Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Changing the Debate about Women in STEM: Celebrating our Equal Abilities!

The following is a guest post by Greet Brosens, cross-posted from the Sagent Solutions Blog

Greet has worked in the recruitment industry for the last 18 years. Recently, Greet founded Sagent Solutions, an organization which promotes women in engineering and attracts women to a field where they are dramatically underrepresented. Whilst companies are sincere in their efforts to increase the numbers, Greet believes that more can be done to change the perception of female engineers, and to give them the right support networks to succeed.

After guest tweeting for The Women’s Room last week, I had enough inspiration for another blog about stereotypes. The stereotypical treatment of girls and women is a subject I have written about a lot in the last year and done a lot of research on. Unfortunately the more I read the more I despair.

The issues are deep rooted. There seems to be a small, well connected, minority of people who firmly believe that there are no innate differences between men and women. Most of these people do acknowledge that through education and culture, men and women make different choices, and that we have to find a way to move away from choices driven by stereotype.

It continues to amaze me however, that this still appears to be a minority view. Even amongst female engineers, who presumably know a thing or two about the effects of stereotypical thinking, it still seems to be an accepted view that men and women are different.

I can quote many examples of encounters I have had with men and women discussing this very topic. As soon as people ask me: “So what do you do for a living?” and I answer: “Well, I help companies attract and retain more female engineers”, the floodgates of opinion open.

I recently found myself at a Christmas party talking to a well educated ex-banker. When I mentioned what I do, his spontaneous response was: “yes, but you will never be able to change the numbers, because men and women are different.” He was extremely well informed and aware of all the research using brain scan technology to explain the innate differences in brain function between men and women, which he shared with me at length before moving on to the real life example of his stay-at-home wife who was much better with the kids.

But even amongst my female friends, most of them working women with kids, I often overhear comments such as: “no matter how hard I try, she will only wear pink. I guess it is just in her!” or “yes they are boisterous, oh well, boys will be boys!”

Now I don’t mind people disagreeing with me, and I don’t expect everyone to hold the same opinion, but it does worry me that so many people seem to accept the science behind male and female innate differences. The impact of this generally accepted belief is huge. It impacts how parents and teachers interact with children (there is indeed a whole body of work on how to raise boys versus girls, a lot of it used in education), it impacts how men and women are treated at work, and most importantly it impacts the choices that people make. It limits us in our choices.

Our choices are not purely driven by our interests. They are a consequence of our environment, our culture and the interactions with people around us. When women choose to stay at home, that can sometimes be their real interest, but very often a consequence of their culture and environment, including their partner. When women choose to study arts instead of science, I believe that in many cases that is also a consequence of their environment rather than a reflection of their ability and interest. If not, why would the statistics not be the same globally? Why do less girls in the UK than in other European countries study physics? And even within the UK, why do more girls from single sex schools study physics than from state schools? These stats don’t make sense if we believe that men and women are innately different.

So if we agree that men and women continue to perform differently and make different choices because too many people who influence these choices believe that these differences are innate, let’s look at the cause for that.

The public debate, at least the one that most people follow, still focuses too much on the differences between men and women. Only recently did all the major papers pick up on the latest brain scan research that proves that men and women are innately different. Sloppy reporting, to say the least, because a closer look at the research makes it clear that absolutely nothing has been proven. Yet the papers all pick it up, and leave it to the guest science commentators buried in the middle pages to refute those headlines.

Why is this acceptable? I have come up with a simple tool to identify whether something is sexist (i.e. highlights unproven differences in ability between the sexes). If you replace the word woman by black and the word man by white, would the statement still be acceptable?

An example: we use that headline from the Independent in December: “The hardwired difference between male and female brains could explain why men are better at map reading and replace that with: “The hardwired difference between white people’s and black people’s brains could explain why white people are better at map reading.

Now would any respectable newspaper dare and print such a headline? It would probably make most of us cringe just reading this! Yet we find it completely acceptable to say and print these statements about men and women.

And it is not just men. There are lots of examples of high profile women who unwittingly contribute to the generally held belief of innate differences when they try and sell the benefits of senior women in the workplace. Too often do we hear the argument that women contribute unique skills to the workplace because they have greater listening skills, greater empathy etc. Did anyone in the civil rights movement use this line of argument?

Some might say my comparison is a bit flippant. But is it? The socio-economic circumstances aren’t all that different. In the US, many more men of African-American origin are unemployed, in low paid jobs, in prison or victims of drug abuse. Is anyone doing research to investigate whether this is cultural or innate? NO! We all understand and accept the difficulties that people in the African-American community face, and understand they are a consequence of environment and culture.

So where do we go from here. Very simply, I believe that we will not achieve greater equality in STEM as long as we continue to accept the public debate.

We do not accept school teachers who share racist views; we should equally not accept school teachers who believe that boys and girls are innately different. Educating our educators should be a mandatory part of their curriculum, and the curriculum of our children. We should have a debate on nature versus nurture with our children and educators, and explain where we are with our science. Government has a duty to ensure that the debate is more balanced, that scientists with different opinions get a greater voice, and to educate our teachers.

I also believe that large corporations who have a strong interest to hire more engineers and other STEM professionals can contribute to the debate. Many of these organisations have done a great job developing female role models and making sure the media and the public are aware of these role models. They can go further; they can use some of their PR budgets to help influence the public debate on brain research. There are a lot of excellent neuroscientists who can contribute a lot on the debate about innate versus learned differences. These scientists and science commentators can be given a much louder voice, and industry has the power to make this happen.

