Earlier this year, researchers from the University of Washington wanted to see how male and female students view each other in a science classroom setting. Using a total of 1,700 students enrolled in the same undergraduate biology course, the researchers surveyed each individual. One of the questions asked them to name the classmates they considered most knowledgeable in the subject.
The result? Even after accounting for differences in GPA and outspokenness, the researchers found that male students are more likely to view other guys as top students even though other female students may have a higher GPA, while female students reported guys and girls almost equally (EurekAlert, “Male biology students consistently underestimate female peers, study finds,” 02.11.2016). As the published study describes it, “[F]or an outspoken female to be nominated by males at the same level as an outspoken male, her performance would need to be over three-quarters of a GPA point higher than the male’s” (PLOS, Males Under-Estimate Academic Performance of Their Female peers in Undergraduate Biology Classrooms, 02.10.2016).
Clearly, whether unintentional or not, the belief that men are better and smarter than women in science and technology aggressively persists like cancer, even with the arrival of a new generation. In order to combat this dangerous way of thinking, institutions all across the United States, including the White House, have been encouraging young women more than ever to break free from negative cultural stereotypes and become more active in the STEM world. But despite the fact that women are known to earn more college and graduate degrees than men, the U.S. Census Bureau found in 2011 that women made up only 26 percent of the science workforce (National Geographic, “Why It’s Crucial to Get More Women Into Science,” 11.09.2014).
Why aren’t more women participating in STEM? Unfortunately, some people are taking this as a sign that women simply aren’t as biologically wired for science or math as men.
Yes, that’s right. These people exist in 2016, and they say that science is on their side. You may not hear them make these claims publicly (besides that one presidential abomination that I refuse to name), but trust me, they can be found expressing their candid thoughts all over the internet. For the longest time, this mentality has utterly baffled me to no end. Who just writes off half of the entire world population as forever inferior in terms of scientific accomplishment?
Essentially, their argument is that, due to inherent biological differences, women lack the drive and capacity to succeed in the “hard” sciences like physics and computer science. If that wasn’t enough, there’s this unpleasant ethos that often accompanies this type of argument wherein anyone who disagrees is someone who values political correctness over cold, hard facts. I don’t know why they believe that science is solely on their side, but I have some bones to pick with this type of nonsense. So, allow me to use some cold, hard facts to argue why this childish ego-boosting is seriously ill-founded.
First of all, by the early 20th century, the scientific community had largely accepted that gender plays no role in intelligence. In fact, Lewis Terman, a pioneer in educational psychology who’s best known for his revision of the Stanford-Binet IQ test, stated in 1916 that he found young girls just as smart and knowledgeable as young boys (Psychology Today, “The Equality of the Sexes I: Fact or Artefact?,” 01.19.2009).
The notion that the male mind is smarter than the female mind wasn’t really reintroduced into the scientific community until 2005 when British psychologists Richard Lynn and Paul Irwing argued that men have higher general intelligence than women due to differences in brain physiology and IQ scores (ScienceDirect, “A conversation with Richard Lynn,” 02.02.2011). More specifically, Lynn and Irwing argued their case by stating that males have bigger brains than women and that males have consistently scored higher on IQ tests than women.
This widely disputed research is most likely where those men-are-superior-to-women supporters picked up most of their “scientific facts.” However, years of research following this controversy have proven otherwise.
For one thing, having a larger brain does not accurately reflect greater intelligence (Smithsonian, “Why Brain Size Doesn’t Correlate With Intelligence,” 12.2013). While differences in brain size do partially explain why men are generally taller than women, these differences do not determine which gender is smarter (Guardian, “Male brain versus female brain: How do they differ?,” 10.06.2013). On the topic of brain physiology, researchers from the University of Iowa actually found that female brains tend to have a slightly higher proportion of gray matter than male brains, a neurological component involved in memory, sensory perception and decision making. In other words, a female brain is no less capable of abstract analysis than a male brain.
In terms of IQ scores, I’m even more skeptical. Despite how much they have been used over the past few decades, IQ tests have been criticized for not accurately reflecting the test-taker’s intelligence. In fact, a series of studies have recently casted doubt upon their validity. According to a 2012 study performed by a team of researchers from around the world, the IQ test fails to accurately predict people’s intelligence (Independent, “IQ tests are ‘fundamentally flawed’ and using them alone to measure intelligence is a ‘fallacy,’ study finds,” 12.20.2012).
“It has always seemed to be odd that we like to call the human brain the most complex known object in the Universe, yet many of us are still prepared to accept that we can measure brain function by doing a few so-called IQ tests,” commented Dr. Roger Highfield, the director of external affairs at the Science Museum in London. Even if IQ tests are reliable, it wouldn’t matter anyway, because women have already scored higher on IQ tests than men as early as 2012 (Time, “Why Women Finally Have Higher IQs than Men,” 07.16.2012).
Furthermore, a study published recently in 2015 discovered that there really is no such thing as a “male” or “female” brain (New Scientist, “Scans prove there’s no such thing as a ‘male’ or ‘female’ brain,” 11.30.2015). A team of scientists at Tel Aviv University in Israel conducted the first ever search for sex difference across the entire human brain and found that most people have a mix of both “male” and “female” brain features.
Essentially, the idea that human brains can be separated based on gender is largely a myth. So, can we stop saying that men are more biologically hardwired for STEM fields than women, because scientific research itself has shown that isn’t true.
However, the most important thing to remember is that, even if gender differences do exist, we should NEVER discourage the pursuit of science in anyone. What can we possibly gain from doing that? In an era in which science and technology are dramatically shaping our society, we need as many people as possible, men and women alike, to become involved in the latest breakthroughs and discoveries. Shouldn’t the universal goal be for everyone to develop a passion or at least an appreciation for science, from biology to engineering? Enough with the embarrassing playground squabbles. Let’s treat each other as equally respectable, bright and capable individuals.