Last week, I innocently shared a link 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.
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.
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.
Now, 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!