Does gender matters? Women in science

Barres, Ben A. “Does gender matters?” Nature, Vol. 442, 13 July 2002, pp. 133-136 

I’m half way through Cordelia Fine’s most recent book, Delusions of Gender, and I’m really enjoying it. The book explains in a clear and straightforward manner some of the prejudices behind many of the currently fashionable theories about the cognitive differences between the male and the female brain. In showing the inconsistencies of all these theories, she refers to Barres’ article.

Barres writes from the unusual point of view of a transgendered person (from female to male) and so he is in an excellent position to capture some of the invisible elements that drive gender discrimination in academia. Barres engages in the topic from both a personal and a political perspective, which I really appreciate. For example, he mentions that he soon realised that as a male academic he was in a more powerful position than when he was a female academic. As he states with irony, “I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man” (p. 135).

The trigger for Barre’s article was a statement by Harvard Professor Larry Summer , President of Harvard University from 2001-2006, Director of the White House National Economic Council and parenting expert in his spare time . Summer suggested that women are not advancing in science because they are innately not as well-equipped as men with the sorts of abilities required in science. His statement caused commotion and great opposition, and finally cost him his post as President of Harvard University and as Obama’s advisor. 

Summer’s approach was in part based on the polemic research conducted by Simon Baron-Cohen, who concludes that women are more inclined to empathize, communicate and care for others, whereas men are better at systematizing. Consequently, he says, the reasons behind women not advancing in science (or in any other field that requires systematizing skills) is purely related to biology or genetics. Up to this point there is no need for a great imagination to see some of the consequences of this assumption: if women are not as good as men in certain areas, let’s pay them less, put them into less favourable contracts, or simply not encourage them into research at all as it’s a waste of time and money.

 I must admit that when I read this pseudo-scientific rambling about female-male brain differences I get really mad. It’s not the fact that there are differences between the male and female brain, as seems to be the case, but rather that these differences are interpreted and constructed to justify women’s disadvantaged position in science and academia. Historically speaking we have been here before, so arguments about lack of women’s soul or intelligence are not new. This is just a sophisticated version. More than ever, we need to remember that the personal is political: that is, I’m not getting a Chair in Physics not because I’m not smart enough or lacking systematizing skills (sic) but because the institution discriminates against me on the basis of my gender.

I know that Summer’s statement happened in 2005, but still. How on earth does an intelligent and accomplished person who is supposed to be leading one of the best universities in the world have the guts to stand up in front of the academic community and say this? I guess because a) this is what Summer really thinks and b) because the institution has been implementing this policy for such a long time that mentioning it in public is nothing more than revealing a common and accepted practice . Not surprisingly, Professor Nancy Hopkins and others protested vividly.

 What really make me angry is the fact that we’re supposed to stay cool and quiet and accept Summer’s apology  without suggesting that his speech reveals something more than the personal opinion of someone with a big mouth. In the end, the apology was just about Professor Summers’ lack of tact, but nothing is said about the discriminatory practices endemic in academia.

Barres mentions in his article that although using words to combat words might be an appropriate strategy, something more needs to be done. Larry Summer’s comments on women’s innate inferiority is not an exercise in freedom of speech: as Barres says, it is “verbal violence”. Barres suggests not only standing up to openly denounce this sort of statement and the junk science they are based on but also doing something about it. These are some of the points he highlights in his article:

• First, let’s be clear; there is no evidence of different abilities in maths or science based on gender.

• Second, it’s common in academia to raise the bar for women: “One study found that women applying for a research grant needed to be 2.5 times more productive than men in order to be considered equally competent” ( p. 134).

• Third, we should be aware of the phenomenon of pulling up the ladder behind us. Unfortunately some women are not helping when they get to the top and often try to stop other women arriving in similar positions. But also some women fall into what is called “denial of personal disadvantage”, which implies comparing their achievements with those of other women rather than with men to conclude that there is no such a thing as gender discrimination in academia.

• Fourth, women are not more emotional than men, and for that reason they are well-equipped to look after other people.

• Fifth, there is a need to boost girls’ and women’s confidence that they can get what they want in terms of their studies and jobs. We need to encourage girls to study science if that’s what they want, and to avoid any sort of gender bias when advising them on their future professional careers. Most of all, as Barres puts it, it would be very useful to provide women with tools that teach them “how to survive in a prejudiced world”.

• And sixth, we should speak out and denounce discrimination in academia, no matter whether it is based on gender, religion, sex, nationality or race.


3 responses to “Does gender matters? Women in science

  1. Hi there, thanks for your great blog, I’ve just started reading. If you haven’t already read it, you might be interested in a fascinating book called PythagorasesTrousers: God, Physics,and the Gender Wars by Margaret Wertheim

  2. Pingback: The princess phase | maternalselves

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