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Why am I crap at Maths? Well, because I am a woman

Some writing about coaching women that I submitted for my certificate in coaching. I thought I would like to publish it in our blog.

Just a warning: A bit long!

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 Since Baron-Cohen’s book The Essential Difference[1] was published in 2003 there has been passionate debate on whether neuroscience can explain differences between genders; that is, whether men and women are different because they have different types of brain. In 2010, Cordelia Fine published her book Delusions of Gender,[2] which attacks Baron-Cohen and others’ main assumptions and labels them ‘neurosexism’.

The study of brain differences between genders started with several researchers, including Baron-Cohen, Becker[3] and Goldstein,[4] developing their theories in the field of disease pathology. These authors emphasize in their studies that sex differences exist in various chronic diseases such as schizophrenia, rheumatoid arthritis and Alzheimer’s, among others.

However, the field moved quickly into another arena; that is, one of measuring different gender behaviour and innate skills associated with the female and the male brain. Some of the adamant supporters of these theories include Anne Moir, who proposes treating boys and girls differently in school based on their different skills and learning capacities.  According to this author, boys’ and girls’ brains mature at different stages to reveal different skills at different times.[5] Her theories have already had a certain impact on the British educational system with at least one school, Blackawton Primary School in Devon, adopting them.[6]

The question addressed by these researchers is whether male’s and female’s brains are really so different that they condition their behaviour and innate skills. If they are, what are these differences, and can they be proven scientifically?  According to Baron-Cohen they can.

Addressing the question of gender brain differences, Baron-Cohen says: ‘The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems’.[7] Reading this statement may lead one to think that Baron-Cohen follows a strict gender biological determinism in which there is no room for social or cultural constructions of gender, something that he absolutely denies:

‘Biological determinists don’t dismiss the importance of culture. They simply don’t deny the role of biology. It is a moderate position, recognising the interaction of social and biological factors. Nor, in my opinion, is biological determinism necessarily sexist. It can be sexist, if it is used to claim that all women do X and all men do Y (since sex differences don’t apply to all individuals of one sex) or if it is used to perpetuate social inequalities. Such sexist applications of biological determinist theories are abhorrent’.[8]

In his mild approach to biological determinism, not all men have a systematizing brain and not all women are endowed with an empathizing one. These are just tendencies. In fact: ‘A brain type that leans towards strong ‘systemising’, for example, is more common in males, but there are plenty of men who don’t have this profile, and quite a lot of females who do’.[9]

Not surprisingly, this statement can make one wonder about the truth of a scientific’ theory that tries to explain `differences between genders as valid in some cases but not in others. This field is full of controversy, as different researchers report different results in their studies.

For example, a study conducted among children at school shows that they are very sensitive to gender language and division, with children exposed to gender divisions more likely to present gender stereotypes, such as that only girls should play with baby dolls.[10] Other studies show that believing in stereotypes undermines girls’ performance in maths.[11]  Interestingly enough, it seems that not all verbal abilities in toddlers are gender-determined. A study conducted among 80 families in two small cities in Kansas revealed no gender differences in verbal interactions among toddlers.[12] And finally, a study conducted in the US between more than 450 children of different backgrounds, socio-economic status, gender and race found that young children think that certain attitudes or inclinations such as playing football or playing with dolls are innate to boys or girls.[13] 

These are just a couple of examples to illustrate how understanding of male and female brain differences is still very controversial and far from conclusive. As Barnett and Rivers put it ‘Baron-Cohen’s work on empathy is a distressing example of sweeping generalization based on almost no credible data. He doesn’t bother to ask whether women’s empathy is a product of their brain structures or (more likely) of the fact that society assigns them the job of caring for others’.[14]

 Supporting the lack of scientific conclusive evidence on brain gender difference theories, Deena Skolnik Weisberg affirms: ‘Remember that neuroscience, as a method for studying the mind, is still in its infancy […] we should remember that it has this promise, and give it the time it needs to achieve its potential – without making too much of it in the meantime’.[15]

Accordingly, Fine tries to alert us to the danger of elevating speculation to the status of fact: ‘Once in the public domain these supposed facts about male and female brains become part of the culture […] they reinforce and legitimate the gender stereotypes that interact with our minds, helping to create the very gender inequalities that the neuroscientific claims seek to explain’.[16]

Taking this warning seriously into account requires analysis of how literature on social science has been exposed to and influenced by popular science, taking for granted certain assumptions that are still debatable in the scientific community.

