve concluded.

Much of the book focused on the question of whether there are any cognitive or aptitude-related barriers to women succeeding in science careers. Do men just make better scientists?

One obvious place to look for clues of any ability discrepancy between the genders is in school test results. Apparently, girls tend to outperform boys in maths exams up to high school level; but on the other hand, boys do better in the SAT-M. I gather that the latter is intended to test raw ability, rather than being a test on learned material that can be prepared for. So, this is seen by some researchers to indicate that girls aren’t as good at independent problem-solving. However, the author of chapter 4 points out another way of looking at it: the SAT-M underpredicts girls’ success in school and college maths exams, and thus may not be a good test of maths aptitude at all. (After all, who’s to say what is a good test?) Also, differences in maths and science ability through time and across geography are generally bigger than any gender differences, so there must at least be other factors involved.

An intriguing study described in chapter 3 revealed that bright girls don’t cope well with confusion; the brighter the girl, the more readily she would tend to become despondent and give up on the confusing tasks set in the experiments. This turns out to be due to these girls having a belief in the importance of innate talent (or lack thereof), and the relative unimportance of learning. With this belief, finding things confusing or hard made them conclude they just didn’t have the natural ability and that was that. It wasn’t clear to me why this should be the case, when the reverse seemed to be true in boys. The author suggested it may come from a different way that bright girls are praised for their ability as they are growing up. I don’t know if that is the case, but certainly one factor in the time-and-geography variation could be whether the culture emphasises learning or talent.

Another common approach is to look at tests of more basic cognitive abilities that perhaps provide the building blocks for higher-level skills such as maths or science. These do seem to differ by gender - males perform better on some spatial visualisation tasks, although this is a skill that responds well to training, and it’s suggested the difference may be to do with boys getting to play outside more as children. Conversely girls perform better at tests of verbal fluency.

Whether looking at school subjects, IQ, or basic abilities, male populations often show a broader distribution of abilities – boys’ abilities range a bit more widely from very poor to excellent, while girls’ tend to be a bit less extreme. The result being that there may be more males at the gifted end of the ability spectrum than females, even if the average ability in the two populations is the same. This seems to me a rather narrow, fatalistic view of career destination (not to mention a self-congratulatory one, coming from scientists!): you have to be the top of your class at school to make it as a scientist?! Try telling that to Einstein…

Other researchers recognise that a science career can draw on many different basic cognitive abilities, verbal communication actually being one of them, and it would be hard to identify any particular set that is critical for success – different scientists may well be talented in quite different ways. A science education equips people with skills in science, but the underlying ways that different people are implementing those skills in their brains may well be different (and harmlessly so). Chapter 8 discusses some structural and functional differences in male and female brains.

It begins to seem as if differences in patterns of interest may explain the dearth of women in science better than differences in ability. Chapter 6 reports that women tend to be more interested in people than in ‘things’. Chapter 12 characterises males as systemisers and females as empathisers. Interest, abilities, and experience clearly are not independent, though – they go round in a kind of feedback loop, and we become “cultured into” our careers, as chapter 9 puts it.

Could it just be that fewer women are drawn to the male-dominated culture of academic science*? If this culture changed, I think we would see more women going into science and sticking with it. Science would be done a bit differently but it would still be done, and done well.

This still begs the question of how the ‘yang’ culture in sciences such as physics and maths has remained well-established long after women’s liberation, while much more of a ‘yin’ presence has grown in sciences like biology. I think in the end I can’t get away from the notion that innate differences – probably in average interests and personality more than ability – do play a role. But I think their role is greatly amplified by stereotypes, gendered socialisation from childhood onwards, and cultural ideas about professions. If it were possible to remove those (which of course it isn’t), I think the ‘yin’-ification of physics would have happened much more quickly.

It was a relief to come to this understanding – I’ve never been able to accept either that all gender differences are innate, or that they are all socially conditioned. It seems obvious to say it’s a mixture of the two but this idea of amplification was a “lightbulb” moment for me.

Stereotypes are usually a coarse reflection of some view of reality that contains partial truth. They don’t come from nowhere. It’s unfortunate that they don’t just reflect, but also feed back into, and define, the world they describe. If girls tend to believe in the importance of innate abilities, they will be particularly susceptible to negative stereotypes around women’s goodness of fit in various fields of work.

I recently read about the Chinese concepts of yin and yang (in a book about economics, of all things) – and it was another lightbulb moment. I really like these terms as a way of grouping together a bunch of traits; male and female are in the lists of traits, but aren’t defined by them. Yin and yang might be a good simple way to describe things like a working culture, as they satisfy our need for reduction and classification, without making gender the focus of it – yin and yang are merely associated with gender. Perhaps we could benefit from thinking more like that. I know I will try to, from now on.

