Where does sexism stem from? The sexist side of science

The greatest physician of ancient Rome, Galen, believed that menstrual blood was the result of eating bloody meat. He reasoned that women were just simply too slight to be able to digest meat as well as men.

Hippocrates, who is considered the ‘Father of Modern Medicine’, postulated that the ‘wandering womb’ caused many of women’s ailments. The uterus could travel anywhere in the body in search of ‘fluids’. Hippocrates was so revered that his theory persisted until the Victorian Age (1837-1901). Women, liable to swooning ‘when their emotions were aroused’, were advised to carry smelling salts, as ‘the wandering womb disliked the pungent odour and would return to its place, allowing the woman to recover her consciousness’ (Tasca 2012). As laughable as this is, these beliefs placed immense limitations upon women. Physicians during the Victorian Age also believed that ‘the uterus competes directly with the brain for an adequate blood supply. Thus any effort a woman made to nourish her mind through education or career could come only at the expense of her fertility’ (Angier 2014).

This is not just historical fodder—the idea that the female body is inferior to a man’s is still present in our society.  These misconceptions sit under the seemingly harmless guise that men and women think differently—men are from Mars and women are from Venus. These stereotypes are pervasive and damning. In the mid-1980’s, Australia had the most gender-segregated workforce in the OECD. We have not moved on much from that low ebb. The legacy of men’s work and women’s work prevails. A recent Senate inquiry noted that ‘In 2015 ̶ 16, six in 10 Australian employees worked in an industry which is dominated by one gender.’ Women are increasingly concentrated in two industries: Health Care and Social Assistance, and Education and Training. Is this by choice or social design?

The widely held theory that our brains are gendered neatly ties into the theory of evolution. We’ve all heard explanations as to why gender roles are “natural” and “inevitable” —men were the hunters so naturally they are equipped with the ability to apply analytical thinking skills. Whereas thanks to thousands of years of foraging and childrearing, women are innately more nurturing and adept at ‘emotional labour’. Men are logical; women are loving. These ideas are simply stereotypes palmed off as facts.

The impact of the theory of evolution on the practice of science is a subject that Natalie Angier unpicks in her book ‘Woman: an intimate geography’. Angier doesn’t suggest that evolution is incorrect, in fact she wittily writes: ‘I consider myself a Darwinist right down to my DNA’. Though she does have issue with ‘many of the slap-happy, data-free Darwinesque theory-ettes’. Probably the most famous example is John Gray the author of ‘Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus’. His book includes divisive declarations such as—‘Not only do men and women communicate differently but they think, feel, perceive, react, respond, love, need, and appreciate differently.’ Gray has positioned himself as an expert, yet he exposes extreme views that aren’t supported by scientific evidence. According to HarperCollins this book is the best-selling hardcover nonfiction book of all-time. His views have saturated social discourse. When science stops being a practice of robust analysis, we are all in trouble. Angier argues—’Science doesn’t belong only to scientists…. science is the property of the human race.’ Women should be participating in it.

Unfortunately, these theory-ettes hold positions of influence. Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Sir Tim Hunt said at the World Conference of Science Journalists in 2015: ‘Let me tell you the trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry.’  He later claimed the remarks were not sexist and merely an ‘idiotic joke’. His punch line punches down; it is weighted with beliefs that women are not fit for science.

Hunt is not alone in his thinking—a recent survey found that ‘67% of Europeans think that women do not possess the required capabilities in order to access high-level scientific positions.’ Similarly, President of Harvard University Dr Lawrence Summers, argued that one of the reasons there is a lack of women in science is because of their innate inability to do maths. He pointed out that boys consistently outperform girls in high school maths. Unfortunately for Dr Summers, he did not use his critical thinking skills to dissect these statistics. Instead, he has seemingly broken the golden rule of statistics: correlation does not mean causation. Just because boys generally outperform girls at maths, this does not mean boys are genetically predisposed for the subject.

