Brains, Behaviour, Girls and Geeks

by Jane O’Hara


It’s a fact that women today are still underrepresented in numbers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), with the exception of life sciences (though not when it comes to higher-tier positions). Only 9% of USA top technology executives are female (see link), and in Canada women represent only 11% of registered professional engineers (see study).

This has been a hot media topic lately, and several theories have been put forward to try and explain why women are generally outnumbered by men in STEM. Computer science has an associated image of gaming ‘geeks’, which are usually imagined as male; in this industry Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs have served as high-profile examples, since the 1980s. Before that time many more women worked as computer programmers. Also movies, such as the comedy Revenge of the Nerds, usually portray computer ‘geeks’ as male, and on top of that, unattractive and socially awkward, making it harder for women to identify themselves with that image.

Marissa Mayer, newly appointed CEO of Yahoo, who spent 13 years climbing through the ranks of Google, recently spoke to media about the concern that girls are not entering technological career fields (see article). She cited the issue that girls and women do not have enough strong female role models to encourage them to thrive in this industry. She also opined that women need to see the application of their efforts in people’s lives; although I think this applies equally to men as it does to women.

While these are likely to be valid reasons keeping women from entering or progressing in male-dominated professions, there may be more subtle stereotypical attitudes to women throughout society that play a role in the gender imbalance. Certain psychological studies have put forward the idea that women’s brains are differently ‘wired’ to men’s, making females more inclined, by their nature, to gravitate towards fields of study and work that allow them to use their ‘empathising’ skills, such as nursing, teaching, caring etc. The flip side of this brain that is ‘hard-wired’ for empathy is a systemising-type brain, reportedly mostly possessed by men, (and some women) which is innately built to deal with mathematical / spatial tasks.

If one were to believe this theory of the innate differences between the male and female brains and look at the proportional numbers of each sex represented in the careers mentioned earlier that allegedly accompany male / female ‘natural’ talents, it would be easy to link the two occurrences and say “Well then, what’s the point in encouraging more women to enter the fields of science / math when their own biology dictates that they are drawn to careers with a greater degree of involvement with people and caring for others?”

But this assumption would completely bypass the fact that no real evidence for this theory of brain difference has been shown; indeed, it is dangerously misleading. Cordelia Fine has eloquently addressed this issue in her book “Delusions of Gender”, arguing that the data behind this theory is sketchy at best and has not been proven scientifically. She urges us to take a closer, more skeptical look at stereotypical attitudes that are prevalent in society that might be preventing women from entering or making gains in particular career fields. I will try here to summarise and explain some of the main ideas of her thought-provoking book.

First of all, an idea abounds in modern society that ‘genius’ or exceptional talent is a gift from birth and can be wheeled out to explain why boys tend to come out with better school grades in mathematics. This idea has been propounded to account for the preponderance of male engineers and mathematicians. But the concept of this ability being ‘hardwired’ into male brains goes against neuroscientific evidence that neural circuits are plastic and can adapt in response to experiences and the environment. In other words, if talent, aptitude or interest in maths, science and technology are identified in children and nurtured from a young age, and not stifled or dismissed, girls should be able to reach their full potential in these subjects just as well as boys.

The importance of this early encouragement is supported by studies that show how easily girls can be discouraged or given the impression that they can or should not be interested in these pursuits. The mind can absorb gender stereotypes unconsciously and this can negatively affect performance and self-image. This was demonstrated when women who were about to take a test of their spatial ability were first told that “men generally outperform women on this test”: can you guess the outcome of the test? If you said the women scored lower than the men, bingo!

In another group of women who were told that women perform better than or equal to men on the test, the women’s results were level with the men’s. Even simply ‘priming’ gender by asking people to tick a box indicating whether they are male or female before asking them to rate their ability at math indicated a lower rating by women of their own mathematical ability (and a higher than true self-rating by the men), compared with when they instead were asked which ethnic group they identified with. The author suggests that we can mould ourselves into pre-defined social roles and fit into common stereotypes as we do this, to adapt to social situations; and that the inclination of women towards empathetic roles could be more greatly attributed to “sensitive self-tuning” to match deep-set expectations, rather than hardwiring in their brains.

Even when women do excel in a technical or mathematic field, it can be difficult for them to sustain their interest or position as they move up the ranks. It’s been shown that when women take a test in a room that contains greater percentages of men, their performances decrease proportionally. This observation extends to workplaces, where a mathematically-inclined woman will usually be outnumbered by men, therefore making her gender more prominent and more of an ‘issue’. And seeing the disproportionate numbers of women day after day, these women may come to believe as a result that women are indeed inferior to men in math or technical ability and give up striving to fulfil their full potential.

This book was fascinating to read, basically because it debunks a lot of societal myths that people may not even be aware they believe. I have talked to many friends and people in social situations about this topic since I began researching for this blog post, and it was eye-opening to note that several of them casually talked about how men and women’s brains are supposed to be ‘built differently’ and that this could explain differences in chosen career paths. Fine’s book points out the lack of credible evidence for this idea and highlights the monumental role that our assigned gender has, on our upbringing, choices in life and how we treat and perceive each other. Awareness of these attitudes should be kept in mind when discussing how to encourage women in STEM fields.