(* Several essays also discussed discrimination, and the work-life balance problem in academic science, but to me, these are just another aspect of the fact that science has a ‘yang’-dominated culture.)

Posted in gender, personal reflection, science | 4 Comments


One of the things that really gets my goat is when the word “honesty” is hijacked to justify what is really just plain unkindness (or worse). Dumping out onto other people the worst contents of your mind about them is not an automatically constructive thing to do, just because it is “honest”. And I don’t buy it when I see indulgence and arrogance being packaged up as virtuous, even courageous behaviour by wrapping the word “honesty” around it like a shiny ribbon.

Come on people! A world in which there was 100% disclosure, for example if our thoughts could be read by others, would not be a better world! The pain and offence caused by our prematurely formed or biased judgements would nip in the bud many a friendship that could otherwise grow and thrive. There is a reason we don’t generally tell people exactly what we think of them, but choose instead to vent to others privately as a way of processing our feelings – and the reason is not cowardice. Nor is it dishonesty, unless we are being completely false towards the person. It’s that our human social world would simply not work if we told everybody every single negative thought we had about them.

That’s not to say that everything negative should be kept hidden, of course. There are times when it’s necessary to confront someone, and there are times when a frank conversation can help clear things up. There are also times when venting behind someone’s back turns into malicious back-biting; where avoiding talking to the person merely allows a fortress of negative judgements to be built up, going unchecked by reality.

I’m not sure there are any easy answers. All I know is that goodwill, kindness, and a willingness to work with the good in others seem to go a long way. Where these are not present, no amount of “honesty” is likely to get you anywhere.

Posted in moral issues, personal reflection | 1 Comment

2013 highlights and 2014 goals

Highlights of my 2013

  • Got a flat with my partner (I still feel so grateful every day)
  • Finally began driving, 2.5 years after passing the test – took refresher lessons, joined City Car Club, and eventually hired a car for a week over the holiday for visiting family – think I have actually become a reasonably competent driver now! Never thought that day would come…
  • Began playing music again – wish I hadn’t left it so long.
  • Helped set up an Edinburgh Sunday Assembly, particularly the band
  • Threw the Hogmanay party I’d first dreamed of a year ago, hoping that by 2013′s end we’d have a home to throw one in :)

Goals for 2014

  • Get a new job, or at least get clear on the direction and take what steps are needed
  • Exercise more
  • Try writing songs again
  • Play more violin and piano
  • Fix up the flat a bit more (various DIY jobs, bits of furniture to get etc.)
  • Reach out more at work; surrender to the discomfort and make myself heard
  • Become more mindful of my biases towards various bleak ways of thinking, and try to get better at gently nudging myself out of them.

Happy New Year!

Posted in personal reflection | 2 Comments

2013 in books

I read a record number of books in 2013! I think it was a 2013 resolution of mine, to read more books – and particularly, to read more stories, and less self-help. I haven’t regretted that at all. Here is a selection of some of my best reads this year.


‘Rachel’s Holiday’ by Marian Keyes
- Marian Keyes is a fantastic writer of humorous women’s fiction, and this is probably one of her deepest and most moving books, dealing with recovery from addiction.

‘Life of Pi’ by Yann Martel
- Already blogged about this one.

‘The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared’ by Jonas Jonasson
- Quite entertaining, probably all the more so if you know a bit more of 20th century history than I do.

‘The Help’ by Kathryn Stockett
- Probably my overall favourite – a brave setting (black maids working in white homes in 1960s Mississippi), but really just a very well-written story – completely engaging from the first chapter.

‘The Hairdresser of Harare’ by Tendai Huchu
- I like stories that offer me a window into another culture. Having visited Harare many years ago, I enjoyed being able to picture it.

‘Love… From Both Sides’ by Nick Spalding
- Quite silly, but cleverly written and a good concept for a novel – seeing a relationship develop from both sides. The only book all year to make me laugh out loud on the bus. In some places I was laughing so hard I was crying.

‘Walden on Wheels’ by Ken Ilgunas
- Blogged about this too!

‘Nine Lives’ by William Dalrymple
- I’m still reading this one actually, but it’s very interesting – essentially nine documentary-like chapters about different people the author met around India, their spiritual beliefs and practices, and the context in which these sit in modern India. Some of these are a lot more disturbing than I imagined.

Non fiction

‘The Gifts of Imperfection’ by Brene Brown
- The only self-help book I would recommend from this year’s reading. Research-based, concise, and very practical. How to live a more whole-hearted life. See also Brene Brown’s excellent TED talks.