 Natalia


[1] Baron-Cohen, S. (2003) The essential difference: Men, women and the extreme male brain, Allen Lane, London.

[2] Fine, Cordelia (2010) Delusions of gender: The real science behind sex differences, Icon Books, London.

[3] Becker, Jill B.; Berkley, Karen J.; Geary, Nori; Hampson, Elizabeth; Herman, James P.; Young, Elizabeth (eds) (2008) Sex differences in the brain: From genes to behaviour, Oxford University Press, New York.

[4] Goldstein JM. (2006) ‘Sex, hormones and affective arousal circuitry dysfunction in schizophrenia’ Hormones and Behaviour, Vol. 50, Issue 4, pp. 612-22.

[5] For more information see Dr. Anne Moir’s webpage at http://www.brainsexmatters.com/learn.php [accessed 2nd January 2012].

[6] See ‘Should boys be treated differently at school?’ (2011) at http://www.educationmatters.ie/2011/01/28/

should-boys-be-treated-differently-in-school/ [accessed 2nd January 2012].

[7] Baron- Cohen, S., Op. Cit., p. 1.

[8] Baron-Cohen, S. (2010), ‘It’s not sexist to accept that biology affects behaviour’ The Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/may/03/biology-sexist-gender-stereotypes [accessed 2nd January 2012].

[9] Ibid.

[10] Hilliard, Lacey J.; Liben, Lynn S. (2010) ‘Differing Levels of Gender Salience in Preschool Classrooms: Effects on Children’s Gender Attitudes and Intergroup Bias’, Child Development, Vol. 81, No 6, pp. 178-1798.

[11] Beilock, Silan L.; Gunderson, Elizabeth A.; Ramirez, Gerardo; Levine, Susan C. (2010) ‘Female teachers’ Math Anxiety Affects Girls’ Math Achievements’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America, Vol. 107, No 5, pp. 1860-1863.

[12] Lindsey, Eric W.; Cremeens, Penny R.;  Caldera, Yvonne M. (2010)Gender Differences in Mother-toddler and Father-toddler Verbal Initiations and Responses during a Caregiving and Play Context’, Sex Roles, Vol. 63, No 5, pp. 399-411.

[13] Taylor, Marianne G.; Rhodes, Marjorie; Gelman, Susan A. (2009) ‘Boys Will Be Boys; Cows Will Be Cows: Children’s Essentialist Reasoning about Gender Categories and Animal Species’, Child Development, Vol. 80, No 2, pp. 461-481.

[14] Barnett, Rosalind C.; Rivers, Caryl (2005) ‘Biology, Destiny, and Bad Science’ Dissent, Vol. 52, No 3, p. 70.

[15] Weisberg, D. S. (2008) ‘Caveat Lector. The Presentation of Neuroscience Information in the Popular Media’, Science Review of Mental Health Practice, Vol. 6, No 1 , p. 56, quoted in Fine, Cordelia (2010) Delusions Of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences, Icon Books, London, p.  154.

[16]  Fine, Cordelia Op. Cit. p. 186. See also, Barnett, Rosalind; Rivers, Caryl (2011) The Truth about Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes about our Children, Columbia University Press, New York.

Still around

Yes, still around and trying to find some time to get back to blogging . In the meantime, these are the things I would like to write about:

-Why me? Different levels of tiredness when baby and toddler refuse to sleep and you need to find the courage to keep on going the whole day.

