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Feb 08 2013

Maybe we should dress up Science in a pink dress and heels

I groan every time I see another well-meant attempt to inspire women to pursue science by dressing it up in stereotypical femininity. There’s nothing wrong with pink, and if you want to wear high heels, OK, your choice…but we don’t improve science literacy and appeal by associating it with gender stereotypes. Kate Clancy has an excellent response to some of these errors: “Pseudoscience and stereotyping won’t solve gender inequality in science.”

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  1. 1
    mattedlefsen

    Most of thing things on the Guardian article are silly (color coding??) but one of them I think hit closer to what I do think would be helpful.

    I’m in the IT industry where, as we all know, we have a huge problem with both the gender balance and sexism issues.

    One of the things I think makes a lot of sense is that, at a macro scale, women and men *are* different when it comes to their approach to science and technology. This could be partially due to biology, though I suspect it’s cultural influence. In either case though, the differences do exist and have to be addressed when trying to help fix the imbalances.

    The item about women liking to connect their work to real world implications echoes things I’ve read about women in CS, that women generally (read: not universally!) are less excited by computing for computing’s sake, and more excited by the uses of computing for solving problems in other areas. Once again, these aren’t (necessarily) genetic difference. They are likely completely cultural, but the cycle still has to be broken somewhere.

    We have to be careful both in not relying on stereotypes and also in not assuming that a one-size-fits-all approach is the most gender neutral when that size could have subtle cultural ways of being gender biased.

  2. 2
    demonhauntedworld

    Overall, Clancy’s column is good. But this quote is a logical/statistical disaster:
    “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.”

    If you have two distributions that at least partially overlap, obviously a portion of the population of one of those distributions is going to be higher than a portion of the other. But that doesn’t say anything about whether the means of those distributions are different.

    I’m not saying that such a difference in means between the sexes has been demonstrated to exists on any neurological trait, but the above quoted sentence isn’t really an argument against such a difference.

  3. 3
    georget

    Men often are very good cooks.

  4. 4
    anteprepro

    georget is often a fuckwit who contributes nothing.

  5. 5
    stanton

    In all of the lab safety protocols I’ve been given, labworkers should avoid wearing highheels in the lab for safety reasons.

  6. 6
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    mattedlefsen,

    One size does not fit all, and it would definitely be a good idea to let people explore that which they find most interesting. But why divide it in “men dig this” and “women dig that” instead of “computing because it rocks” and “computing as applied to x,y,z and q”?

    Forget what women or men want, focus on what different people want and let them flourish without conforming to yet another stereotype.

  7. 7
    mattedlefsen

    Beatrice,

    I agree completely. There is no reason to restrict people to one approach or another. The point is more that you have to have diversity and that looking at what women actually care about in society, and not just making assumptions one way or another, is needed to figure out what sets of approaches are likely to help.

    Ideally we could just look at the full range of diversity on an individual level and cater to each, but I think you can make progress by looking at the very real divisions that our society creates and making sure you can at least account for those.

    Also, obviously, this applies just as much to other divisions such as race and class.

  8. 8
    Fred Salvador, Onion Jumbler

    That article also credits Chris Chambers as an author, but PZ only mentions Kate Clancy. Clearly this is Feminazi revisionism at it’s most Goebbels-esque!

    (NB MRA: I Godwinned it twice so you don’t have to!)

    I’m not saying that such a difference in means between the sexes has been demonstrated to exists on any neurological trait, but the above quoted sentence isn’t really an argument against such a difference.

    It’s not a mathematical refutation of of box plot distributions. The quote in context:

    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.”

    In other words, the task of trying to find such a mean, if it even exists, is made difficult by the fact that people are individuals. Moreover, claiming such a mean as evidence of some immutable, innate quality of maleness or femaleness, and thus tailoring a solution around it, is something you can only do in an ideal world where the gender binary hasn’t existed for thousands and thousands of years – that is, a world where ‘girls’ are raised to be people, rather than ‘women’.

    If that’s not the case, for example in the shitty, non-ideal world we currently inhabit, you have to assume any such differences are products of the gender binary, and thus any attempt to tailor solutions around stereotypes simply contributes to tempering the mould.

  9. 9
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    mattedlefsen,

    Well, no, we can’t cater to each individual, but we can make some categories that people’s desires will more or less fall into. I’m just a bit vary of taking a category and “advertizing” as something that is supposed to attract women. It might be because I’m sick of people telling me that women do/like/need this and men do/like/need that, at work, while I’m trying to gather different kind of knowledge, not just the knowledge that I’m supposed to like because female minds are [insert stererotype].

    Actually, this topic caught me on a really bad day.

  10. 10
    twosheds1

    I’m reminded of the pink guns that are somehow supposed to appeal to girls.

  11. 11
    Caveat Imperator

    I’d like to find out what age girls are becoming interested/disinterested in science. (Disclaimer ahoy: I am actually referring to children here. I am not using “girls” as a synonym for women.) Science education changes a lot between the education levels of young children and not-quite-adults.
     
    Imagine if science advocates tried to push for more blacks to study science by describing it in “ebonics” and dressing it up in what they perceived to be “black culture.” People would be outraged. Not only would it be tremendously insulting, but it wouldn’t even solve the root societal causes for the gap.

  12. 12
    mattedlefsen

    Beatrice,

    I understand that it’s a tricky balance and I think any attempts to “solve” gender bias and gender imbalances have to be careful not to inadvertently make things worse by putting too much emphasis on the very gender divisions they’re trying to fix.

