Women and science: time to cut the Neurotrash

Opportunities need to be made for young girls to identify with science while providing fairer employment for working scientists. It's time to end the 'neurosexism' in education and the media.

Tara Clarke
10 March 2015
Women chemists Kathleen Zier, Anna Jane Harrison, Mary Lura Sherrill, Marie Mercury Roth, 1947. (Chemical Heritage Foundation)

Women chemists Kathleen Zier, Anna Jane Harrison, Mary Lura Sherrill, Marie Mercury Roth, 1947. (Chemical Heritage Foundation)Let’s just get one thing absolutely clear. Women are not from Venus and men are not from Mars. Our intelligence is not governed by our biology. So why are only 13% of all Science Technology Engineering and Maths (STEM) jobs in the UK occupied by women? Why are fewer than one in ten STEM managers women? In exploring why this percentage is so low, research in neurobiology, social stereotypes, workplace environments, as well as in socioeconomic backgrounds is shedding new light the issues of gender inequality in science. And it’s not all bad news.

A statistical report by WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) shows that girls in the UK only begin losing interest in science as they grow into their teenage years. Equal percentages of girls and boys undertook STEM subjects during GCSEs in 2012. Of those who took these GCSEs, an equal or higher number of girls achieved A*- C grades compared to boys in all STEM subjects, except Mathematics (1% difference), Other Technology and Other Science.

At A level, lower numbers of females took all STEM subjects, except biology. In 2014, 7.6% of boys took physics A Level, compared with just 1.7% of girls, while maths A Level was taken by 14.3% of boys compared with just 7.6% of girls. Again, girls performed just as well, if not better than boys in some of these subjects. In physics, 34.7% of girls got A* or A grade, compared with 29.5% of boys, while in maths the numbers were almost the same: 41.8% of girls achieved the top two grades, compared with 42.2% of boys.

At university level the gap in the sciences widens, with males dominating subjects such as Engineering, Technology and Computer Science, while the majority of females choose the biological subjects. Only about half (51%) of female STEM graduates actually go on to work in STEM roles, compared with over two thirds (68%) of male STEM graduates.

So how can we explain the discrepancy?

Georgina Rippon is Professor of Cognitive Neuroimaging at Aston University in Birmingham. She analyses the parts of our brains associated with learning and behaviour, and advocates against ‘Neurosexism’ in education and the media. While speaking at the British Science Festival in September 2014, Professor Rippon acknowledged that there is a lack of evidence to support the idea that behavioural differences between men and women can be inferred from the differences in our brains. There are no differences in structure or function that could determine a ‘male brain’ or ‘female brain’, and there is no scientific evidence that proves that men and women are born with different cognitive (thinking and reasoning) skills. So there is no reason to believe that boys are better at reading maps while girls are uniquely capable of listening.

Countless misreporting on this topic is distorting the public’s understanding of gender equality, allowing people to believe that unequalness is down to fundamental, biological differences. But biology has got nothing to do with inequality. One of Professor Rippon’s prime suspects for the imbalance of women in science is the influence of social stereotypes, i.e. that pink is for girls and blue is for boys.

The environment that we grow up in affects how our brain develops. Professor Rippon explains that any difference in brain circuitry comes through stereotyping. Our brain has an incredible ability to adapt, to learn, to accommodate, and to rewire (known as neuroplasticity), and to fit in to our community we adopt the standards, beliefs, and prejudices of those we want to identify with - such as the role of our associated genders. This can help explain the drop in girls taking STEM subjects during their formative years between GCSEs and A level. We are managing expectations from the day that we are born, and by adapting to the traditional conventions of gender norms, we are sustaining the gender-specific barriers that currently exist.

The consensus surrounding gender-stereotyped toy marketing and its effect on a girl’s attitude to careers in science has led to some toy stores removing their gender-specific signs and pink and blue floors. Toys have a significant influence on children as they develop their interests. Dolls, cookery sets and pink princess dresses puts girls at a disadvantage as boys get an early start on developing their cognitive and spatial skills through construction kits and toy machinery catered especially for them. Campaign groups based in the UK such as Let Toys Be Toys have been canvassing retailers to “organise toys by genre not gender”, saying sexist stereotyping risks turning girls off science and maths.

The toy industry wasn’t the only one to fall into the stereotyping trap. In 2013, the EU Commission launched a campaign designed to attract more women into a career in science called ‘Science: it’s a girl thing’ with a pseudo-pop video. In the video, women are seen strutting in high heels (a hazard in the lab) and applying lipstick. There is no imagery of women doing any real science. Instead, it appeals to looks and sex appeal, amplifying the imbalanced way women are represented in the media today. The video was taken down following outrage from the scientific community on Twitter. In a critical response to the miscalculated attempts to entice women into science, a grassroots movement called Science Grrl was born, with local groups in cities all over the UK advocating for a better representation of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. With a growing membership, Science Grrls have been travelling to science festivals to challenge perceptions and show what real women in science look like. Science: it’s not a girl or a boy thing, it’s for everybody.

Female scientists struggle to follow through with a career in STEM due to the exclusiveness of the working environments. Roles that require long hours, stretching into the weekends to stay ahead of the competition, means that colleagues without children can race ahead in their careers. The lack of day care facilities and flexible working hours creates an unsuitable environment for women who are passionate about doing science as well as starting a family. This reduces the likelihood of women staying in a STEM career long enough to take on senior roles and sit on boards of management. Organisations such as Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) encourages universities and businesses to have flexible working hours, as well as equal parental leave opportunities for fathers as well as mothers, to discourage gender bias in the workplace.

Finally, socioeconomic background and access to education has a compelling influence on girls’ opportunities in science, as explored in a study which surveyed 31,000 adults over the age of 50 from different countries in Europe. The study measured memory, numeracy and verbal fluency against measures of gender equality and economic development for the country where they grew up. The results show that as a country develops economically, the differences in cognitive ability between men and women change. Differences in verbal fluency disappear, differences in numeracy diminish and differences in memory actually increase, with women taking a distinct advantage. The study highlights how gender gaps in certain key skills diminish as gender gaps in society diminish, with gender equality markedly benefiting women. One element to take from this study is that women have just as much potential as men when given an equal opportunity.

So how do we get more women into science? We can start by saying no to the neurotrash that claims girls are biologically better at listening than reading maps. Appealing to stereotypes only reinforces the situation that turns girls off science in the first place. Instead, opportunities need to be made for young girls to identify with science while providing fairer employment for working scientists. In the words of Imran Khan, chief executive of the British Science Association, “until we get a science sector that is representative of the rest of society, we’re failing.”

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