-An article from Anne-Marie Slaughter on why women still can’t have it all

Many women of my generation have found themselves, in the prime of their careers, saying no to opportunities they once would have jumped at and hoping those chances come around again later. Many others who have decided to step back for a while, taking on consultant positions or part-time work that lets them spend more time with their children (or aging parents), are worrying about how long they can “stay out” before they lose the competitive edge they worked so hard to acquire.

Given the way our work culture is oriented today, I recommend establishing yourself in your career first but still trying to have kids before you are 35—or else freeze your eggs, whether you are married or not. You may well be a more mature and less frustrated parent in your 30s or 40s; you are also more likely to have found a lasting life partner. But the truth is, neither sequence is optimal, and both involve trade-offs that men do not have to make.

You should be able to have a family if you want one—however and whenever your life circumstances allow—and still have the career you desire. If more women could strike this balance, more women would reach leadership positions. And if more women were in leadership positions, they could make it easier for more women to stay in the workforce. The rest of this essay details how.

– Commenting on two fantastic blogs I´ve found: Mama Nervosa  and First the egg

– I like Mothering as meditation practice from First the Egg and also this  from Zanna Yardas

I was a serious meditation practitioner before kids and I wasn’t going to let the having of kids get in the way of this precious link to self awareness and sanity. But how? Where? When? Like most mothers, it was quite natural for me to just sit with my baby while we gazed into each other’s eyes.  But I yearned for more connection and less mentation. Then I remembered the famous Zen saying: before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.   So nursing could be become a time, a place and a way to meditate. Infusing this natural expression of mother-infant bonding with the practice of watching the breath, would ultimately serve to heighten my awareness and tune me into to my baby rather than to zone off or complete a bunch of mental lists that could wait.

As you can guess, I spend a lot of time thinking on how to find the time to meditate instead of just being present in the moment.

Currently in Bilbao, enjoying the sun,the company of my family, and adapting to the fact that people don’t respect a queue, don’t drink coffee while walking and never arrive on time.

 

Natalia

 

New arrivals at maternalselves

Long time since we wrote the last post here.We want to share with you that Lucila’s son and my daughter were born in January  with just one day of difference! Pretty easy but intense labours ( Lucila’s at home, mine at hospital)

Our lives are a bit hectic at this moment. We would like to share a lot of things with you but we need to wait a bit until we all settle down in this new and exciting life.

Lucila and Natalia

So, what do you do?

So what do you do?

I am a mum. Conversation killer, well, it could be a starter depending on who you talk to, but mostly a killer.

At the moment, I am not doing any waged work. I am trying to write articles from my PhD research, but nobody is paying me to do so. I went to a conference recently, but that’s about it. The rest of the time, I manage the house, and I am with r. Since last week, she is doing 3.30 hours at the Montessori. For the last two and a half weeks, she was settling in, which meant she was going one hour, and then extending it slowly by 15 minutes. And I was staying there, waiting for her. So it has only been a few days that I have had my three hours.  And sometimes it is even less, if I take her in the mornings. Luckily, my partner has agreed to take her, but we are still working it out. So yes, mostly full-time mom.

We moved recently, so I am meeting people here and they ask, as anybody would ‘so what do you do? And I am struggling here. I feel the need to explain that I just finished my PhD, that I have done a little bit of consultancy since, but that at the moment I am a mum. But it does not seem enough to be a mum. I think that is quite crap to be honest. I feel like the waiters who shout at you that really, they are actors/comedians/students…but in reality, no, I‘m ‘really’ a mum, and very happy of being one, and hopefully, eventually, I will also have a paid job. But I struggle to just state that nonchalantly. I think these little instances, those uncomfortable moments when I say I am a mum and eyes glaze over, show the diminished view of motherhood, and the (invisible) work that it entails, which is as sorry a state as when working for a wage was shameful in my view…

Lucila

 

Great minds think alike, or the power of coincidence

Hello there, hope some of you are still with us, in spite of our very patchy appearance.