    To give you some insight into my perspective though, I’m coming from a field (CS/IT) that is immensely male (/white) dominated and also has a strong cultural bias towards “meritocracy”. So the tide I’m usually trying to swim against is one in which any attempt to make our field more inclusive towards females is seen as “anti-meritocratic” despite the blatantly obvious fact that our field is structured in ways that make (certain types of) men in our society feel significantly more welcome than most women (in our society).

    It seems to me that before we can even hope to deal with the smaller differences between individuals, we first have to restructure our field so that women and minorities, on a broad scale, feel as welcome as white men do, and to do that that I think we have to do empirical research (most of which has already been done) into what aspects of the field are responsible for those differences and what changes can be made to improve things.

  13. 13
    Fred Salvador, Onion Jumbler

    The point is more that you have to have diversity and that looking at what women actually care about in society

    Why does that matter when we’re dealing with the problem of getting prepubescent and adolescent females to take an interest in science and mathematics? Where does it even enter into the picture?

    Instead of reinforcing tired old stereotypes by pretending girls are hardwired to desire one subset of consumerist shit while boys are programmed to desire another, why don’t we start from the position that every child who enters a classroom is a “student” and work from there?

  14. 14
    methuseus

    I’ve read about women in CS, that women generally (read: not universally!) are less excited by computing for computing’s sake, and more excited by the uses of computing for solving problems in other areas.
    I would say that it would help many men, as well. I can code algorithms left and right, but ask me to apply it to a real-world problem and I fail. If the coursework from my (failed) CS degree had had more application, I may have stayed in the program. Yes, I am male.

  15. 15
    demonhauntedworld

    In other words, the task of trying to find such a mean, if it even exists, is made difficult by the fact that people are individuals.

    But this is no more true about people than it is about any other real-world statistical problem. One of the main reasons statistics exists is to draw inferences about population characteristics given individual variability.

  16. 16
    frog

    demonhauntedworld@2 said:

    If you have two distributions that at least partially overlap, obviously a portion of the population of one of those distributions is going to be higher than a portion of the other. But that doesn’t say anything about whether the means of those distributions are different.

    –>I like to illustrate this phenomenon with a concrete example: the New York City Marathon. It was cancelled due to Hurricane Sandy last year, but the results for 2011 are available here.

    What do we see? The first-place man finished 18 minutes ahead of the first-place woman. Okay.

    BUT…the first place woman finished 19th overall. Which means she beat more than thirty-thousand male competitors. She lost to six one-thousandths of a percent of the male field. 18 out of 30,000.

    Looking here, I find that the median men’s finish time was approximately 4 hours and 13 minutes. Roughly 5000 women (28% of the women) beat that time.

    Do the men on average finish ahead of the women? Yes. But do many, many, many individual women finish ahead of 50% of the men? Holy fuck, do they ever. Almost a third of them.

  17. 17
    georget

    Matt, I think you are being unnecessarily critical of the technology industry. Carli Fiorina broke that glass ceiling and became the first woman to run a high technology firm, guiding its path from 1999 to 2005.

  18. 18
    mattedlefsen

    Fred Salvador,

    Age clearly factors in to how you respond to these problems, but I’ve seen research (which may be incorrect, I’m not an expert by any means) that suggests these divisions start very early in development so it may be helpful to pay attention to them at that stage as well.

    Also, keep in mind that while we as individuals can strive to be neutral, the culture at large (and in some cases, even our subconscious selves), can be applying pressure for kids to only play with certain toys or to only be interested in certain topics. I can see an argument for trying to counter-act those affects actively rather than just letting those influences play out and then trying to deal with the fallout when they get older.

    This is my last comment on this though since I seem to be taking up a large percentage of the conversation.

  19. 19
    frog

    Correction: 6 one-hundredths of a percent. Stupid decimals.

  20. 20
    Goodbye Enemy Janine

    Georget improved:

    I am the tech industry, the House, the first woman pilot to Charles Carlton IJ cache Bay 2005-6, and so I think that sleep is important to Matt.

  21. 21
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    mattedlefsen,

    Insight?
    To give you some insight, I have a degree in applied mathematics and am currently working with information systems (and IT generally, since “computer people” are all the same to the other employees (except maybe women, since a significant number of people thought I was the secretary when I started working and answering the phone- I mean, whoever would expect a woman in IT!?).

    So yeah, I am a teeny tiny little bit familiar with what women in the sciences/IT deal with.

    It’s not the science fields that are the problem and need to be restructured to suit women more, it’s the people in science fields.

  22. 22
    michaelbusch

    @Caveat Imperator:

    Based on a sample of a few hundred public elementary school students in LA over 3-1 years ago, stereotype threat / social pressure to not be interested in science kicks in pretty early – somewhere around second or third grade. When I’ve talked astronomy to students, the first graders were uniformly interested. But I noticed a bit of a gender break with the third graders. An example case: I got asked to do a bit at the end of a talk about how to become a professional scientist. So I talked about being interested in something, spending the time to learn a lot about it, and the importance of knowing a lot of math. Cue a third grade girl telling me she liked astronomy but saying “girls can’t do math” without apparent irony…

    This stereotyping can be effectively combated, but the ways I’ve seen work require the parents/teachers/the adults the kid spends the most time with to deliberately correct for their own often-unconscious biases.

  23. 23
    Fred Salvador, Onion Jumbler

    But this is no more true about people than it is about any other real-world statistical problem. One of the main reasons statistics exists is to draw inferences about population characteristics given individual variability.

    So is that an argument for recognising the flaws in applying this abstract concept to the problem (getting girls interested in science) yet applying it regardless, or an argument against applying this abstract concept to the problem because it’s flawed?

