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.