Pink Brain, Blue Brain

Updated: Oct 17, 2020

In 2005, when Larry Summers was president of Harvard, he claimed that that the primary reason that women do not hold the highest positions in science is because women, as caregivers, cannot commit to work the long hours necessary to advance their careers. He also attributed the lack of women in top science positions to “issues of intrinsic aptitude” especially for mathematical ability. He acknowledged that discrimination exists, but its impact is dwarfed by these other factors. Summers’ comments caused an uproar. Thirteen years later, the issue has not disappeared.

In 2018, James Damore, age 28, was fired by Google after he wrote a memo in which he claimed that men are innately better suited to work in technology jobs than women. He claimed that women are typically more focused on “feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas” and are more likely than men to be interested in people over things. He relied on the research of Simon Baron-Cohen, who found, in a study of day-old babies, that boys preferred to look at mobiles longer while the girls looked at faces. Based on this study, Baron-Cohen concluded that men are better suited for leadership than women because they tend to score higher on systematizing and analyzing. In contrast, women score higher on empathy and emotions. The typical boy is “hardwired for mastery of hunting and tracking, trading, achieving and maintaining power, gaining expertise, tolerating solitude, using aggression and taking on leadership roles. The female brain, on the other hand, is specialized for making friends, mothering, gossip and ‘reading’ a partner. Girls and women are so focused on others, he says, that they have little interest in figuring out how the world works.”

“Girls and women are so focused on others, he says, that they have little interest in figuring out how the world works.”

Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai said that Damore’s memo advanced gender stereotypes. “To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.”

In 2019, Gina Rippon, author of Gender and Our Brains: How Neuroscience Explodes the Myths of the Male and Female Brain, calls the emphathizer-systematizer theory psychobabble. She argues that the myth of gendered-based differences in brains is a self-fulfilling prophecy: it is a gendered world, not biology, that produces a gendered brain. The brain uses “stereotypes and shortcuts to function more efficiently. Rippon compares brains to the predictive text function on smartphones, offering up forward-thinking guidance based on past experience.” She criticizes scientists who failed to conduct research to find out whether brains are different. Instead, “they were looking for natural reasons why women [are] weaker, less analytical, more emotional, excluded from political power, confined to domestic life, subjugated to their husbands and fathers, and considered inferior under law.” She quotes Gustave Le Bon, a 19th-century psychologist, the author of her favorite "love-to-hate quote:

Some women are superior to the average man, but they are “as exceptional as the birth of any monstrosity, as, for example, of a gorilla with two heads; consequently, we may neglect them entirely.”

Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who received a Breakthrough Prize in 2018 for discovering radio pulsars, donated her £2.3m prize to a scholarship fund for women, under-represented minorities, and refugee students to become physicists. Burnell said, “Those are the people that tend to be discriminated against through unconscious bias so I think that’s maybe one of the reasons why there aren’t so many. And so if they come with some funding with them then they look much more attractive.”

Despite rampant prejudice against women researchers, a few male scientists claim that men are the object of discrimination, not women. In 2017, at a gender and physics workshop hosted by the European nuclear research center, CERN, Alessandro Strumia, a guest professor at CERN, told an audience of mostly young women physicists that physics “was invented and built by men.” He complained that universities discriminate against male physics students, not women. His visual presentation began with a list of experiences that women scientists complain about, such as mansplaining, gaslighting, micro-aggressions, white male hetero privilege, and taking credit for women’s work. He then set out to show that men were the true victims of discrimination in physics because their research was better than women, yet women were favored in job interviews.

Two years later, Alessandro Strumia presented research that allegedly supported his conclusion. Again relying on the work of empathizing-systematizing-distinction offered by Simon Baron-Cohen, he noted that women are less likely to be interested in pursuing physics as a career:

“Physics departments are equally open to everybody: men are not offered limousine rides to the department and women don’t need to wear moustaches to get through the door. On the contrary, many departments work hard to attract more female students. However, women are less likely to choose physics.”

Strumia also shored up Summers’ and Damore’s arguments by asserting that gender differences in productivity and the representation of women in physics can be explained by higher male variability (HMV): “Psychometric tests indicate that men and women perform, on average, equally well when it comes to different cognitive skills, but men are more common at both the low and the high ends of the distributions. So there’s greater variability among men when it comes to these traits than women.”

He also offered bibliometric proof that men are cited more than women, thus showing, in his opinion, that women’s work is less meritorious than men’s: “Data show that, at the moment they’re hired in research or academic posts, female physicists have on average fewer (fractionally counted) papers and citations than their male equivalents. ... The picture above persists after controlling for confounders, such as the higher average age of male authors.” Based on this research and HMV, which shows that men have an advantage for mathematics, Strumia concluded: “Damore is correct that there are population level differences in distributions of traits that are likely to be relevant for understanding gender gaps at Google.”

But another study shows that men tend to cite other men’s work more than women’s work.

Strumia hopes that the pushback against the under-representation of women in science will fade away soon, as some “critics of gender politics in science are increasingly hiding behind the cloak of anonymity to avoid career repercussions.”

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