    I have no problem with using statistics to draw inferences about grain price fluctuations. I have profound difficulty accepting that using statistical models of behaviour to craft a solution to a sociological problem regarding gender can be done without further retrenching the norms that contributed the problem in the first place, particularly when those norms constitute the boundaries of your model, making those ‘individuals’ – being the girls who like boxing and cars, and the boys who like home-making and poetry – your outliers.

    Sounds completely counter-productive to me.

  24. 24
    demonhauntedworld

    So is that an argument for recognising the flaws in applying this abstract concept to the problem (getting girls interested in science) yet applying it regardless, or an argument against applying this abstract concept to the problem because it’s flawed?

    I’m saying that individual variability shouldn’t be used as an argument against the possible existence of an actual mean difference. If that difference exists, the significance of it and what we choose to do about it is a different question.

    It would be like arguing against sending food aid to Somalia because some people in Somalia are getting plenty of food.

  25. 25
    neutrinosarecool

    @frog,

    I doubt the kind of distributions seen between males and females regarding physical strength and endurance would exist in the realm of scientific and mathematical analysis. The physical differences are due to hormonal/developmental differences, and women who inject testosterone have increased muscle development.

    There is no known biological or scientific evidence for claims of inherent differences in the intelligence of men vs. women, period. Sex hormone injections do not alter intelligence in males or females, for example. Historical claims such as “men are hunters, women are gatherers, and hunting requires more intelligence, hence there is a selective pressure for male intelligence” or “women simply need to make themselves attractive to men, hence there is no selective pressure for female intelligence” are unsubstantiated nonsense, having more to do with projecting Victorian social structures onto science than anything else.

    The best explanation for the relatively lower number of women in science is the enforcement of cultural stereotypes by parents and teachers in childhood (see also peer pressure), and also by a (decreasing) percentage of upper-echelon scientific administrators in the academic environment. The general trend is encouraging, however, in that these cultural stereotypes are more widely rejected with every passing year by people who are aware that they have no scientific basis.

  26. 26
    kemist, Dark Lord of the Sith

    I’d like to find out what age girls are becoming interested/disinterested in science.

    Maybe we could get an idea with a rough survey of women who are in science-related fields.

    For me for instance, I remember getting very interested in this stuff at around 7 or 8.

    The item about women liking to connect their work to real world implications echoes things I’ve read about women in CS, that women generally (read: not universally!) are less excited by computing for computing’s sake, and more excited by the uses of computing for solving problems in other areas.

    And some armchair psychologists where I live like to pretend the exact same thing about why boys drop out of school more than girls (the difference between genders in high school drop outs here is IMHO totally overhyped. It is high for both genders).

    Which lead me to conclude that all those supposedly “ingrained differences” are all a load of crap, as they have zero predicting power.

    And trying to find those “differences” tends to create behavior expectations.

    I remember very well hiding my real interests in books, activities and games from friends and relatives, as those were not supposed to be the province of girls. I refuse to believe I was the only girl who did that, or that this was very unusual.

    When you get to be told by people around you as well as TV that you’re supposed to like dolls, you may end up believing you do like dolls, or that there is something wrong with you because you don’t like dolls.

  27. 27
    Fred Salvador, Onion Jumbler

    This is my last comment on this though since I seem to be taking up a large percentage of the conversation.

    Nobody cares how much space you’re taking up, as long as you’re saying something worth reading. And disagreeing with, as the case may be.

    Age clearly factors in to how you respond to these problems, but I’ve seen research (which may be incorrect, I’m not an expert by any means) that suggests these divisions start very early in development so it may be helpful to pay attention to them at that stage as well.

    Also, keep in mind that while we as individuals can strive to be neutral, the culture at large (and in some cases, even our subconscious selves), can be applying pressure for kids to only play with certain toys or to only be interested in certain topics. I can see an argument for trying to counter-act those affects actively rather than just letting those influences play out and then trying to deal with the fallout when they get older.

    Yeah, this is exactly what I’m saying. Instead of taking prevailing social norms as the boundary for our solution to the problem of generating interest in mathematics and science amongst female students, why not remove the social norms from the equation altogether and use something more academic? Something less reliant on the facile notion that girls like [x], boys like [y], and ever has it been thus.

    Until you can come up with emprical data to support innate, immutable differences between female and male human beings, containing patterns which can only have come from some biological reality of maleness or femaleness rather than having been imposed by prevailing cultural norms, then the only reasonable way to proceed is to ignore any such differences and treat students as students.

  28. 28
    frog

    nutrinosarecool@25: I’m just demonstrating my favorite concrete example I use to smash essentialist “men are this, women are that” or “men are better than women at X, therefore women shouldn’t be allowed/encouraged/accepted to do X” sort of arguments.

    Those arguments are somewhat potent when applied to physical competition. That’s why I like to use a physical endurance competition to make the point. “Men are generally stronger” may be true, but the overlap is a lot larger than essentialist idiots think. The whole, “Well, there are a few women who are exceptions” gets destroyed by “I don’t think 28% is ‘a few.’”

    Then I follow up with the point that if something so obvious as physical strength/endurance isn’t all that different, then how could any rational person think that mental skills would be?

  29. 29
    michaelbusch

    @georget:

    Cut out the nonsense. Just because one woman got to the top of the industry doesn’t mean there isn’t still serious sexism to be dealt with – any more than Emmy Noether doing arguably the best abstract algebra theoretical physics anyone has ever done made math gender-neutral, or Marie Curie’s awesomeness made physics and chemistry gender-neutral.

    Breaking a glass ceiling isn’t enough to say that there aren’t still barriers that need to be brought down.

  30. 30
    Fred Salvador, Onion Jumbler

    I’m saying that individual variability shouldn’t be used as an argument against the possible existence of an actual mean difference. If that difference exists, the significance of it and what we choose to do about it is a different question.

