Category Archives: Women

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 Larsson Continue reading Sciencesexism: A question from Wendy Barnaby

But 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.

Neurosexism: A conversation with Cordelia Fine

Uta: Cordelia, you just published a review article in Science, His brain, her brain?  where you argue that it is far harder to interpret gender differences in the brain than people think. And it’s a call for more rigorous science in the field. Now, your paper with Gina Rippon, Rebecca Jordan-Young and Anelis Kaiser earlier this year lays out in some detail what rigorous research designs would actually involve. I would love to know a bit more about why you wrote it.

Mary Cassatt (1878) Woman reading Le Figaro: Courtesy of www,

Cordelia: We wanted to write something positive about how research in this area could be done better, so we got together to write a paper that would be helpful to researchers, editors, reviewers and science communicators. We wanted to make a constructive contribution. After all, there has been a lot of controversy in this area,

Continue reading Neurosexism: A conversation with Cordelia Fine

Uta: You can say that again! The papers that report gender differences are almost always suggesting that women’s brains work differently, aka less well. So half the readers say, “At last there is some hard evidence for differences that are blindingly obvious”, and half say, “Of course we know that women and men are equal and there are no real brain differences, and this research must be hopelessly biased.” I expect you call the first position “essentialist”, because it presumes that being female means being one kind of thing, being male another, forever. It’s the forever bit that makes it suspect.

Cordelia: Happily, the perspectives are definitely not that polarized. One thing that’s worth stressing though is that criticisms of this area of research don’t stem from a belief that it’s intrinsically problematic to look at the effects of biological sex on the brain. But implicit assumptions about female/male differences in brain and behavior do influence research design and interpretation. They do this in ways that can give rise to misleading conclusions that additionally reinforce harmful gender stereotypes.

Uta: It would be strange to rule out this type of research on the grounds that it is bound to reinforce gender stereotypes. We can be aware of their influence and take them into account. But we need to be fearless when we read Nature’s book. It does not always tell us what we’d like to hear. I worry about our tendency to be ultra-critical when the findings are against our fondly held beliefs. But isn’t science exactly about being able to overturn fondly held beliefs?

Cordelia: I certainly agree that we shouldn’t rule out particular kinds of research because we may not like the conclusions. The concern is with conclusions that are unwarranted – an issue of ‘scientific correctness’ rather than ‘political correctness’ – and the goal is not to be ultra-critical, but to make visible the implicit assumptions that are guiding research.

Uta: We tend to be less critical when a paper appears in a prestigious journal because we can assume that there has been a stringent peer review process. You discuss the controversial Ingalhalikar et al.’s structural connectome article published in 2013 in PNAS – a reputable journal.

Cordelia: This article measured brain connectivity in a large sample of 8-22 year olds, and found greater intra-hemispheric connectivity in males and inter-hemispheric connectivity in females, on average.

Uta: This sounds like a good sort of gender difference, at first glance it has nothing to do with a gender bias, but it certainly is grist to the essentialist mill. I remember when I first read this paper I was thinking, so there is now some evidence for an essentialist type sex difference, and we can start to think what it means.

Cordelia: In our article, we make the case that researchers are often working from an implicit ‘gender essentialist’ model, that assumes that the brains and psyches of females and males are highly distinct, and differences between them are natural, fixed and invariant across time and place. This subtly influences research design and interpretation, and the Ingalhalikar et al. study was a good example of exactly that.

Uta: So what’s wrong with that?

Cordelia: In an earlier study, the researchers had reported behavioural sex differences in executive control, memory, reasoning, spatial processing, sensorimotor skills and social cognition. This was in a larger sample from which these participants were drawn. But these differences were very modest: 11 of the 26 effect sizes were null/d<0.1, and the largest was d=0.33. Yet despite the substantial behavioural similarity between the sexes, the researchers interpreted their anatomical findings as underlying profound behavioural differences between the sexes, without actually testing for brain-behaviour correlations.

Uta: And what did you think of their interpretation of the brain differences?

Cordelia: They speculated that “[m]ale brains are structured to facilitate connectivity between perception and coordinated action, whereas female brains are designed to facilitate communication between analytical and intuitive processing modes.”

Uta: Perhaps they couldn’t think of what else the differences could be due to.

Cordelia: There were two other possibilities they might have considered, but didn’t, presumably because of the essentialist frame. One is that the female/male interconnectivity differences are a brain size effect, rather than a sex effect. As you know, the male brain is on average about ten per cent larger than the female brain. They also didn’t pay any empirical or theoretical attention to the possible influence of gendered experiences on brain and behaviour. I happened to be sent the article by a journalist for comment, and I wrote back to her:

“Ironically, even though the research from this group provides strong evidence for behavioral similarities between the sexes, provides no evidence that any modest behavioral sex differences are associated with neurological ones, and offers no information about the developmental origins of either, we can probably anticipate that this article will soon be drawn on by popular commentators as evidence that ‘hardwired’ sex differences explain why men are from Mars and women are from Venus.”

Uta: This is precisely what happened.

Cordelia: Yes. The front page of the Independent, for instance, headlined with “Scientists discover the difference between male and female brains: Study reveals variation in hardwiring which may explain skills gap between women and men”.

It’s worth pointing out though that this particular example was unusual for the role of the researchers themselves in making reference to ‘hardwiring’, and in making especially incautious reverse inferences to concepts far beyond any measured behaviours (like motherly intuition). Usually this is a job left to the popularizers.

Uta: Hardwiring usually means that there is a biological cause for a behaviour. But, as you say, it could be the other way round. The hardwiring could be a result of behavioural practice. There are plenty of examples of how learning changes the brain.

