Holy Gender Wars, Batman! Part I

Holy Gender Wars, Batman!  Does Gender Really Matter?  Apparently, It Does –On Facebook.  Part I:  Why We Still Get So Riled Up

Last week, I innocently shared a Classic Batman Posterlink posted by Trevor of Diary of a Genial Black Man fame.  It was an article talking about how men’s and women’s brains really aren’t so different (you can read it by clicking here).  I shared this link because I thought it would be fun and light-hearted.  Little did I know the firestorm that would erupt on my Facebook page (thanks, Trevor, you’re SO paying for my therapy!).  Apparently, the gender wars are still on like Donkey Kong, so I decided to explore the topic further.  However, this topic is so large I’m going to have to break it down into several parts.  In the first part I’m going to address why we still get so riled up.  In part two I’ll discuss latent biases which will involve a link to online tests you can take to find out if you harbor secret prejudices (not for the faint of heart!), and in part three I’ll start examining actual scientific studies that seek to address the question at hand: do women and men have fundamentally ‘different’ brains?

So, why did such a vigorous debate explode on my Facebook page?  Why is this topic so emotional for both men and women?  Different doesn’t automatically mean inferior but there was some reaction to the word different as though it did mean that.  I don’t think the person arguing for sex-based differences meant to imply that different = inferior, but all too often, in our every day lives, it means exactly that.  I’m going to examine this particular aspect through the lens of science because I’m a biochemist and a lack of gender diversity is still a rather large problem at the tenure and management levels in both academia and industry.

Scientific American Mind December 2007 Cover?

Scientific American Mind December 2007 Cover?

But I’m going to go via a bit of a circuitous route.  Different = inferior is a common theme for minorities in this country as well.  So let’s examine the question of why this matters by looking at one way in how minorities are perceived in regards to scientific ability.

In 2007 the cover of Scientific American Mind had a feature story titled: Why Whites Dominate in Science and Math.  The word ‘Dominate’ was about 10% bigger than ‘Why Whites’ and twice as big as the words ‘in Science and Math.’  In other words, Dominate was visually emphasized.

I’m sure you had an immediate reaction when you read that title, probably the first one being “How the hell did they manage to print that on the cover of a magazine and not become immediately embroiled in national outrage?”  Because that statement is offensive.  The article is actually asking a question but you wouldn’t know it from the cover.  It’s a declarative statement that leaves no room for inquery and seems to imply an innate or implicit scientific and mathematic advantage to Whites.  That statement probably made you angry, or at the least, a little bit uncomfortable.

Now, what if I told you that wasn’t the actual title.  The actual title was: Why Men Dominate in Science and Math.  Does it still make you feel the same way?  If it doesn’t, why not?  Because technically, as defined by the article, “dominate” means at least a proportional share of tenure and management positions in academia and industry, and guess what?  White men “dominate” those positions, by far, so according to the article, both statements are technically true.  But you would never see an article titled: Why Whites Dominate in Science and Math, because that’s racist in its implication that Whites are innately better at science and math, and we all know that’s simply not true.  So how come Scientific American Mind was able to get away with such a blatantly sexist title on its cover?  Because so many people still buy into the implicit assumption that men are more naturally talented at math and science.

Actual Scientific American Mind December 2007 Cover

Actual Scientific American Mind December 2007 Cover

I know this because I experienced it first hand, as have had many women in the sciences.  In fact, one study showed that a woman applying for a research grant must be 2.5 times more productive than a man in order to be considered as equally competent (source, source).  That means a woman has to work more than twice as hard to even be considered on the same level as a man who produces less than half of what she does.  This is still happening.  This happens to women everyday.  Everyday, when I was still working in research, I had to prove in some way that I had the right to be there; that I was intelligent enough and competent enough.  Everyday.  And it’s not just in science, but every profession still viewed as ‘male’ such as doctors, lawyers, and politicians.  So yeah, women can get a bit defensive when we hear our brains are ‘different’.  It’s because we’ve been told in so many ways that different really does equal inferior and we have to fight against these misconceptions and stereotypes, everyday.  It’s hard not to get defensive about discrimination that has shaped your entire life.  It’s not about political correctness when it happens to you.

And I’m not just blaming men for this.  Women are the problem, too.  A 2012 Yale study found that physicists, chemists, and biologists, when given a fictitious resume with either a male or female name, overwhelming preferred the male resume, and were far more likely to offer him a job.  If they did offer the female a job they did so at a lower salary, an average of $4000 a year less.  Here’s the rub: female scientists were just as likely as males to show this discrimination. (source, source) So it’s not just men.  Many women have internalized the idea that women are naturally less competent at science and math and don’t even see that they are part of the problem.  This doesn’t just rest on men’s shoulders.