    But nobody is using individual variability as an argument against the possible existence of a mean difference. I’m using individual variability as an argument against the entire idea of using statistical models of behaviour whose boundaries conform to the gender binary as a means to form a solution to a sociological problem involving gender.

    It would be like arguing against sending food aid to Somalia because some people in Somalia are getting plenty of food.

    It would be like that, if that’s what I was doing. In reality, it’s more like someone has suggested we send the aid in the form of sides of pork simply because we have lots of pork to hand, and there’s me arguing against doing that because it has some dire implications.

  31. 31
    Steve LaBonne

    I’m glad so many commenters are so clearly explaining the way “let’s make x appeal more to girls” campaigns all too often reinforce the very gender stereotypes that are the source of the problems they purport to address. This “dress it up in pink” stuff always raises my hackles. (Especially since I have a science-nerd daughter who wouldn’t wear pink if her life depended on it!)

  32. 32
    a_ray_in_dilbert_space

    demonhauntedworld,
    Let us say that “intelligence” does exist, and that it is measurable and characterizable in terms of a single number. Never mind that to do so we have to throw out most of what we know about human behavior and cognition. I’m feeling generous.

    There is still the question of HOW we measure this metric, especially when lack of intelligence is a serious pejorative in our culture and just about every IQ test ever developed winds up favoring the designer’s ethnic, gender… There is also the question of how we extricate that one variable from all the other strong influences that culture, environment, etc. bring to bear. Then there is the fact that the differences between groups–e.g. men and women–are small, usually much less than a standard deviation.

    Now, I ask you, how foolish would a statistician be to draw conclusions based on such a difference, plagued as it is by not only statistical but also systematic error?

    You can make similar arguments for just about any other metric studied for “gender differences”.

  33. 33
    mattedlefsen

    Fred Salvador,

    Hah, well, I’ll leave that up to others to decide. Just as important though, I should probably actually do some work today.

    On a related note, I feel a lot more anxiety commenting about sexism/racism than I do about religion. I guess it just feels like it’s easier to put ones foot in ones mouth.

    Good conversation though. Often times on this blog it seems like the comment threads heat up so quick nobody actually gets anything from them.

  34. 34
    Pteryxx

    It seems to me that before we can even hope to deal with the smaller differences between individuals, we first have to restructure our field so that women and minorities, on a broad scale, feel as welcome as white men do, and to do that that I think we have to do empirical research (most of which has already been done) into what aspects of the field are responsible for those differences and what changes can be made to improve things.

    To mattedlefsen and general:

    Basically, discouraging girls and women from STEM (i.e. male-dominated) fields is a pipeline-wide problem, going all the way from unconscious stereotyping by parents through bias in schools to microaggressions in the workplace. Part of the front end in encouraging girls, though, involves showing them adult mentors and representatives of women in STEM careers – so the treatment of grown women also directly affects young girls.

    Background reading to get started on the research:

    An overview from UConn: External Barriers Experienced by Gifted and Talented Girls and Women

    AAUW’s 2010 extensive report: Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (PDF available at link)

    (nb: AAUW’s commas, not mine)

    An essay regarding the “meritocracy” argument:

    Lessons Learned: Why diversity matters (the meritocracy business)

    Diversity is the canary in the coal mine for meritocracy. As entrepreneurs, more than any other industry, we’re in the meritocracy business. The companies that make decisions based on merit, rather than title, politics, or hierarchy execute faster and learn faster than their competitors. For startups (and other innovators), that’s a decisive advantage.

    So when a team lacks diversity, that’s a bad sign. What are the odds that the decisions that were made to create that team were really meritocratic? That’s why I care a lot about diversity: not for its own sake, but because it is a source of strength for teams that have it, and a symptom of dysfunction for those that don’t.

    That article also leads into the concept of anonymous hiring, which is a very simple tool to help remove bias, improve diversity, and make hiring more truly meritocratic. Just suggest that your HR department have names, gender, and other demographic references removed from their incoming resumes. Nobody trying to argue that diversity opposes meritocracy could object to that, right? <_<

    Instead of focusing on programs designed to specifically benefit any one group, I think our focus should be on making our companies as meritocratic as possible. I want to start with the easiest suggestion I can think of, one that I’ve personally used with great success. I first tried it as an experiment after reading in Blink that after symphony orchestras instituted blind auditions (where conductors can’t see who is actually playing), gender equality soon followed. In the US, women’s participation went from about 5% to 50% over the course of two decades. What’s notable about this change is that it has nothing to do with gender per se, and probably also eliminated many other forms of unconscious bias.

  35. 35
    allegro

    The fundamental problem of women in math and science is simple. Girls are indoctrinated very young that brainy girls aren’t feminine, boys won’t like them if they’re smarter than they are. This is pounded into us from birth from every direction. From educators and industry, there’s a strong message that “you aren’t welcome here.” It’s purely cultural.

  36. 36
    allegro

    … or what Pteryxx said so very much better.

  37. 37
    a_ray_in_dilbert_space

    Allegro,
    I would agree for folks of our generation(s). My sister-in-law was discouraged by a guidance councilor from pursuing physics and engineering. However, in wealthy school districts, there are a lot of girls being encouraged to pursue STEM.

    It is also interesting to look across cultures. About 20 years ago when only 5% of physicists (my feild) were women in the US, the level was much higher in other cultures–e.g. Portugal had about 25%. It wasn’t that these cultures were so egalitarian. It was that “physicist” was not viewed as a prestigious career choice, and so it was open to women.