So here is my appeal: let’s change the public debate and opinion about innate differences between men and women. Let’s celebrate our similarities, and our equal ability. In the run up to International Women’s Day on March 6th, who will help shape the debate?

I wish to thank Mona Nasser proofreading this post and sharing her thoughts. Mona rightly pointed out that the source of the wrong point of view regarding male and female differences roots in a lack of critical and scientific approach in shaping people’s beliefs, opinions and actions, leading to prejudice. If we accept that the science is sloppy and inaccurate at best, we can leave those differences behind and celebrate our similarities!

You can contact Greet at Sagent Solutions and follow her on twitter.


Anonymous said...

I like to give examples of biases and challenges faced by women in STEM and say "Let's get rid of 100% of those challenges first, and then, if that ever happens (haha), we can discuss whether any remaining underrepresentations if any are due to innate differences or something else." Your view is quite different: "There are no innate differences whatsoever, not even the tiniest most inconsequential speck of an innate difference in any respect." That is an extreme position, and quite implausible. No two people are the same -- for example some people are more introverted than others -- and we know there is some innate aspect to these differences, however indirect (e.g. identical twins are more similar in introversion than fraternal twins are, even if the twins are raised in different families). So, if men and women were raised in the same gender-blind environment, there would be a distribution of how introverted the men are, and a distribution of how introverted the women are. You are saying: These two distributions would be exactly the same, literally down to the hundredth decimal point. The exact same mean, same standard deviation, same skewness, same everything. Do you really believe that? Isn't it rather unlikely?

Personally, I would be surprised if there was a *large* difference, but I would be shocked if there was not even the tiniest smidge of a difference. Also, whatever differences there are, I would not take it as justifying underrepresentation in STEM, because there isn't a specific type of personality that is uniquely suited to STEM work. ("STEM as practiced today" is a different story of course, there is glorification of certain personalities and abilities.)

"There are no innate differences whatsoever" is bad ground to stand on, not only because the claim might be false (as any empirical claim might be), but because it's irrelevant. For example, people with Down's syndrome really do have innate differences, but the moral and societal imperatives are still there: We should eliminate biases and barriers to their success; We should make sure that they are in environments where they can best flourish; Unless they ARE in an environment where they can best flourish, we should not prejudge what they're capable of. :-D --Steve

Bekki said...

I too am surprised by how many people think there is clear evidence for innate differences between men and women; *not* just are open minded to the possibility but interpret differences that are clearly have a strong cultural component (because, as Greet said, they vary from culture to culture) as being biological. I agree that we need to challenge such views.

But I'd like to gently suggest that we reconsider comparisons between racism and sexism in this blog. It's probably true that most major newspapers wouldn't publish a blatantly racist headline. But people I know have shared that they *hear* blatantly racist statements (not to mention less blatant ones) all the time and they are treated very differently despite lip service to equality. In some ways, I think it can be worse when the discrimination is unstated, because then people can insist there isn't a problem. But I wouldn't want readers of this blog to get the message -- even if totally unintentional -- that racism is a less severe problem. In other words, even if the litmus test suggested in this post is true, I worry it could have the unintended side effect of disregarding the racism that people experience.

quizicist said...

Anonymous, there is no measurement technique which can measure a sociological difference to many decimal places. All we can ever do with measurement is to determine whether a difference is detectable above the background noise by a predefined number of standard deviations. The working hypothesis that "there are no innate differences between the average psychological attributes of male and female humans" is no more extreme than the opposing working hypothesis that there are differences (detectable above the noise). They are both reasonable hypotheses to test. 100 years ago the hypothesis that there are no innate differences between black and white humans would have appeared similarly extreme and implausible for most people, because most people are unable to see past their own experience. Our well reported tendency to generalise to the population from our own personal experience is to blame for this. That's why we need science to take an objective views. I think Greet's point is that when it comes to men and women, most of us, scientists as well, simply fall back on anecdote and sloppy science. Psychology studies that find no average difference between genders don't make the news, partly because nobody wants to hear that we're not all that different. We just love supposed differences between the genders, most people can't get enough of it, they generally inflate any slight differences and completely ignore any piece of evidence that doesn't fit their preconceived belief. Of course people do this with all sorts of beliefs.

Anonymous said...

"There seems to be a small, well connected, minority of people who firmly believe that there are no innate differences between men and women."

I thought that was the majority view. When scientific (and semi-scientific) studies are presented in a newspaper claiming a statistical difference between men and women in some cognitive task, they're usually written in a "contrary to popular belief..." style.

It seems pretty hard to find differences like these among the noise (even a clear-cut measurable like height is only a little bit different between men and women, on average, with big variances in both populations). It's obvious that the cognitive differences between men and women are not huge and the variances among individuals spread them out enough that it's not worth bothering about them. But on the other hand, claiming that they're exactly zero is even harder to demonstrate: exact symmetries are rare in biology and impossible to verify experimentally. (The mass of a photon is very small, but to say that it's zero is a theoretical assumption.)

Greet Brosens said...

I would like to apologise if my post unintentionally implied that racism is less of a problem than gender inequality. It is absolutely not. I furthermore agree that hidden bias can be worse than open bias. I only wanted to make the comparison to show that the science of gender differences is exactly that, biased.

Whether or not the differences between men and women are zero, tiny or not so tiny, I believe it does not matter. Given that the science currently does not point either way, I merely want to sit on the side of caution. Accepting that differences are probably cultural rather than innate, gives both girls and boys a lot more choice in their live. They can choose their career and interest free of stereotype and supposed superior ability.