Dealing with Differences
When pioneering feminists fought for women’s rights, they knew that they had a long battle ahead of them. Today, when most of us would like to think that women are equal, we still can’t quite put our finger on just why women are still underrepresented in the hard sciences. Women actually make up the majority in the so-called soft science fields like anthropology, and they have a large representation in many other high-powered and male dominated fields, but they are lagging behind in others.
The question as to why women are so sorely outnumbered in various scientific fields has been raging for years now, and almost every expert to ever glance at the issue has some pet theory that is sure to raise someone’s hackles.
President of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, was already a highly contentious figure when he made a remark that was the catalyst for his fall from grace. Much of the faculty was unhappy with his leadership, and many felt that his unorthodox method of running Harvard would harm the institution’s reputation. Few people can remember what else he said in his infamous 2005 comment that women might be underrepresented in the hard sciences due to “innate gender differences” (Danadio 1).
Not surprisingly, I first heard about this online. Various feminist and news blogs were in an absolute uproar over the very notion that women don’t make it in the sciences because, as they interpreted Summers’ remark to mean, “women were too stupid to understand science.”
It is not my intent to denigrate these particular writers, because more often than not, the idea that men and women might possibly be wired differently leads to the rather unrelated idea that men and women are bound up in a biological destiny and that they are intended to do different things. Such an idea makes any woman in the sciences a freak, by these standards. There are entire camps of people who believe that there are no innate differences between the sexes.
The fact of the matter is, the sexes are wired differently.
The fear of admitting that the genders might be different is overwhelming, because confessing to one small difference might prove the biological determinists right.
The differences that science has validated, however, don’t really seem to have any bearing at all on whether women can do well in the hard sciences.
In women, the frontal cortex (the region of the brain that deals with higher cognition), is larger, whereas the parietal cortex in men is larger; the parietal cortex being the portion of the brain that deals with spatial perception (Cahill 42). There have also been behavioral studies that indicate that women are more geared toward faces while men toward objects. This subject often inspires rousing debates—to put it mildly—in nature versus nurture, and so the researchers used newborns.
Though one must wonder how representative newborns are of the cognitive skills of adults, the intriguing results of gender difference aside.
Researchers will also point out that, among primates, at least, females are more drawn to playing with dolls while males prefer to play with toys that “move through space” (Cahill 43) and use these results as a basis for the idea that women are more inclined to nurture and raise young while men are more likely to do… well, just about anything that’s not limited by childrearing.
These researchers seem to have forgotten that primates, like humans, are largely social animals and subject to some of the same social pressures that humans are. If one wants to argue that females are innately drawn to childcare activities not through socialization but through hardwiring in their genes, they cannot choose primates to base their theory on. Adolescent female offspring will stay with their mothers and help the females in the community take care of the younger primates within the group—much like young girls are encouraged to play with dolls to “prepare them” for a life of homemaking.
But for all the fallacious information and theory crafting out there, it seems that the argument that there exist structural and chemical differences between the male and female brain cannot be ignored.
Fortunately for us, many of these differences don’t seem to hinge on results, but rather the method of achieving results. For example: when I was younger, my father told me that women tend to navigate while driving by landmarks and men by road signs. Cahill’s article stated similar findings in rats. When a male rat is put in a maze, he will navigate by gauging distances and his orientation. Female rats, however, will use landmarks.
Both rats used a different method of reaching the end of the maze, but they both still got to the end.
The differences between the male and female brain in humans lead to the same conclusion. Men and women can both do the same work, but their approaches differ. This does not mean that one approach is less valid than the other.
The problem with taking this information to heart is that it deals in generalities, and that this different wiring doesn’t mean that women are destined to never excel in math and science. Generalities cannot be applied to individuals—we all have anecdotal stories of individuals who buck trends, like cats that enjoy water. A general observation might be “most women have long hair.” Which is true, a large part of the female population does have long hair, but does that mean we’re shocked when we come across a woman with short hair?
As a society, we’re obsessed with biological determinism, because believing that all our faults and virtues lie in our genes takes the pressure to change things off of us as people and as a society. If women don’t excel in these fields because women just aren’t mentally geared toward them, why should we, as a society, encourage women to go into these fields and pursue the things they want to pursue?
By believing that, and that the women who go into the sciences are doing so in defiance of their pre-ordained roles, society is relieved of the responsibility of taking a good, hard look at the other reasons women don’t take up these fields. Women feel ostracized in a male-dominated world where there is a pervasive prejudice against their cognitive abilities, whether subconscious and overt? No problem, women don’t belong there anyway.
Many more people believe that a large part of the reason that women don’t go into the sciences is due to external pressure. First, girls are generally not encouraged to take up the sciences or do well in math, however much they may be encouraged to do well academically. Second, the sciences are still viewed very much as a boy’s club, and getting into any of these fields, a woman faces adversity from fellow students, coworkers, and potential customers, often in the form of not being taken seriously—though more overt and malicious forms of discrimination certainly do take place.
But fixing that would involve actually changing one’s behavior, and has long history has taught us; people will look for any excuse possible to avoid changing themselves.
Even if it means telling girls that because of the way they process information, regardless of how they function as an individual, that they just aren’t any good in math or science.
Cahill, Larry. “His Brain, Her Brain.” Scientific American. April 25, 2005.
Donadio, Rachel. “The Tempest in the Ivory Tower.” The New York Times Book Review. March 27, 2005. 12-13.