  38. 38
    Caveat Imperator

    allegro,

    Girls are indoctrinated very young that brainy girls aren’t feminine

    This may be just one part of a large problem, but it stood out to me because it’s actually not gender-specific, at least not in the US. Broadly speaking, American culture is anti-intellectual for both genders. I’d say that boys are also taught that intelligence is not attractive, though not quite for the same reasons.
     
    michaelbusch mentioned above that he noticed girls were being pushed out of math and science as early as third grade. Has anyone here taught older students? I expect that at the university and industry level, the pressure is mostly gender related. But in between, it’s probably a combination of gender and broad anti-intellectualism.

  39. 39
    demonhauntedworld

    Let us say that “intelligence” does exist, and that it is measurable and characterizable in terms of a single number. Never mind that to do so we have to throw out most of what we know about human behavior and cognition. I’m feeling generous.

    But the original quote wasn’t about general intelligence. It was about math skills (quantifiable) and cooking (for which the skill itself is difficult to measure, but preference for it isn’t).

    I’m agnostic on whether these differences exist. But claiming that “generalizations based on gender are unhelpful” is, itself, an unhelpful generalization. For example, boys tend to start outperforming girls on science tests in the 4th grade. But if we are asserting that “generalizations based on gender are unhelpful”, we can’t even assert the existence of a problem! We can’t even begin to explore whether this performance difference is because of the way the test is structured, the way the subject is taught, or because of social conditioning.

  40. 40
    Steve LaBonne

    We can’t even begin to explore whether this performance difference is because of the way the test is structured, the way the subject is taught, or because of social conditioning.

    “We” can’t, huh? Funny then that serious researchers have been doing that for years without any need to engage in gender stereotyping.

  41. 41
    a_ray_in_dilbert_space

    demonhauntedworld: “But the original quote wasn’t about general intelligence. It was about math skills (quantifiable) and cooking (for which the skill itself is difficult to measure, but preference for it isn’t).”

    Oh, you can certainly quantify math skills. The question is whether your quantity means anything. There is huge variation within each cohort you are considering–even more than for “intelligence”. And what you may be measuring is the tendency of one group to respond better to a particular teaching method than any innate difference. Note that I am not saying differences between the cohorts do not exist, merely that 1)variability within each cohort swamps the differences, and 2)environmental/cultural influences cannot be separated sufficiently to measure any differences accurately.

    Oh, and by the way, your article is outdated. Girls now kick boys asses pretty much throughout primary, secondary and college.

  42. 42
    demonhauntedworld

    “We” can’t, huh? Funny then that serious researchers have been doing that for years without any need to engage in gender stereotyping.

    Without gender stereotyping, or without generalizing? There’s a huge difference there.

  43. 43
    demonhauntedworld

    Girls now kick boys asses pretty much throughout primary, secondary and college.

    But that’s an unhelpful gender generalization.

  44. 44
    michaelbusch

    @Caveat Imperator:

    The pushing-out isn’t perfect, and also isn’t limited to relatively early in elementary school. That’s just when the disparity starts to happen.

    When I was at Caltech (’05 – ’10), the undergrad admissions committee was getting ~40% of its applications from women. The trick of course is that the students who apply to Caltech are already a significantly biased sample of the overall US population.

    Another problem: gender differences between students in the different sub-fields of science/engineering. At Caltech and many other places, geology and planetary science are nearly even. Astronomy isn’t quite there. Physics and math skew heavily male, electrical engineering and computer science even more so. The undergrad program administrators do worry about this, but part of it is from differences in the students’ interests when they start college. Which gets back to questions of what’s happening in primary and secondary education…

  45. 45
    Steve LaBonne

    Without gender stereotyping, or without generalizing? There’s a huge difference there.

    That’s a great deal less obvious than you think. In a society like ours that is still saturated with gender stereotyping and bias, we should all be very wary of our own unconscious biases when deciding whether a generalization about gender might be reasonable. Fools rush in, etc.

  46. 46
    Josiah Vanvliet

    “but we don’t improve science literacy and appeal by associating it with gender stereotypes.”

    But don’t we tacitly associate science literacy with gender stereotypes buy leaving it “unfeminized”, or in other words, masculinized?

  47. 47
    Steve LaBonne

    But don’t we tacitly associate science literacy with gender stereotypes buy leaving it “unfeminized”, or in other words, masculinized?

    I don’t know about you, but I prefer things that are simply humanized.

  48. 48
    Pteryxx

    For example, boys tend to start outperforming girls on science tests in the 4th grade. But if we are asserting that “generalizations based on gender are unhelpful”, we can’t even assert the existence of a problem!

    Actually, that’s a terrible example of separating a problem from a generalization. Here’s the full quote:

    Most studies show that, on average, girls do better in school than boys. Girls get higher grades and complete high school at a higher rate compared to boys (Jacobs, 2002). Standardized achievement tests also show that females are better at spelling and perform better on tests of literacy, writing, and general knowledge (National Center for Education Statistics, 2003). An international aptitude test administered to fourth graders in 35 countries, for example, showed that females outscored males on reading literacy in every country. Although there were no differences between boys and girls in fourth grade on mathematics, boys began to perform better than girls on science tests in fourth grade (International Association for the Evaluation of Education Achievement, n.d.). Girls continue to exhibit higher verbal ability throughout high school, but they begin to lose ground to boys after fourth grade on tests of both mathematical and science ability. These gender differences in math and science achievement have implications for girls’ future careers and have been a source of concern for educators everywhere.