‘The First 20 Minutes: The Surprising Science That Reveals How We Can Exercise Better’ by Gretchen Reynolds
- Reports a load of research results, but doesn’t seem to do much in the way of drawing out the main messages or conclusions, so it felt a bit like reading a bowl of spaghetti to me. However, I did pick up some potentially useful tips from it. For example, did you know that stretching exercises as a warm-up are worse than useless? Neither did I!

‘Why Have Kids? A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness’ by Jessica Valenti
- I read this expecting to be put off the idea of having a baby, but if anything, it actually made the idea a little less scary. It’s people’s expectations of parenthood that seem to matter – and how helpful the society/workplace is (I’m glad I’m not in America after reading this). One other thing that stuck with me is the research suggesting that mothers working and children attending nurseries (part-time, especially) is probably better for both than staying at home full-time.

‘The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone’ by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett
- Think I may have mentioned this before, too – it’s fascinating, compelling, and has made me see the world a bit differently.

‘One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One’ by Lauren Sandler
- Interesting, research-based, mostly positive perspective on singletons. One thing that stuck with me was the picture it paints of ‘suburban ghettos’ – the homogeneous, middle-class, out-of-town housing estates people are forced to leave city apartments for (and submit to the prospect of social isolation and/or many hours spent in cars every week), in order to have a family of a certain size – and the idea that there’s a middle way with a small family.

‘Why Aren’t More Women in Science? Top Researchers Debate the Evidence’ by various authors
- A series of essays pertaining to this question. I’ve been meaning to write a post on this for ages, but I haven’t summoned the energy to wade through the terribly dry, academic writing again and summarise. It’s only because it’s a topic of such personal interest to me that I even got through it once! I will write the post soon…

‘How to Get a Job You’ll Love’ by John Lees
- A real morale boost for anyone looking at their career. Lots of practical advice.

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We are nothing but our stories

The following is (roughly) the address I gave at this morning’s Sunday Assembly. I fear the end was slightly corny, but I meant well!

I thought I would read a passage from a book I’ve read recently, that has inspired me. The book is called “Walden on Wheels” by Ken Ilgunas.

“I’d once heard that we are nothing but our stories. Forget the blood and bones and genes and cells. They’re not what we are. We are, rather, our stories. We are an accumulation of experiences that we have fashioned into our own grand, sweeping narrative. We are the events and people and places to which we’ve assigned symbolic meaning. And it’s when we step outside our stories that we feel most lost.”

The book is a memoir written by a young American guy who struggled with the high cost of being a student, with feeling shackled by the need to pay back huge student loans, and with the limited prospects for finding meaningful work. The book is about his way out of this situation; about how he found ways to live in line with his values of freedom, integrity, and adventure, to live a good life despite the constraints on him, and it ends up with him going back to university for postgraduate study – and living in a van to be able to stay out of debt.

I found it an interesting read. One thing that stood out to me was that he didn’t always seem to have a great time when he did follow his values or his sense of adventure. It was as if he was driven by a romantic narrative that was a bit more gritty in reality. He took an ill-prepared hike up Blue Cloud mountain in Alaska, and he freely admits this experience was painful and miserable, and only later became a warm and fuzzy memory. It felt good to look back on, because it was the kind of challenge that fitted with the adventurous storyline he wanted to live by. He says:

“When it comes to memories, it seems we all have an editor within who will—if it’ll make for a good story—revise the senseless into symbols, or rephrase miseries into warm memories.”

Maybe following our values and acting along the lines of our chosen stories is something that pays off later on. I don’t think it’s just mental editing after the fact that generates meaning. The experiences themselves are important. We just have to have patience to take the journey and not expect every moment of it to be blissful. Again, to quote from the book:

“… more and more, I began to believe that to live a happy present requires having lived a full past. It requires that we go on our own journey. And if we are so lucky as to reach the end of that tortuous, troubled path, we may be afforded the gleaming vista of self-discovery.”

There’s no getting away from hardship in life. Maybe what matters is where it is leading you; what the purpose is, and whether that is in line with your deepest values, as they emerge along the way.

That’s not to say that happiness is always about looking back over your past. There were some sublime moments for Ken, like the sight of the northern lights in the Alaskan winter sky, and sometimes these moments came unexpectedly. Moments where life feels magical and wonderful are there to be had, and they might always just be moments, but I think we can open ourselves to more of them if we choose to. The Sunday Assembly is all about that! I remember the first time I came to a Sunday Assembly, during the Fringe, the singing had that kind of effect on me. Maybe I just really connected with the particular song, but I was blown away by how good it felt just to sing joyfully with a bunch of other people. I couldn’t wait to get involved. I really hope this will be a place where we all get to have more moments of wonder and joy.