Summers is correct that there is maths-gap between boys and girls in high school. The maths-gap problem is an important issue to understand, as maths scores are a good predictor of future income. The earning heft of maths is only going to become more significant as STEM becomes the bedrock of our economy. HG Wells forecasted that ‘Statistical thinking will one day be as necessary as a qualification as the ability to read and write.’ It seems like that day has come.

A common postulation for the maths-gap is that ‘boys have and develop superior spatial skills and that this gives them an advantage in maths.’ The key word in this hypothesis is have—suggesting that boys are born with this skill. There is a growing body of research demonstrating that the brain is capable of changing. Neural plasticity means our bodies develop in response to our environment and experiences—we are continuously shaped by our social history and current context. Telling girls they are bad at maths is likely to make them bad at maths. This is bias—not biology at work.  Despite the mounting evidence of the malleability of the brain and body, the prevailing understanding of female–male differences are made using a rigid model of development—men and women are ‘hardwired’ differently.

The widespread nature of these beliefs prompted the Office of the Chief Scientist of Australia to release a paper in 2016 entitled ‘Busting myths about women in STEM’. The paper systematically goes through each myth starting with: Girls are bad at maths. Their response is clear—‘There is no innate gender difference in mathematics ability.’ So why is there a maths-gap?

Any differences can be accounted for by ‘differing societal expectations for male and female students’. In high school ‘a gender gap in self-concept emerges; many girls perceive they have less ability than their achievements warrant, in comparison to boys with the same scores.’ New research indicates that the maths-gap starts as early as kindergarten: ‘Teachers consistently rate girls’ mathematical proficiency lower than that of boys with similar achievement and learning behaviors.’ This bias goes on to inform how girls engage with maths, with more females experiencing maths-anxiety (MA).

The impact of MA is significant and self-perpetuating. There is strong evidence showing that MA reduces the efficiency of working memory to process and store information, resulting in poor performance. Researchers have found that the anticipation of maths causes the brain’s ‘pain network’ to be activated in people with high MA. This is why it is crucial that we are aware of stereotypes—they are harmful and limiting.

It is important that this myth be dispelled—science and design has real-world impacts. Blind by Design is a brilliant project that aims to promote more inclusive design practices—‘Our industry’s collective blindness keeps us from fulfilling design’s promise to create a better world.’ Right now, we are living in a world designed by men. This is not safe.

It was not until 2011 that the first female crash test dummy was used to test the safety of seatbelts. By testing seatbelts for the average build of a man means that ‘female drivers are 47% more likely to be seriously injured in a car crash.’ As for medicine, ‘most biomedical and clinical research has been based on the assumption that the male can serve as representative of the species’. Because men and women respond differently to medications: ‘the close of the previous decade saw 8 out of 10 prescription drugs withdrawn from the U.S. market because they cause significantly greater health risks for women.’ Though that is not to say design has completely forgotten women—the standard height of a kitchen counters is based on the average height of a woman.

Gender needs to be viewed differently—it is more than just genitals. Cordelia Fine emphasises our need to start acknowledging gender as ‘a complex, multilevel, hierarchical structure that shapes not only institutions, interrelations, cognition and perception, but also the brain’ (Science and Society, 2014). Stereotypes shape us. Blanket statements about sex suffocate us individually. We need to be working to dismantle gender-normative ideas. Here’s hoping future generations will be able to look back and laugh at the absurd notions that women are born without mathematical minds and men are born without the ability to nurture.

Image: Chuttersnap


Fiona Murphy is a writer, editor and broadcaster. She’s one of the creators of the podcast Literary Canon Ball, a book club celebrating under-represented writers. You can also catch Fiona reading the weekend news on Vision Australia Radio. This year she’s stepping outside her comfort zone and is developing a comedy routine with the support of Comedy Lab — an initiative set up by Women with Disabilities Victoria, the University of Melbourne and the Victorian College of the Arts. Fiona is currently working on a historical novel about animals big and small.

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