KapowNow, why do some men get so defensive in conversations regarding sex-based differences?  (And yes, I do think one of the men in the discussion on my Facebook page got defensive).  Part of it might be in reaction to a perceived implication of sexism.  I think this is something men struggle with in conversations on gender: they make an innocent remark (or what they think is an innocent remark) and then they feel someone (usually a woman) jumps down their throat, and now they are viewed as sexist and must prove that they aren’t.  Sometimes, this really is the case.  Sometimes they are being overly sensitive, but that sensitivity isn’t based on nothing.  Have a conversation on sexism enough times where you are made to feel like a sexist and you’re going to get defensive rather easily (the way women can get also defensive rather easily based on their own negative experiences).  I think in many ways the conversations we have on race and gender tend to make white men feel that their opinions, ideas, and perceptions are worthless, and this can also make them feel invisible.  Like what they have to say on the subject isn’t important.

Some people may be reading this and thinking, ‘Good. Now they know what it feels like!’ but I submit that when you make anyone feel that they aren’t important in conversations regarding gender and race you make them feel excluded.  We can’t advance the narrative or change anything by making anyone feel excluded.  Everyone is important to the conversation.  Everyone.  No exceptions.


Megan McArdle makes a good point: you can’t have a conversation about sexism at gunpoint.  In other words, you can’t browbeat a man down just because you have an initial emotional response to what he’s said.  You won’t change anyone’s mind that way.  And personally, the last thing I want to do is make an individual man feel like he needs to apologize to me for the, unfortunately rather large number of men, who have been discriminatory and pervy towards me.  It doesn’t advance anything to make someone feel ashamed for someone else’s bad behavior.  At the same time, I would like it if men stopped and considered why it might be important to them to prove that sex-based differences exist.  We’re all a little biased about something.  That doesn’t make us bad people, just human, but we should try to examine why we hold certain views.

In the next essay I will address the hidden biases that we all have to try to get at a deeper understanding of how sexism and other biases are still a rather large problem in our society.  I’m also going to leave the comments section open with this caveat: treat everyone who comments with respect, even if you hate what they’ve said.  If you’re feeling upset about what they’ve said that’s not the time to respond to it.  Wait until you’re calm.  This will NOT be a repeat of what happened on my Facebook page.  No, it will not.  Once I’ve approved your first comment you are allowed to comment at will, however, I can remove any comments I deem offensive at any time.  I can, and will, blacklist repeat offenders, so it keep it nice, people!  Thank you!

I also want to take this opportunity to mention that while this essay focuses on sexism there is also an incredibly high barrier for minorities in the sciences as well.  This article here highlights some of the reasons why.

And now, a picture of a puppy and kittens to make everyone smile and go to their happy place.  Your welcome!

Kittens and Puppy Vintage Photo

15 thoughts on “Holy Gender Wars, Batman! Part I

  1. Interesting aftermath (pun intended). You really did spell things out very well – about why some women (one of whom, at least, will remain nameless) allow their buttons to be pushed when they hear how “different” women are. How pushing back on that can make men defensive because they feel they are being accused of sexism (which isn’t the case – at least not always). I also like your insightful question about how some (NOT ALL) men might be wedded to the notion that women are somehow “different” and what that might mean.
    Your juxtapositioning of race and gender was very telling – many who would never argue that black people are “different” from white people, feel very comfortable asserting and defending the position that women are intrinsically “different” from men. They often don’t get why women might be as sensitive to the assertion of innate gender differences as black people might be to an assertion of inborn “differences” in racial groups. I still believe that a Venn Diagram of gender “differences” would show a very large overlap and maybe a few actual “differences.”
    I once heard that the assertion that males outperform women on standardized math tests is only true to a point. I read somewhere that if one selects out the few males who make the top scores, the scores become comparable. It is those few savants who skew the stats on math scores. Can’t remember where I read it, but it would be an interesting item to research. Moreover, I can’t help but be amazed at the disparate treatment of differences in SAT (or other standardized) test scores. When men outperform women (say, in math), the conclusion is that most men are more intelligent or at least more skilled in math. But when the tables are turned, as they are when it comes to verbal skills, no comparable assumption is made. No one concludes that most women are more intelligent than most men because they score higher in verbal tests. That alone should make one think about the conclusions we draw from “differences.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • Once again, I have managed to just post a comment, instead of replying to another person’s comment. Please be patient with me, I’ve only been at this blogging thing for about 3 weeks. My reply to your reply is below. Thanks again!


      • So that’s where my adolescent irrational fear of math came from! God, the world makes so much more sense now.

        Yes, I most certainly do remember “Math is hard” Barbie. The sad thing is, I don’t think the people who came up with that were even trying to be sexist.


