Sciencesexism: A question from Wendy Barnaby

Are women and men making different contributions to science? I was asked this question by broadcaster Wendy Barnaby in 2011. I still stand by my answer I gave her then. It would be a huge advance if we could overcome gender stereotypes in science and I believe we can overcome them through science. Science is a phenomenon that can shape attitudes and beliefs as strongly as religion and political ideologies. Science is famed for getting rid of superstitions and for having pointed out the fallacy of many fondly held beliefs. It can also make us aware of the fallacy of gender stereotypes.

Carl LarssonBut isn’t there at least a grain of truth in gender stereotypes? Our cognitive ability to categorise and polarise is strong and happens without us being aware of it. It has advantages in making instant judgements of social affiliation. Sometimes these are a matter of life or death: Family or fiend? Friend or foe? There is a cognitive advantage in this tendency in aligning yourself to an in-group and differentiating yourself from an out-group. The advantage is to allow you to act quickly when you are under time pressure, and have no time to acquire information about individuals.

There is also a major disadvantage. We are primed unwittingly to activate stereotypes when there is no time pressure at all. For example, the question “Are women and men making different contributions to science?” exerts a strong pressure to say ‘yes’. What instantly springs to my mind is the widely held belief that women have more empathy, are more communicative, are more cooperative and less aggressive than men. After all I want to be loyal to my in-group. So it is compelling to conclude that women do science in an altogether nicer and friendlier way than men. But, hang on – I can afford the time to reflect. I can ask is this true of me, for example? And the answer immediately turns into a ‘no’. I know about myself that I am far less empathic and far more aggressive than I let on. Also, I am constantly meeting men who have masses of empathy, who are keen to cooperate and who hate to be aggressive and confrontational. As scientists I have always found women and men to be equally curious, committed and determined to answer the questions they have set themselves. The scientists I know all love to gossip about other scientists, gloat when their competitors fail, rejoice when their friends succeed while trying to have nothing but friends.

Stereotypes are very powerful. They can make us conform to them when we don’t even notice. But we can see through them as soon as we take the time to reflect. Science instils in us the need to be sceptical of current beliefs. Good scientific practice is to uncover and work against existing biasses.

Image credit: Carl Larsson: Holiday Reading. Sotheby’s Auction catalogue Scandinavian Paintings. London 10 Dec 2014.