So what is different about women?

The simplest answer to the question Why Science is Sexist? is that it is sexist because it is sexist.  The importance (and dearth) of role models is something that is often brought up.  It’s a good one, in some ways, because people like to think that they can see it changing; at the highest levels of science though, that is still pretty questionable.

That article in NPR is blunt:

“It would suggest that there’s more evidence in more recent decades of a bias in the sciences than in earlier decades”

… which is to say, once upon a time you could state that at least women won Nobel Prizes in proportion to their participation in science.  That is no longer true.

The lack of women at the highest levels is what Larry Summers was talking about when he pointed to the importance of aptitude.  And let’s be blunt, what he was really saying, was this:

brain_male_sm brain_female_sm

It’s biology.  It’s the way we are, therefore there is no point in trying to change it.  It’s not even sexist to say so, because … it’s biology.

This meme has taken on a life of its own in the Mars/Venus understanding of gender relations.  And remember, it’s not sexist … because girls are (wait for it) smarter.  Nicer.  Better in many many ways… (because boys are troubled)


or perhaps because we have butterflies in our brains:


but be careful, you may not be a real woman unless you can mind-read:


Ummm yes.  For an entertaining dissection of all the above, I recommend this:


Without giving any of that any more time than it deserves, let me just say that yes, biology does play a part in gender differences.  (Larry Summers had it right on the height and weight part.)  But if you want to read a sensible account of the ways in which pregnancy and motherhood run up against the way the working world works, I recommend this piece by Anne-Marie Slaughter.  Hint: there’s a reason the subtitle refers to what has to change.  It isn’t specific to science, either.

So what is specific to science?

Try googling images of scientists. Ok, I’ll be fair and admit that the results are not flattering to any of us.  But what about this (one of the few women who appeared the first time I did this):

images (3)

The gender gap in physics, or in chemistry (sorry for both the paywall and the comments on that one!), or mathematics, or engineering, or STEM generally, is big and it does not appear to be going away on its own.  So what is special about science?

I’m going to dip into personal experience here (so shoot me!).  The huge elephant in the room is that science is sexist (as measured by the representation of women) despite the fact that the huge majority of scientists I have met are not.  There are a few exceptions, some of which I may tell you about later, but this, for me, is the real anomaly.  Why should science be worse than an average cross section of the population, if it is not that the individuals are worse?

I was asked recently, after the third iteration of this talk, what I meant by sexist.  I repeated a couple of times, that in a population which is 50% male and 50% female, any significant deviation away from a 1:1 ratio implies some kind of sexism.  The response?  “So then would you say that sewing is sexist if more women than men choose to sew?”

So what has to change, in my opinion?  I think we have to untilt the playing field, and that means you need equal representation.  Why?  Not because of some idea that women are less sexist than men, and want an equally weighted voting bloc.  No, quite the opposite.  We are all sexist, living in a sexist world.  All of us.

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2 Responses to So what is different about women?

  1. jurgen says:

    Hi, i have reading out and i will definitely bookmarrk your site, just wanted to say i liked this article.

  2. Pingback: ‘that stupid sciam blog’ and why it matters | Why Science Is Sexist

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