        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much for taking the time to read my essay as well as leaving such a thoughtful comment that raises some interesting questions. I may have to include an essay on the actual scholastic performances of boys and girls worldwide. I’m writing this from memory (and if any of what I’m about to say proves incorrect I will come back and fix it later) but I believe in a 25 year period in the US the ratio of boys to girls who scored an 800 on the SAT math section went from 13 boys:1 girl to 3 boys:1 girl. There’s no way such a dramatic increase in the number of girls scoring an 800 on the SAT math section is due to a change in biology, so it must be environmental. Also, at young ages both boys and girls, and whites and other ethnicities all have similar scores in math and science aptitudes. It is only during puberty that significant differences emerge. Is it hormones; is it peer pressure to conform to expected norms? Is it a lack of encouragement by teachers and parents? Overall, I believe recent studies show that girls pace or out perform boys scholastically in math and science throughout high school, and this is becoming true worldwide. However, boys are falling behind in their verbal and reading abilities which is troubling. The last thing we need as a society is any gender inequity and I can see a bizarre future where in a couple of generations men may have to strive to prove they are competent and hardworking.

    Thanks again for your feedback. You’ve given me much to ponder!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. lol….still giggling over your ending photo. Wow! You really took this to high places! I remember reading your about page (was it?) and remarking how impressed I was that you seem so equally left/right brained. All my life I was brainwashed to think that I couldn’t do left-brained stuff and lately I am finding out that was so much propaganda. Also, I completely agree with you in your above comment and have thought that the pendulum WILL swing the other way and soon men will have to prove their worth in those areas. Extremes – – Not good! Fantasically WISE post, my dear!!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks! I’m glad you really liked the ending photo . . . if you saw how ‘lively’ things got on my FB page, you’ll understand why I felt the need to end things on a high note.

      I’m so glad that you’re finding left-brained things are not beyond you! I just happened to stumble upon the fact and it dawned on me, ‘Wait, you mean I don’t suck at math!’

      Yes, the pendulum swinging the other way would be terrible. I don’t think equality for women has to come at the expense of men. The education trends I’ve been reading about make me very concerned for the next few generations of boys. Making girls work so hard to prove themselves is detrimental to boys as well. At a certain point their never being pushed to work as hard will have negative consequences. I saw this at the graduate level. Several boys had expected to have the highest grade in a particular class, and it turned out it was me and another blonde girl. I was a single mom and she worked full time (unlike the boys) and yet we still managed to do the best because we had something to prove. One of the boys was convinced that the only reason we did better was because the professor “liked blondes” when in reality we just worked harder.

      Thank you for all the positive feedback. It is, as always, very appreciated!


    • As I watched my kids grow through high school and college, I saw the guys slacking off (video games), and girls focusing on getting ahead (grades and extra-curricular activities). At one point, my brother noticed the trend, and gave my son an article that advised guys to turn their attention from video games to schoolwork, and pointed out that girls won’t like guys who won’t be able to keep up with them intelligently and then financially. I won’t be surprised either, Stephanie, if the tables turn.

      Jessica, you can understand my engineer-daughter’s reluctance to participate in the women’s engineering organizations. She doesn’t want to be accused of using any unfair advantages to get ahead. Nor does she want to hang around estrogenous women who whimper about work conditions while fixing their makeup and fake nails. Like you, she has been a woman in a man’s world since high school math, science and engineering classes, working her tail off.

      In college, psych professors easily persuaded me that men’s and women’s brains, etc. were more alike than different. Jessica, I love the statement in your CNet link, “you can’t slap a brain down in a lab and immediately recognize it as being male or female.”

      Good for you, Jessica, getting a firestorm going on Facebook. (Hooray for your ability to edit comments here!) Keep up the good work!


      • Thanks for that wonderful comment! It bothers me so much to think that men might be putting themselves at an unintentional disadvantage. This is the flip side of making women have to work so hard to prove themselves: rewarding men’s mediocrity. Letting them think that mediocrity is excellence, because then in a truly fair competition they won’t be prepared to do their best. And that’s not a good situation either.

        The teenager next door who helps out with our toddler on weekends is very smart and science oriented and when I brought this topic up he was very confused. He said, as if it were a foregone conclusion, that not only was his girlfriend smarter than him, but all the girls in his classes were smarter than the boys. This is already happening!

        I’m glad your brother was on top of things with your son! And yes, I do understand your daughter’s dilemma. For the most part I felt very isolated at Georgetown. And two of my new neighbors who moved in last summer, a couple doors down, are both mechanical engineers and one of them had the worst time at her post-doc because of discrimination and sexism. It sounds like it was a traumatic experience for her.

        Also, love your “estrogenous women” description. So funny.



