Saturday, February 18, 2006

The gender gap in science

Here's an interesting article by Peter Lawrence of the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, about the gender gap in scientific fields:

Among biomedical students in Europe and in the United States, there are similar numbers of males and females, suggesting perhaps that this subject is equally well suited to both sexes. But with higher and higher rank, the proportion of women falls inexorably—full professors are only about 10% female. Women drop out steadily, and many of them have demonstrated high ability. There is plenty of evidence for similar trends in different branches of science. For example, at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK, where I work, the gender ratio of graduate students is currently 43 male to 35 female, yet the ratio of group leaders is 56 male to 6 female.

Lawrence cites Simon Baron-Cohen's research into gender differences, and describes some average characteristics of the female brain and the male brain, which he believes are strongly dependent on biology and genetics:

Baron-Cohen presents evidence that males on average are biologically predisposed to systemise, to analyse, and to be more forgetful of others, while females on average are innately designed to empathise, to communicate, and to care for others. Males tend to think narrowly and obsess, while females think broadly, taking into account balancing arguments. Classifying individuals in general terms, he concludes that among men, about 60% have a male brain, 20% have a balanced brain, and 20% have a female brain. Women show the inverse figures, with some 60% having a female brain.

Apparently, Science considered this article for several months but declined to publish it, causing a minor "eruption" over the issue in the scientific community (or so the Daily Telegraph says).

I am not sure of the research into all this, so obviously not sure how correct all the assumptions are. But I am persuaded not only by this article but by life experience to think that women and men-while equally valuable and intelligent-are different, think differently, and value different kinds of human relationships.

Maybe this explains some of the overwhelmingly female presence in nursing and elementary education. Often we see this explained as cultural bias, but I wonder how much might simply be due to "the female brain"? That is, men may still rule out nursing and elementary education due to some perceived cultural bias, but women are probably often attracted to nursing and elementary education because of something implicit in those fields.



Blogger Izabela said...

Hmm, hang on. Does it say that women aren't in higher positions, e.g. professors, because of female brain? Interesting? Could having children be a factor? I wonder? There is a curious lack of recognition of the workload taken up in child-rearing , because, I suspect, the researchers out there don't have a clue (didn't say don't have children, just a clue. Guess which gender I suspect them to be).

Reminds me of research in psychology about baby carrying. Women carry on babies mostly on the left. The psych theory is that the baby is calmer because of hearing the mother's heart, so the subconscious tendency of the mother is to hold it on teh left. Obviously no-one ever asked mothers. After I became one I quickly understood that if you only have one hand to do things with, it is much better if it is a right hand.

I'm doing my PhD while bringing up a child. I would say that it'll take at least 2 times longer and during that time my number of publications will be considerably fewer than that of a colleague of comparable ability. Must be my female brain.

11:37 PM  
Blogger mary said...

Like I say, I have not seen the actual research these assumptions are based on (on which these assumptions are based? lol). But I got the impression from Lawrence's essay that he lamented the apparent closed doors and felt all "kinds" of brains were perfectly capable of "doing science". It was the scientific establishments that needed to learn how to value all kinds of brains. I didn't think he was attempting to say that science should be limited to those with "male" brains, for instance.

But...I will try to read more about it. One thing my female brain does well is empathize-and attempt to communicate.



6:23 PM  

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