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A new beginning

When I wrote of “getting involved” at the end of my previous post on the Sunday Assembly, little did I know that I – along with my other half – would be putting together the band! Oh, and playing in it too, even though I haven’t played music in public for years!

Sunday Assembly is now a global movement, a network of ‘secular churches’, and the Edinburgh branch had our launch this week with Sanderson and Pippa, as part of their 40-day tour of new Assembly launches. (One of the other organisers has put some photos online here.) With a lot of work done by a little group of organisers, we all got to know each other a bit, and we had an evening we could be proud of.

There has been some press coverage, and the comments have been really interesting. Perhaps it’s partly the nature of Internet comments threads, but opinions among the non-religious seem to be really polarised. Some people love the idea, while others are actually affronted by the very concept – the analogy of “pretend meat for vegetarians” has come up more than once, with the implication that there is a kind of hypocrisy involved: if you like religion that much, you should just be religious!

Some people have said that they don’t think a community can work when it is not based around some common belief, or purpose, or activity, or whatever. I guess time will tell – the London one seems to be going strong, but it’s still only in its first year. I guess there is more potential for fragmentation or conflict when there isn’t a defining creed or official stance on various things. There has already been a split in the New York one, with a more atheism-centred and religion-bashing group having to go off and start their own thing independently. Then again, perhaps this just shows that the Sunday Assembly is already pretty clear on what it is and what it isn’t.

I don’t think it’s harder to understand or explain to people than any of the myriad varieties of church out there. (And churches are not immune to inner conflict, either!) It’s just that everyone knows what a church is, even if they’re not familiar with a particular one. When I was a Christian, I could mention “church” and I don’t think it bothered me whether people knew exactly what kind of church I went to. With this, I get a bit nervous when I don’t have the opportunity to give a full explanation!

But I’m definitely excited and proud to be a part of this. Church, if you set aside the religious element, is about congregating with others to take a bit of time out from busy lives and reflect on life a bit; to be uplifted together; to reach out and do some good to others. There are many people who want all these things, but are just turned off by the God part. This is for them (but not exclusively! ;) )

Posted in personal reflection, Sunday Assembly | 5 Comments

Enjoying life!

As a follow-up to the Sunday Assembly, we went to Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans’s Fringe show, “Wonder and Joy“, yesterday evening. It was like a 50-minute party, with songs, jokes, games and the making of new friends. Crazy, chaotic, and great fun indeed. Somehow it left me feeling a bit wistful. I think there was something about seeing Sanderson putting all he had into it, roaring and clapping and jumping and the sweat dripping down his face… I felt grateful for all the energy he was putting into making miserable souls like me a bit more joyful for 50 minutes. As for ‘wonder’, I wondered how one could be that full of life. I wished I could be more like this myself; just having a blast enjoying life while it’s here. There is so much to enjoy and be grateful for; why do I seem to get stuck in worries, in negativity, so often?

There was not much depth written into their show, and it made me think that depth and too much thinking may be part of the problem!

I’ve tended to think of spirituality in terms of searching one’s depths, to find meaning and to reflect on the nature of life. Sitting quietly and looking inward. There’s definitely a place for that, but there’s also a place, as I rediscovered on Sunday, for letting go and simply making a joyful noise until it feels like you are on fire. That too can be ‘spiritual’. (Apart from Christian worship, the other thing Sunday reminded me of is how I feel when I’m dancing. I turned to that two years ago when I needed some joy, and it was a very similar experience.)

The charismatic Christian worship I experienced in my youth was in some ways pretty shallow; I’m sure I’ve made that complaint on here. (Some reviewers of the Wonder and Joy show seem to make the same complaint!) In the aftermath of that phase, it was good to be still and to ponder meatier questions more carefully; to use my head and be rational instead of relying on the changing weathers of emotion to show me where God was.

Shallow certainly isn’t a good way to deal with truths and issues that really matter, but I guess shallow manipulation of the emotions towards joy and happiness can still be pretty awesome in its own right, and maybe even essential for those of us who can be a bit too serious at times. These guys are doing that without the claim that it is anything deeper, without using it to stamp dogma onto open hearts. I think that is important.

Incidentally the main talk on Sunday dealt with human weakness, in a humble and humorous way. It had me laughing at myself over my own recent failures, which was a very different way to feel about them than I’m used to.

If I’ve taken anything away from these two events, it is surely the resolve to take life a bit less seriously. ;)

Posted in personal reflection, spiritual, Sunday Assembly | 1 Comment