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Feb 08 2013

Arithmetic via shopping

Chris Chambers and Kate Clancy point out at the Guardian that pseudoscience and stereotyping won’t solve gender inequality in science, via what they call a “stereotype-enforcing guide to addressing the gender imbalance in science” also published by the Guardian.

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a developmental neuroscientist at University College London, points out that finding reliable gender differences in the brain is complicated by individual differences: “There are a lot of girls who are better than boys at maths, for example, and a lot of boys who are better than girls at cooking. Therefore, these generalisations based on gender are unhelpful.”

Two recent books – Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender and Rebecca Jordan-Young’s Brain Storm – rigorously test many assumed sex differences, and find all of them lacking.

Even in cases where gender differences in behaviour or brain function can be shown, where is the evidence that such distinctions can be applied usefully to tailor learning? How do we know, for example, that advice such as making “domestic scenario[s] more mathematic and scientific” wouldn’t apply equally to boys? As Blakemore puts it, “Making mathematics relevant to everyday life problems (e.g. cooking, supermarket shopping) is a good idea when teaching all children, not just girls.”

Wait wait boys don’t relate to cooking and supermarket shopping because it’s only girls who grow up to be women and it’s only women who do cooking and supermarket shopping. Blakemore is so so so wrong to say that. Isn’t she?

Yet where the article touches on such evidence, it remains not only gender-specific, but gender-conformist: “Research shows that as girls get older they retain their mathematical and scientific abilities when applied to domestic scenarios.”

Right! That’s what I said! Oh, wait…is that gender-conformist? Sounds like radical feminism, that kind of talk. Radical gender feminism. Radical scary gender creepy castrating dyke feminism that’s only for ugly women.

Finding ways for girls to integrate interests in science and shopping doesn’t work if girls think this is the only way to engage with it. Girls are not a monolithic, pink princess-loving entity that responds uniformly to the same siren calls of colour, shopping and cooking. None of these was present when we were evolving; none of this is universal, hard-wired, or intuitive.

And if so many of these gender-conforming expectations are so harmful to boys’ and girls’ identities, why would we rely on them as a means through which to teach science?

Becaaaaaaaaaaause, we like things the way they are and we don’t want people to shake free of gender-conformity. That’s why.

We suggest an alternative to pseudoscientific list-making, and that is to identify and address structural inequality in our societies. There are two broad factors that drive our behaviours: our own individual agency, and the institutions around us. While it is useful to think about ways we can draw more girls into science by integrating it with their existing interests, it is also limiting. For instance, most adult women who hit the glass ceiling are just told to work harder, to be more pro-active, to seek more mentorship, and this can feel exhausting, especially if she already feels like she is doing those things without results. This is because it’s hard to win on agency if you’re not also winning on institution.

The broader societal constraints that lead so few girls to consider themselves “science people” by middle school derive not from whether we push them into science, but what we value in girls as a culture. What gendered representations of science continue to exist in underperforming countries like the US and UK? What messages do we send about how we value intelligence and knowledge, about how girls contribute to society? And, what would it take to overcome these obstacles to produce a more egalitarian learning environment?

Dropping the sarcasm now. Really. Adult women are also told to stop “complaining” or “whining” or being “professional victims.” We’re told the best way is just to put your head down and get on with it and be a role model for the three women who will ever be in a position to see what you’re doing. We’re told to shut up about institution because reasons. We’re told nice women don’t discuss broader societal constraints, because that’s radfem. We’re told only ugly women talk about broader societal constraints while pretty women are fully content with how things are because the vote.

 

 

10 comments

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  1. 1
    A Hermit

    We’re told nice women don’t discuss broader societal constraints, because that’s radfem.

    Also don’t get your icky, messy feminist activism in my pure-as-the-driven-snow skepticism/atheism. Skepticism and atheism are purely intellectual exercises which we must promote vigorously because of…something…but never allow to touch on real world problems.

  2. 2
    Pteryxx

    Not just the glass ceiling, but also the glass cliff (thanks to Crommunist):

    Canadian journalist Dan Gardner notes that this is a familiar pattern in Canadian politics – women gaining prominent positions as captains of ships that were sunk by the men preceding them. He quotes researchers who call this effect ‘the glass cliff’:

    Psychologists Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam had a close look at the Times’ exposé and discovered something curious: Corporations that appointed women to their boards “experienced consistently poorer performance in the five months preceding the appointment.” So the corporations didn’t struggle because they put women in leadership roles. They put women in leadership roles because they were struggling.

