Ask the average person on the street if men and women are wired differently and you’ll more often than not get an affirmatory response. Not overly suprising given the knowledge that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. Am I right? But dive a little deeper and chances are you’ll find that the vast majority of people would be relying heavily on deeply ingrained stereotypes, such as the “mythically superior ‘multitasking’ abilities” of women or men who just don’t listen, rather than on any scientifically verified information (although in fairness the bit about men not listening is probably true). Nonetheless, the fact that we rely on such stereotypes is not generally an issue, after all the human brain is a master at creating these categorical shortcuts in an effort to conserve its resources. However when these shortcuts are being used to endorse segregation in schools or distinct parenting styles based on gender, those of us who can spot the neuroscience from the neurononsense have a responsibility to take action.
Sum differences aren’t what they seem
There is no denying that differences do actually exist between the male and female brain. For example whilst the global cerebral blood flow is higher in the female brain, the male brain is on average 11% larger and consists of a higher proportion of white matter than its female counterpart. However it can also be said that males are, on average, 9% taller and 18% heavier than females, thus suggests that the larger brain size is merely another representation of readily observable sexual dimorphism between men and women. Rather than an indication that the male brain is more suited to such non-emotive skills as spatial relations and mathematics. But if the differences in underlying neuronal connections between the sexes aren’t to blame for the fact that over 70% of maths PhDs are men, who is? As it would turn out, we are. Or more specifically it’s society’s fault!
A recent study by husband and wife team Jonathon Kane and Janet Mertz investigated gender differences in mathematics performance and participation rates using scores from the internationally standardised OECD Program for International Student Assessment math test (2003 and 2009) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (2003 and 2007) . These data sets gave Kane and Mertz access to data from over 80 countries, with a 31-country overlap, and enabled them to rule out low-living standards, coeducational environments and innate variability among boys as potential causes for gender bias. Instead the study pointed to prevailing societal views and gender equity as the root of the problem. Maths pun intended.
Put simply the data showed that overall girls and boys performed equally well when it came to maths, so no evidence of biological variability there. But perhaps more importantly, both girls and boys from cultures with a higher level of gender equity performed better in the tests. Or as Kane puts it “Women doing better end up raising their kids better.”
But if both boys and girls perform equally, what’s with the lack of female mathematicians? For starters, it would appear that thegender gap doesn’t rear its’ ugly head until the young women start thinking abouttheir future careers. Insert a steady drone of societal tut-tutting about womenand numbers in the background and it’s little wonder that most women choose a careeroutside of maths (and science and engineering). The gap is essentially formedby the self-fulfilling prophecy that is this stereotype. Women are told thatthey can’t do maths, so they don’t do maths. Thus the small numbers of women whochoose a career in maths act as proof that women can’t do maths. And so the farce continues.
From stereotype to societal change
On paper, getting women back in the maths class is as straightforward as giving them equal rights and equal pay before saying “Hey, turns out we’re all great at maths.” Sadly, in reality it’s not quite so simple. Firstly, as it would turn out the aforementioned benefits which stereotypes bestow us regarding our cognitive resources ensure that they are deeply ingrained and so incredibly hard to shake. Secondly, any apparent differences between the genders, no matter how carefully reported, are often distorted and propagated by the media (see The Female Brain as a great example of such neurononsense or The Gender Delusion for an eloquent debunking of such myths). And they do this for the simple reason that biological gender differences fascinate us. And so they should.
As scientist, reporters, or simply those who know better (here’s that responsibility to act I was talking about earlier) we cannot ignore the possibility that gender differences exist. Nor should we. We should continue to look for them through our proverbial microscopes with a fervour that verges on mania. But, to paraphrase Lise Eliot, we must also be mindful. Mindful to communicate the true magnitude and intricacy of these differences, in an effort to avoid more widespread misuse of such research.
- Eliot, L. (2011). The Trouble with Sex Differences Neuron, 72 (6), 895-898 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2011.12.001
- Kane, J., & Mertz, J. (2012). Debunking Myths about Gender and Mathematics Performance Notices of the American Mathematical Society, 59 (01) DOI: 10.1090/S1088-9477-2012-00790-4
This post originally appeared at A Hippo on Campus.