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.)