    Ryan and Haslam called this the “glass cliff”: Only when an organization’s situation is precarious are women given leadership, which ensures that women in charge often land with a thud.

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/crommunist/2013/01/28/glass-ceilings-cliffs-and-the-wrong-side-of-history/

    This is because it’s hard to win on agency if you’re not also winning on institution.

    I like this statement very much.

  3. 3
    NitricAcid

    Pterryx- I’ve long said that this was the reason that Kim Campbell was appointed Prime Minister. The Tories under Mulroney knew they were sunk, and figured they may as well get credit for “progressively” appointing the first female Canadian Prime Minister. They knew that the appointee would have no political future after the next election, and I suspect they didn’t want to “waste” a candidate that might have been electable at some future date.

  4. 4
    NitricAcid

    Of course, now that I find the original article being referenced, I see Kim Campbell being the first name mentioned

  5. 5
    bad Jim

    If you read the original cringe-inducing article on how to get girls to appreciate science, you might appreciate the riposte by Dean Burnett: Boys and science: The gender gap and how to maintain it.

    Pose them science questions then write a number of possible solutions on your own face and body. They get points whenever they punch you in the right answer. Or give them an air rifle and get them to shoot the right answer written on a number of targets or bottles. Basically, if it involves violence or destruction, it’s all good.

    It’s not great humor, but not a bad antidote.

  6. 6
    bad Jim

    The gender imbalance isn’t due to girls lacking interest in science, it’s the result of girls being discouraged from studying science and women discouraged from seeking careers. There’s nothing mysterious about it.

    I’ve hated this issue ever since Larry Summers was president of Harvard and made his notorious remarks about the capability of women in math and physics, because so many of my fellow liberals tended to agree. It was frustrating because my arguments had to be heuristic, saying we’ve been wrong every time we’ve said women couldn’t do something, so why does anyone think we’re right this time? Fortunately there were a few who’d been on the receiving end all their lives and could detail just how they’d been advised that the field was only for men, and we’ve learned more since about why the pipeline is so leaky, and it’s not as much the lamentable but understandable issues of marriage and children as outright discrimination.

    It’s personal. My sister was strongly into science, as was my high school girlfriend, pretty much my equal, who became a doctor. I just don’t get why anyone would think that this wonderful thing we all love is only for guys.

  7. 7
    Ysanne

    NitricAcid,
    the idea behind making Angela Merkel her party’s chairperson was exactly the same: We’re in trouble anyway, heads will roll, let’s make it someone expendable. Didn’t quite work out as planned, did it…

    Ophelia,

    Research shows that as girls get older they retain their mathematical and scientific abilities when applied to domestic scenarios.

    Maybe I misunderstand the authors’ intention here, but I saw this as way of pointing out that girls are actually just as good at maths and science as before, which they show in scenarios that they consider “safe”, i.e. when they won’t be labelled “unfeminine”, and when it’s not a skill/activity that they think would make them unattractive to boys.

  8. 8
    Martha

    For instance, most adult women who hit the glass ceiling are just told to work harder, to be more pro-active, to seek more mentorship, and this can feel exhausting, especially if she already feels like she is doing those things without results. This is because it’s hard to win on agency if you’re not also winning on institution.

    Like Pteryxx, I really like the last sentence of this quote. But it’s the sentence before that blew me away, as it captures so perfectly the source of my frustrations as a woman in science. Science is wonderful, but it is also tough and can be discouraging by its very nature. After all, most experiments don’t work the first time or even the fourth. Making life just a little bit tougher can be the difference between staying in the pipeline and jumping off at any stage of a woman’s career. And my guess is that it’s worse for people of color in science.

  9. 9
    threesecondsearch

    Hmm…. Wonder if “fitting in” is ERV’s conscious strategy. Never mind who else pays.

    She’s a bright lady.

  10. 10
    Martha

    Dunno about ERV, but we shouldn’t forget that there are some women who are privileged by patriarchal norms, and plenty of men who are disadvantaged by them. Not that the latter point means that they don’t buy into and perpetuate harmful attitudes the same way that many women do. Sigh.

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