    Note the generalizations focusing on gender: “girls do better”, “females are better”, “exhibit higher verbal ability”, “gender differences” versus “boys began to PERFORM better than girls” in the quote you selected. There’s little effort to even consider separating test results from the inherent ability of children girls vs boys. (That’s a book introduction, incidentally, and the rest of it gets even worse… see the very next page which cites inherent differences as a cause.)

    Rephrasing: “A gender-associated gap in science tests begins to appear in the 4th grade according to X studies.” That’s not very smooth but you get the idea. There’s a difference in scores, gender is a factor.

    We can’t even begin to explore whether this performance difference is because of the way the test is structured, the way the subject is taught, or because of social conditioning.

    And if the question’s asked correctly, instead of as overly broad and simplistic generalizations, we can.

    http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/2012/01/06/surprise-surprise-gender-equal/

    Lots of citations in there, but here’s the core:

    But I’ll give you the conclusions of the authors themselves:

    In summary, we conclude that gender equity and other sociocultural factors, not national income, school type, or religion per se, are the primary determinants of mathematics performance at all levels for both boys and girls. Our findings are consistent with the gender stratified hypothesis, but not with the greater male variability, gap due to inequity, single-gender classroom, or Muslim culture hypotheses. At the individual level, this conclusion suggests that well-educated women who earn a good income are much better positioned than are poorly educated women who earn little or no money to ensure that the educational needs of their children of either gender with regard to learning mathematics are well met.

    io9 also has a great writeup of this story, for those of you who want some further reading. I hope that if there’s one thing you take away from this, it’s the lesson of this last graph: the closer we get to gender equality, the more everyone benefits. Go read the paper yourself, and convince yourself that there are demonstrably far more significant factors than gender in determining math ability; the data is all in there, along with other “inherent-gender-ability” hypotheses that are also discredited. It’s time to put this sexist hypothesis for the achievement gap where it belongs, buried in shame in our past.

  49. 49
    mythbri

    @Josiah

    You make an interesting point, since in U.S. society, at least, the straight male experience is seen as the default, and anything different is considered a “deviation”.

    So now the question becomes whether “femininity” as it is perceived in mainstream U.S. culture IS actually “femininity” in its own right, or if it is defined by “masculinity” as it is perceived in mainstream U.S. culture.

    If this is the case (and I think that it can be demonstrated to be plausible at least), then it’s a lose-lose situation.

    Personally, I think that the best approach is not to use a perception of “femininity” that is defined by its deviance from “masculinity”. I think the best approach is to work on the discouragement that young girls receive when they show interest in STEM-related fields, and acknowledge the existence of women who are currently working in those fields. Give them the opportunity to say “I’m a woman and this is what I do, therefore what I do is feminine.”

    Related anecdote:

    When I was in junior high, at about age thirteen, my father gave me the combination birthday/Christmas gift of paying my way to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama. I went and had the BEST time. I seriously cannot adequately convey the awesomeness of my experience there. This was during the summertime, so when I came back it was time to go with my mom to my school to register for that year’s classes.

    We met with a (male) guidance counselor, and we went over the credits that I’d already taken. He asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.

    “An astronaut!” I said.

    He laughed. He laughed, and he said, “Why? What makes you think that you could be an astronaut?”

    I was hurt. It wasn’t an inquiry made out of curiosity or encouragement. His laugh had a nasty edge to it, and his question was dripping with condescension.

    “She just went to Space Camp,” my mom said defensively, and we finished up the meeting.

    That’s the kind of discouragement, consciously-motivated or not, that young girls often face when they express that kind of interest.

  50. 50
    Caveat Imperator

    michaelbusch

    Another problem: gender differences between students in the different sub-fields of science/engineering. At Caltech and many other places, geology and planetary science are nearly even. Astronomy isn’t quite there. Physics and math skew heavily male, electrical engineering and computer science even more so. The undergrad program administrators do worry about this, but part of it is from differences in the students’ interests when they start college. Which gets back to questions of what’s happening in primary and secondary education…

    I’ve seen that too! I graduated from UCLA last year, and I studied chemistry with a concentration in materials science. It was interesting seeing which physical science/engineering disciplines had a lot of women and which ones had few. The chemistry department was fairly even, but the undergraduates were typically 60-80% biochemistry majors, depending on the year. And a good half, if not more, of those students were interested in becoming health professionals, not PhD’s. Though I do recall that even the physical chemistry classes like quantum and statistical mechanics had large numbers of women, at least 1/3 if not many more.
    Over on the engineering side, things were far less even. Civil engineering was the most even, with one woman for every two men. Not exactly good, but far better than aerospace, which had one woman for every seven men.
     
    My argumentum ex culo guess is that girls in high school might be pressured not to study physics, in addition to the pressure not to study science.

  51. 51
    Caveat Imperator

    An addendum to my last comment: (Why do I always think of these thinks just after I hit the submit button?)
     
    I also noticed that the women who studied chemistry and engineering were usually not “feminine” women. (I’m extremely hesitant to use that word, because in this context, it is REALLY loaded, but I can’t think of anything better at the moment.) Could it be that the sort of women who insist on studying these fields do so not only because they are good at the subjects, but also because they are strong-willed enough to resist cultural trends? Society told them that it wasn’t girly to study science, and they said, “Very funny. Fuck you.” Or maybe it’s just a biased sample from the sort of people I usually made friends with…

  52. 52
    KarenX

    @Caveat,

    A couple weeks ago I dropped in to a local skeptics meeting that I haven’t been at for a good many years. I was a stranger there. Also dropping in was a second stranger–a young woman with platinum blond hair, a furry coat, heels, and lots of makeup. People let (jeans wearing, no makeup, older) me find a chair without comment. They actually asked her if she was sure she was in the right place. Very nicely they asked, but still.

    She was sure.