What’s the likelihood of two friends getting pregnant at the same time?? quite remote, but here we are. Natalia, who has been much better at organising her time and energy than me, has already told you her news, I wanted to share mine with you too, though I’m sorry it’s a bit late: I’m pregnant, 5 months now…one week ahead of Natalia to be exact!

This is one of the reasons for my absence here in this space. The first three months were just a bare survival in terms of energy, I couldn’t get my body to do and go along with all my plans. My body did not budge: ‘sleep when you can’, was it’s motto. And that’s what I had to do, even if I had a hard time accepting it (and still am!). Also, all I could think those first months apart from sleep was pregnancy and baby related daydreaming…some good, some wondering how the hell I was to cope with two, if I could barely cope with one…There is something about not being able to talk about something that shuts the door for talking about other things…it was as if I was blocked or something.

After those months, house moving suddenly got very near and a holiday break in between with no internet access – apart from a dark cyber cafe- made contributing here very hard. So I apologise for that! and to myself, because I miss this space, I miss it a lot. Now, one week in the new house, I feel today – unlike yesterday!- that things are starting to shape up a bit in our smaller house: in trying to control the overload of THINGS, in finding ways to accomodate different needs, and especially a little one who has been brilliant with all these changes – baby on the way, move, saying goodbye to the nanny, loads of visits from grandparents – but who needs extra re-assurance – running into our bed in the middle of the night, going to bed late because she needs us to stay with her for a loooong time, and who has quite a few unleashings of what looks like madness over little things, but which are obviously her way of taking some steam out…but in the midst of it all, here I am am. I’m back.

Lucila

 

Going for holidays for two weeks

I will be in France on holidays for two weeks with no internet connection. I hope I can survive 🙂

See you soon,

Natalia

What I want from a job

 I’m currently in the Basque Country where the weather has been crap for two weeks. However, thanks to Susana I can have three hours of computer-reading work every day, unless I need to collapse on my sofa for an hour or so before E. returns from the park full of energy and joy.

 Apart from getting back to writing, reading and doing some other admin work for the university, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about my job. This morning, navigating through my usual feminist blogs I found Rachel’s post “More than enough” in which she wonders “Do I need my paid work to be personally fulfilling?” Her answer is no, and that really made me think. Rachel says:

 “Right now my answer to this question is No. A couple of the gigs that are on the table for me at the moment do sound like creative, fun jobs — but do I need every job (or even most jobs) to be creative and fun? Right now, no. Right now my writing is personally fulfilling (OK, and agonizing, too), and taking care of my family is personally fulfilling, and that’s enough — more than enough, really. Meanwhile, all that I ask of my paid work is that it be satisfactory, worthwhile, and compensated decently.”

 You might think that I’m naïve, but I’ve never thought about my job from this point of view. I’m the type of person who needs my job to be personally fulfilling, otherwise I feel empty and depressed. Most of the time this translates into a not very satisfactory salary that makes me start thinking how I can get more money from my fulfilling job. As you can imagine, this ends up being not fulfilling at all because I get stressed and frustrated.

 I’m working as a part-time lecturer, writing this blog, studying for a PG in Coaching and still wondering whether or not I’m happy with my job. The reason is that I feel I’m not making enough money at the moment and not contributing in the way I would like to (for example, attending conferences and presenting papers, writing more articles in academic journals or writing more things in our blog, especially reviews). The outcome is that I don’t value what I’m doing very highly because I think it doesn’t have a big enough or successful enough impact.

 These thoughts hammer away at my brain and turn into an absolute killer, not allowing me to make the sort of compromise that Rachel talks about.

 My hope is that our second baby will blow everything out and my obsession for performing, doing well, succeeding and making more money will vanish along with the stupid idea that what I need to fulfill myself is a good job.

Natalia