Research life

Gender bias: time to defy the ridiculous

The debate on gender equality, or lack thereof, is flaring again (see here for a great example). A time to remember that sometimes it’s best not to read the comment section (how they get from “we need women in science” to “men are better at sports than women” to “courts unfairly favour women in date-rape cases” I’ll never know).

The most common argument against women in science leans on ‘the neuroscience approach’ – the idea that male brains are ‘wired’ for logic and problem solving and so are inherently better at maths and science. The flip side, is that a woman will be an inferior scientist to a man because there are limits to what her brain can achieve (the poor dear). There are plenty of resources which deal with the evidence and counter-evidence in-depth (see bottom of this post for further reading). In short, it’s not true.

The brain is the “most complicated biological structure in the known universe” (Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the newly formed BRAIN Initiative in the US). It controls our bodies and indeed, the way we perceive and understand the world around us. We know a little about how it works, but have only just begun to scratch the surface of understanding how brain physiology (e.g. size, blood flow, or electrical activity) influences thought, emotion and intellectual potential. While other parts of the body follow fairly well understood rules (e.g. the ability to lift a weight is limited by the amount, size and type of muscle fibers), we are constantly amazed by how the human brain can adapt, grow and recover. When it comes to the brain, the possibilities seem limitless.

Given this complexity, judging academic merit based on gender seems crude, ridiculous and damaging. In my humble opinion, to understand a person’s intelligence or ability to do good science, you really need to know more than whether they pee standing up or sitting down. Sorry, but I did say it was crude. And ridiculous.

It’s not enough to ignore these ideas. We need to defy them. So when I hear broad, sweeping, ill-informed statements about my mental capacity based on gender, this is my response:

You don’t know me. You don’t know my experiences or what I liked at school. You don’t know that my love of problem solving and learning about the natural world made it inevitable that I would choose science as a profession. You don’t know how I think, why I think that way, or what motivates me. So don’t ever tell me that there is a problem I am incapable of solving because of my gender.

How will you respond?

Further reading

This is by no means an exhaustive list but just a few starting points…

A great read, deconstructing ‘neurosexism’ arguments one by one Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine.

Some blogs which feature great posts on women in science include Soapbox Science and The Contemplative MammothEdit almost forgot to include this cracking post from EEB & flow. Check out their links to other sites.

Some articles on gender and student performance in maths and science.

Scientific journals, Nature and Animal Conservation acknowledging and addressing the problem.

Think you’re free of bias? Head to Project Implicit and take a test to assess any unconscious bias. The results might surprise you.

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