  53. 53
    michaelbusch

    @Caveat Imperator:

    I don’t have the data or the personal experience to speculate on the reasons for gender differences between different scientific fields.

    I did ask my wife, Rachel, about this at one point – she’s a cosmological physicist. In elementary and high school, Rachel encountered a few things like mythbri’s story, although nothing quite so blatantly offensive. But she never gave them much attention, because ‘math was easy’. That and my mother-in-law is a chemical engineer and would bring home huge spreadsheets of plutonium chemistry reaction networks to work through while Rachel and her brothers did their homework, so it was always abundantly clear to her that scientists/engineers weren’t all men.

    Addendum: I was working at UCLA Earth and Space Sciences until last June. Small world. For whatever it’s worth: the geochemistry students are almost exactly at a 50-50 split.

  54. 54
    demonhauntedworld

    Pteryxx, you’re overthinking this.

    I’m saying that any hypothesis/problem/question framed as “girls differ from boys on X” is a generalization based on gender.

  55. 55
    Pteryxx

    I also noticed that the women who studied chemistry and engineering were usually not “feminine” women. (I’m extremely hesitant to use that word, because in this context, it is REALLY loaded, but I can’t think of anything better at the moment.) Could it be that the sort of women who insist on studying these fields do so not only because they are good at the subjects, but also because they are strong-willed enough to resist cultural trends?

    (because being strong-willed and/or confident are in opposition to being “feminine” eh? ;> Not angry with you, just wryly amused that the assumption poked through yet again.)

    Sure, it’s technically possible that STEM women just happen to be stronger-willed, but that’s not only presuming inherent traits of the women, it’s conflating cultural effects. There’s some pressure on women in STEM fields to “out-macho” the men to demonstrate that they deserve respect. One manifestation, for instance, is that they just brush off sexual harassment because they’re So Tough, not like those whiny feminists. (There’s evidence that more forthright, aggressive, thus “less feminine” women in a workplace actually face *more* harassment than women who are conciliatory and less outspoken.)

    I’m out of my depth here, but basically, women have the options of performing culturally acceptable femininity, or performing at odds with same, with different costs and benefits for either choice. Those include the potential costs of performing at odds with their self-image and confidence. So, IMHO it’s likely that some women in macho fields could act macho from absorbing the local culture, from a desire to fit in, or because all their role models and teachers were men; or just because their self-image as “engineer” has grown to include “this is how engineers behave”.

  56. 56
    ruthstl

    I’m a currently unemployed scientist, with 3 daughters all planning to study science. We support their desire to study whatever interests them, but the current system makes being employed in STEM and raising a family very hard. I ended up leaving the workforce because my middle daughter is autistic, and I couldn’t make caring for her and even a low-level job work. Many women chose teaching science because it is family friendly.

    The more energy a woman has to spend fighting sexism, the less energy is left to actually come up with new experimental designs.

  57. 57
    Have a Balloon

    I honestly think that just having more role models can make a difference. This is purely anecdotal but as a woman in science I remember being saturated with male role models at school and university. All my teachers and lecturers were male. All my tutors were male. Most of my fellow students were male. I hardly ever saw a woman doing science, and yeah, I was confronted with the attitude that boys were inherently better than girls, and I internalised it. My school only offered maths-chemistry-physics-bio, whereas a lot of other students at uni had been offered electronics and design technology and science clubs, so they had a headstart, and it made me feel even less capable.

    When we were in tutorials, the male students were more reluctant to admit when they didn’t understand something. So I was left feeling like the only person asking questions, and therefore, the only person who didn’t understand. After a while, I stopped asking questions. I still didn’t understand. I had to try and work things out for myself, on the side. I didn’t get much out of the tutorials because, essentially, stereotype threat, which I couldn’t put a name to until much later.

    I still remember the first time I had a woman to lecture us. She was actually really good. She was competent. It followed later with some other female lecturers and teaching assistants and things. Some of them were good, some were not. Then I started seeing other women on my course standing out in terms of their ability. They won prizes. I won prizes. And the more that I see other women performing well in science, the less I feel the pressure of having to represent my gender. The less I worry about messing up and people blaming it on my being female. The more confident I feel about speaking up, and taking risks, and asking questions. I’m not the only one any more, and it makes a difference.

    So I got involved in working with schools. I occasionally go to schools to talk about my field, and what I do, and promote science to young people. Whenever I do a presentation, I deliberately include lots of pictures of women doing science in a range of areas. I make sure to include lots of examples of famous female scientists. I act like it’s totally normal for women to be in science.

    And I see it working. Last week I went to a primary school to talk about some of my research. I brought along some props to demonstrate some scientific principles. I deliberately tried to make sure I called on the girls and the boys equally. Afterwards, I let the kids wander round and look at the props and models themselves. The boys seemed to lose interest more quickly, and started playing with the props crashing them into each other like spaceships. The girls, however, seemed more interested and inquisitive, and I had at least three children, all girls, come up to me and say “when I grow up, I want to be a scientist just like you!”

    That’s all it took. One hour spent in a world filled with female scientists. Meeting a female scientist. Seeing pictures of female scientists. People you can identify with. Sure, those girls are going to encounter some sexist attitudes, maybe parents or teachers telling them, you can’t do science, it’s for boys, it’s not a girl thing. But they’ll remember me. They’ll remember the pictures. They’ll have something to hold on to that tells them “yes, you can, because they did”.

  58. 58
    Have a Balloon

    And on a more practical note, do you know what would make a difference for women in science currently?
    SAFETY GEAR THAT FITS!

