I for one am pretty sick of women’s brains being spoken about as if they were fuzzy cuddly balls of wool tangled up in our skulls.
This week Chess Grandmaster Nigel Short made headlines with the horrendously wrong statement that women’s brains are simply wired differently to men’s and so they cannot be as good at chess as men (a bit of short man syndrome if you ask me!). As a girl who loves a good game of chess, this outburst from the Stone Age came as a bitter disappointment. Short attempted to balance his opinions by praising the emotional intelligence of women. Emotional Intelligence is defined by Psychology today as having three parts. The first is the ability to identify your own emotions. The second is the ability to harness your emotion. The third is the ability to manage your emotion. What Short couldn’t seem to comprehend is that women over the centuries have had no choice but to harness and manage their emotions beneath a veneer of ladylike grace, despite frustration, pain and constant belittlement. Not only are Shorts comments ridiculously offensive to women, they are also pretty harsh towards men as well. Some of the kindest people I know are men. Some of the most heart wrenching poetry ever written has come from male pens.
Sadly, Shorts assertion is just one in a long line of mysogynist and misguided comments about women’s ability to think scientifically. At a conference in 2005, the President of Harvard University Lawrence Summers controversially argued that the reason why men outperform women in hard disciplines such as maths and science is due to biological differences. Bizarrely, Summers used the example of his own little girl playing with dolls as backing up his point without any apparent understanding of the socialising process of young children and the construction of gender norms through play.
It’s important to remember that Short and Summers are not just a couple of creepy men down the pub, this are well respected, influential men. These views of these types of men have far reaching effects, from the media to the most terrifying of places. The interview room. Worryingly, men and women alike have been shown to be prejudiced towards women’s mathematical ability. An experiment conducted by researchers at Northwestern University concluded that employers of both sexes were likely to discriminate against female applicants applying for a maths related jobs. Women are staggeringly underrepresented in maths and science jobs. A tiny 3% of tenured Professors of physics at Harvard University are women. Only 13% of stem jobs in the UK are occupied by women. I refuse to believe that this is down to biology. Could these woeful statistics be due to the subconscious (or indeed very conscious) sexism of employers?
However, another factor is the woeful number of girls choosing to study STEM subjects at university. Six times more boys that girls study engineering at undergraduate level. Less than a quarter of undergraduate mathematics students are girls. Scientist Heidi Grant Halvorson believes that girls shun maths and science in order to be viewed to be romantically available. This is because they are trying to mimic social norms of how a woman should be in order to be seen to be appealing towards a potential Partner. “Women are expected to be communal and nurturing” explains Halvorson “and to pursue careers that allow them to express these qualities –like teaching, counselling and of course, nursing”. In other words, young women are still choosing their career path based on a prior understanding of their sexual destiny and, that word again, the romantic value placed on their “emotional intelligence”. I cannot help but be reminded of a scene in Mean Girls where Cady, a talented Mathematician, pretends to be bad at maths in order to attract
I spoke to Claire, a Manchester based Maths Teacher who hasn’t seen any evidence whatsoever that boys are better at maths and science than girls. Claire teaches top set mathematics and has seen how A and A* grades are usually split equally between the sexes. If anything, she has noticed a slightly higher proportion of girls achieving the top grades. Some theorists, she acknowledges, try to link women’s supposed lack of spatial awareness to their inferiority in areas such as maths. However, she argues, even if women were proven to have less spatial awareness than men, this would only affect very particular disciplines such as geometry. “In this country it’s definitely seen to be acceptable to be seen to be rubbish at maths” Claire explains “maths isn’t necessarily seen to be a cool subject and brighter girls often want to be perceived in an artistic, creative way”.
Claire points to the problem of less girls than boys carrying maths on after GCSE, even though she believes that this is rapidly changing. Girls are now actively being encouraged to pursue STEM subjects at A Level in a way that they previously hadn’t been. Typically, she explains, maths related subjects have led to careers in male dominated spheres such as finance or engineering which were inaccessible or unappealing to many girls but now perceptions are changing. To encourage more girls to take STEM subjects after secondary education, Claire believes that it is key to have more positive roe models to be seen out there.
When you think of the quintessential female genius, it is normally with the image of a wild haired Bronte-like writer type sobbing out her poetry over her typewriter. The arts have always been the natural refuge for the clever woman ahead of her time. The novel and the canvas are an alternative space to put her bold thoughts outside of the restricted world in which she finds herself. We don’t often see in this image her more sensible sister with her test tubes and calculator, calmly measuring out and changing the world. This is because women have, until very recently, not had the same educational opportunities that men have had that are vital to get a good grounding within a scientific field.
Most people when asked cannot think of any female scientists besides Marie Curie. However, the amount of male Scientists that people can name is endless.many of these male Scientists are well known household names such as Richard Dawkins, Brian Cox and Stephen Hawking. Not only are these men known for their scientific work, they are also known for their media personalities and their accessible mainstream television programmes. Richard Attenborough is not just a renowned Biologist, he is also a loveable Grandad figure.
Truth is, that despite the odds stacked against them, there are many female Scientists who have helped to change the course of history. However, their names are not as instantly recognisable as Charles Darwin or Albert Einstein. Ada Lovelace wrote the worlds first ever computer program. This is bearing in mind that the first computer hadn’t been invented yet. Primatologist Jane Goodall is widely considered to be the worlds leading expert on chimpanzees. Palaeontologist Mary Anning discovered numerous species of dinosaurs, despite having little formal education or training.
Obviously, it is not the case than women are naturally bad at subjects such as maths and science. Initiatives to get girls to pursue STEM subjects have had significant success in recent years and there has been a noted increase in girls taking maths and science at a higher level. Clearly what these girls need is support and encouragement from an early age, not dismissal based on their gender. I for one am greatly excited for what future discoveries await the next generation of female Scientists and Mathematicians, which will be a brilliant two fingered salute to the Shorts and Summers of the world.