Cordelia: Yes, and long before the buzz about neuroplasticity, feminist neurobiologists were writing about this ‘entanglement’: the fact that the social phenomenon of gender (which systematically affects an individual’s psychological, physical, social and material experiences) is literally incorporated, shaping the brain and endocrine system. One of the recommendations of our article is for researchers to attempt to incorporate the principle of entanglement into their research models, including more and/or different categories of independent variables that include ways of capturing the role of the environment.

Uta: We clearly need more thoughtful research in this area: You and your co-authors have made a very constructive start with your paper.

Cordelia Fine is the author of Delusions of gender.  She is ARC Future Fellow at Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences and Associate Professor at the Melbourne Business School and the Centre for Ethical Leadership, University of Melbourne.


Women at the baths

Eva Fodor, sociologist and professor of gender studies at the Central European University Budapest, is also director of the Institute of Advanced Study at the CEU. We meet every week for seminars followed by a convivial lunch in the CEU’s Café Central. I wondered whether we could have a get together to talk about gender issues. Where better than in one of Budapest’s many baths? Eva immediately suggested the Rudas baths, one of the oldest, originating in Ottoman times, with its Turkish architecture largely intact. This was not the only attraction. These baths have a Women Only day, which seemed highly appropriate.

Continue reading Women at the baths

Walking past ancient pillars we steered towards a mysteriously shining pool in the middle of an octagon. We were surrounded by women of all ages all chatting and enjoying themselves. Water was pouring in from huge spouts. We leaned back against the warm stones and wallowed in the water.

14-bIt could have been a scene from antiquity, but we wanted to talk about modern women. Eva had some interesting statistics (based on US data). She said that at the time I did my PhD in 1968, I would have been one of only 18% women in the psychology graduate program. She asked me what I thought it would be now.

–       50% , I guessed, thinking that Psychology was a topic chosen quite a lot by women nowadays.

–       80%  was the surprising answer.

–       So, what is the consequence of so many women choosing a certain topic for their research career? Is this a good thing? Will they all become leaders and role models for women in other disciplines?

Eva Fodor–       Not necessarily. We call this process  ‘femininization’, and there is evidence that this could mean lower pay, or at least a less steep pay increase, and lower status for the discipline.  This has been the case for example when large numbers of women entered teaching or banking.   It is probably true in academia as well.   When women start predominating in an occupations, the job is redefined as something ‘a little bit easier to do’ and a little bit less worth in terms of salary.

–       But, isn’t it is also possible that women are allowed to enter once the job gets devalued? Do we know which is cause and effect?

–       This is difficult to disentangle! Still, there are examples, when it is a bit more clear, when a tacit devaluation of a job happened and relative salaries went down only after women entered a profession en masse.

–       Perhaps women are not confident enough to fight for higher salaries…?

–      …or to assert their expertise.  In any case, the prospect of lower rewards then leads to fewer men wishing to enter, and then a further loss in status occurs. So cause and effect might run both ways.

We admired the magnificent vault above us. Openings cut into the ceiling and set with coloured glass let in the light in beautiful patterns. Spreading our limbs in the pool, we let our imagination conjure up women through the centuries, finding respite in warm waters.

–       What happened in Eastern Europe in state socialist  times?

–       Communist parties had an explicit emancipation programme for women.  For example, they were encouraged to take up technical jobs, such as engineering, where more people were needed.   Some did indeed enter this field, certainly more than was the case in the UK at the same time.  My own mother is an example.

–       – Ah, but you defected to the Humanities! Is this the case with many women of your generation? Do we know what happened to the daughters of the pioneering women who were scientists, technicians, engineers and computer programmers?

–       We do not, but according to my mother most women in her college cohort did not end up doing actual engineering work, even though they did gain the degree.  It would be interesting to study this in more depth.

We clambered out of the the dark central pool to sample some of the smaller adjoining pools, slightly cooler,  and we were looking forward to a proper massage at the end of the morning. The centuries between the time when the baths were constructed and now disappeared. Yet, so many changes happened to the role of women.

Our discussion ran around the question of what makes women with their high-flying academic careers today often so stressed?  First of course we mentioned the business of juggling family life and work.  But why is it that women still spend so much time doing housework, when labour saving devices fill the closet in every kitchen and middle class professionals have access to fast food and all sort of other services?

Eva came up with answer that surprised me.

–       I believe our standards about the quality of life that we expect have been driven up relentlessly.  Unlike our predecessors a century ago, we take a bath, shower, change clothes every day. Our washing machines and tumbler dryers are running constantly. We need to have fresh sheets and ironed shirts. Laundry day and bleaching in times past was often just one spring clean.

washing day–       Yes, when I was a child in the fifties, I remember , laundry day, soap suds, scrubbing boards, washing lines. It was a big deal.

–   It’s not just the laundry. We need to have complex foods, different every day; we take into account what every family member likes and dislikes. Some of us even bake our own bread, make our own pasta.

–       In the 1950s it was quite chic to serve a frozen dinner. Imagine this nowadays! Isn’t it strange – when we could have it so much easier?

–       So, you think it is this constant increase in the standards of living that puts women under more and more stress?  Why do women care so much about these high standards?

–       Women’s identity as women is often tied to taking proper care of family members. Thus they do seem  to care more about these things, even when they are extremely busy, when men in the same situation would take the pizza delivery option.  But what can we do to counteract this possibly unnecessary source of stress?

–       I have been advocating short cuts, even if they are called ‘cheating’ by those with the highest standards. Of course, women in high flying careers should use their earnings to get help with household, with childcare.

–       Perhaps it is a good thing if women are made aware of the radical changes in our standard of living over time. They could be encouraged to reap some of the benefits of household conveniences rather than being pressurised to aspire to ever higher standards.

–       Perhaps women should not be taught to be perfect mothers and perfect housekeepers, but good enough mothers and good enough housekeepers.