    Where I work, the only thing that fits me are the gloves, assuming we don’t run out of smalls. The lab coats are too big, so my sleeves trail in things. The safety goggles are too big, and slip off my face. The face masks are too big, and leave gaps where they shouldn’t. The safety boots are too big, and I clonk about instead of walking properly.

    Hell, sometimes even the gloves are too big, and I can’t handle stuff properly.

    Way to make us feel like we belong.

  59. 59
    Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    Ugh.

    Hear, hear, Have a Balloon.

    The assumption seems to be that when designing lab equipment (gloves, coats, shoes, chairs, benches, etc etc etc) that the workers will be on average 5’8″, weigh 190 lbs, and wear a size 10 (US, male) shoe.

    Which is aggravating, when if – like me – you’re 5’4″, weigh 160 lbs, and wear a size 5 (US, male) shoe.

    My doctor once asked me WTF is up with my neck and upper back. I said that probably it is having to overextend my upper body in order to use things at work.

  60. 60
    Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    Semi-related:

    I once read an article that discussed the phenomenon of left-handed people dying, on average, a few years younger than right-handed people. Controlling for more-or-less everything.

    The conclusion?

    Left-handed people are more frequently injured in industrial accidents and by using equipment designed for right-handed people. This alone is enough to account for the actuarial data.

    Google tells me that ~10% of the population is left-handed. And this phenomenon of left-handed people disproportionately suffering from right-handed-designed stuff is documented and has people trying to address it.

    Women are 51% of the population. Just saying.

  61. 61
    mikee

    @caveat imperator #51

    I also noticed that the women who studied chemistry and engineering were usually not “feminine” women

    I guess this all depends what you define as feminine. If you mean that women studying chemistry are confident, don’t submit to male opinion, and tend not to hang around in groups giggling and gossiping then I guess you might be right. If you mean they are less feminine in their appearance then I would have to disagree. I’ve worked with chemistry departments and haven’t noticed that the women there are any more or less physically attractive/feminine that any other group of women.

  62. 62
    RobertL

    Esteleth – I have the opposite problem. I’m 190cm with outsized hands and feet. I don’t work in a lab, but I have trouble finding things that fit. Fuck, I get a sore back just doing the dishes!

  63. 63
    Have a Balloon

    Caveat imperator, mikee

    I suspect it’s something more than that. In my experience, women in male-dominated fields learn early on that if they’re going to be taken seriously, they have to consciously avoid anything that might be perceived as girly or overly feminine. Even if you start out as a chemistry or engineering student who is very feminine, wears pink and giggles, you discover that the male students and professors won’t take you seriously so I wouldn’t be surprised if, over time, women learn to actively suppress that side of themselves.

    So I reckon if it appears that women in these fields appear less stereotypically feminine, it’s because it’s been socialized out of them over time.

  64. 64
    kemist, Dark Lord of the Sith

    Esthelet@59

    That’s weird. I’m about the same height as you, but I’ve been uncomfortable at my bench because I had to bend constantly over it. In fact, I was the tallest among my PI’s PhD students at the time (all women). I can’t imagine how bad it was for the over 5’6 people. Also, I’d have to stand on the bench to get the cupboard over it. I don’t for what creature the place was designed ergonomically speaking, but it certainly wasn’t human.

  65. 65
    kemist, Dark Lord of the Sith

    I also noticed that the women who studied chemistry and engineering were usually not “feminine” women.

    To echo Pteryxx, depends what you mean by feminine. For me you can be quite feminine without being what we might call “girly”. From what I’ve seen (I’ve done a chemistry degree as well as a computer engineering one), there are not many “girly” women in those fields, but definitely many I’d describe as feminine. People in general in science and engineering are more understated than in, say, an art department – you won’t see, for instance, male students wearing kilts or top hats in engineering, but it’s not too surprising to see it in arts. Maybe the more sober style would be perceived as less feminine, if you define it a being “girly” – the giggling, gossiping, pink wearing type.

    Could it be that the sort of women who insist on studying these fields do so not only because they are good at the subjects, but also because they are strong-willed enough to resist cultural trends?

    I wouldn’t describe myself as strong-willed. In fact I’m a total wimp when it comes to confronting people. However, I’m absolutely incapable of tolerating boredom, and all the jobs traditionnaly held by women bored the pants off me just thinking about them. I guess it depends on what compromises you’re ready to make. For me being perceived as less feminine, having to struggle harder to succeed, and hear sexist comments and jokes, while definitely not okay, are a very minor things compared with living a life composed essentially of pure boredom.

  66. 66
    carlie

    Yeah.

    I was going to respond to this:

    There’s some pressure on women in STEM fields to “out-macho” the men to demonstrate that they deserve respect.

    with a particular personal anecdote, and then got to this:

    In my experience, women in male-dominated fields learn early on that if they’re going to be taken seriously, they have to consciously avoid anything that might be perceived as girly or overly feminine. Even if you start out as a chemistry or engineering student who is very feminine, wears pink and giggles, you discover that the male students and professors won’t take you seriously so I wouldn’t be surprised if, over time, women learn to actively suppress that side of themselves.
    So I reckon if it appears that women in these fields appear less stereotypically feminine, it’s because it’s been socialized out of them over time.

    The anecdote I was going to share? It was that I used to love to wear pink. Not overly often, but it’s a color that looks good on me, and I like it. It occurred to me a year or so ago that I haven’t worn pink in years. Once I started thinking about it, I realized – I haven’t worn pink since about halfway through my bachelor’s degree in biology, and in fact developed an “ew girly” response to it. I’ve since started to try and put it back in my wardrobe, and I can’t seem to bring myself to do it, even though I’ve tried specifically – there’s something about it now that just turns me off. So yeah. Socialized out of it and then some.

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