      • The good news in all of this is that things might be changing. There are men in math and science who are very concerned at women being kept away, or kept from advancing because of hostile work situations. Mike’s mentor professor at UVA was very troubled by the small percentage of women who are computer science majors. Mike is very disturbed by this too and thinks women should be encouraged and not have to encounter crap in the classrooms and in the workplace. He pointed out that nearly (or maybe more than) 50% of math majors are women, but less than 20% are computer science majors and that it’s the hostility towards them – not their ability – that is the cause. Just look at the sexism in video games! One good thing there, was something I noticed recently in a game I downloaded, called The Tribez. It’s a time management/simulation game where you are chief of a tribe and direct the people to do certain tasks to advance levels or explore strange, new world (boldly, of course). Well the helping spirit, who gives hints along the way is a bosomy, scantily clad young female. And all of the tribe members are male. Recently I read a review that blasted that sexism and viola, in the latest update there are female tribe members. Of course “Aurora” the spirit guide is still bosomy and scantily clad, but, hey, it IS progress.


      • Centered, I appreciate that you optimistically point out the progress of the video game. That helps me to keep my head on my shoulders as I shake it back and forth in horrified recognition of the state of sexism and illogical sexualization. As someone wrote recently on another blog, women’s breasts are sexualized beyond reason, unlike any part on a man’s body.

        I looked at tribez.com. I see an attractive young woman (as you described), and a goofy guy on the back of a goofy dinosaur. My cynicism protests: are goofy guys the only ones she can rise above? Are guys content with being depicted as goofy? I see that her waist is more realistic than a Barbie doll. I see the top of her dress is hand-shaped with fingertips. I see a guy behind her playing the game on his cell phone, and wonder at how he’s depicted as such a mature man.

        I can add evidence to your observation about women in computer science. My husband is a software engineer. He had one female project manager for a couple years, and female coworkers who are several rungs below him, all without any computer science background. That’s it. His workplace is not vulgar or otherwise offensive to civilized women. Women are the headhunters and HR people, but not qualified to do the work.

        When my husband was an aviation meteorologist (and training to become one) he saw even more of a dearth of women in the field. He proposes a reason: women are discouraged from STEM (science technology engineering math) pursuits. That’s the only logic he can see to explain their apparent disinterest. To encourage my daughters in the STEM fields, he bought copies of their text books so he could be better able to support them.

        My husband urged me to take a computer science class from one of his favorite professors. I was the only female who did not sit in the back rows. I got the highest grade, with the second highest grade going to a senior continuing on to Cornell for pre-med. That was around the time when the tech bubble burst, so I didn’t continue any further in the field, and went on to other horizons.

        When I got on the technology headhunters’ lists, they swamped me with calls. My husband only got calls for longshots. Could there really be that much more demand for someone with such relatively low qualifications as mine, compared with such high qualifications as his? Was it discrimination against men?

        In the early 80s I recall being astonished by someone whom I respected when he claimed that he was being discriminated against as a white man. He wanted affirmative action for white men. I thought he was being a white supremist. Perhaps he was being prophetic.

        Jessica, the estrogenous line went out of the comment several times before I hit the Post Comment button. I know that some very feminine women are brilliant in the STEM fields, but it makes a clear picture in my mind. It brings me back to an occupational therapy conference that I attended when I was planning to enter the field. Nearly everyone was a woman. The only man whom I recall was the one who conducted a (brilliant) all-day seminar. During scheduled discussions about the state of the field, I was nauseated by the whimpering and whining about how unfair it was that physical and massage therapists were getting ahead. End of conversation. The only proposals that I ever heard for how to respond was to find ways to do more physical and massage therapy. No suggestions for action plans that would raise the perceived value of occupational therapy. Just sob stories. That’s where part of my estrogenous women image comes from. What a waste of a resource, considering the intense science program that these women had to accomplish in their college years.

        Thank you, Jessica, for initiating this kind of conversation.


  4. Interesting that some men still today chalk up women’s excellence to some “affirmative action” program. In truth, women don’t need affirmative action in the sense that we need points added to our grades or scores. Way back in the olden days when I was in college, some smart ass guy told me I got into Northwestern Law School only because I was a women. I looked him in his squinty little eyes and asked him what his GPA and LSAT scores were. Then I told him what mine were. He at least had the grace (or good sense) to shut his yap.

    Liked by 1 person

    • LOL! That’s why you rock. Ugh, I was not nearly so composed in grad school when it happened to me. I didn’t know how to counter his words, or ‘prove’ that I had actually earned my grade. The fact is, I shouldn’t have had to prove anything. I wish now I had thought to bring up my GRE scores which were quite high. Oh well, at least you scored one for the team! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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