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Pseudoscience about gender differences won't solve the science gap

Girl with microscope
CC/Flickr/Jeremy Wilburn
The blog was well-intentioned, but giving parents gender-stereotyping tips isn't going to solve the science gender gap.

A lot of myths about gender brain differences get bandied about in the media, but a recent Guardian blog post aimed at helping parents get their daughters interested in science was so gob-smacking silly, it could be read as an Onion spoof.

The article overflowed with outdated gender stereotyping, as can be seen in these three back-to-the-‘50s examples from the article’s list of parenting tips:

Have her read instructions and recipes aloud. When she eventually performs science experiments this will help her break down the steps involved. It also helps with deconstructing more elaborate math problems down the road.

Research shows that as girls get older they retain their mathematical and scientific abilities when applied to domestic scenarios. So make your domestic scenario more mathematic and scientific. Shopping is filled with math problems, particularly if your daughter wants something that is too expensive.

Emphasize that we live in a scientific world. … [Girls] are invariably receptive and energetic students when the same scientific principles are presented to them as "social studies." The weather forecast, climate change, what we eat, illnesses and allergies, methods of transportation, the electronics that fill your house — are all areas of science that surround your daughter. Scientific theory fires her imagination when connected to current or domestic affairs, or when she can empathize.

To add scientific gravitas to its parenting tips, the article presented as facts several controversial and definitely-not-proven findings about neurological gender differences, such as “girls are more responsive to color than boys” and “girls generally begin processing information on the brain's left, or language, side.”

Quick responses

Fortunately, the article didn’t go unanswered. Dean Burnett, a British scientist who also blogs for the Guardian, quickly wrote a scathing tongue-in-cheek reply in which he pointed out that “it’s important to encourage young boys to take up science too”:

Whilst watching any particular sporting event, command [your son] at random to work out the scientific components of the game, e.g. what is the trajectory of the ball following that free kick? How much force did that cricket bat just withstand based on the velocity and approximate mass of a cricket ball? Judging by the severity of that injury, what is the likely period the player will spend in hospital and what therapies will be used to reattach the leg?

Encourage this behaviour further with social reinforcement. Take your son to a live football match or other sporting event, so he can impress all the die-hard fans with his meticulous analysis of the game. They will definitely appreciate it.

And in yet a third Guardian article, two other scientists, psychologist Chris Chambers of Cardiff University and anthropologist Kate Clancy of the University of Illinois, took direct aim at the pseudoscience in the original blog post.

“For instance,” they write (with British spellings and punctuation)

the author argues that girls are more responsive to colour than boys, so parents of daughters — the target audience of this piece — should “colour-code toys and blocks for sorting and patterning beginning at an early age”.

But does this argument stand up to the evidence? The nature of gender differences in adult colour vision is controversial, with some peer-reviewed studies pointing to a female advantage, others to a male advantage, and yet others indicating no difference. This complexity is mirrored in pre-school children, with boys and girls each showing advantages under different conditions. It distorts currently knowledge to say that girls are categorically more responsive to colour.

What about the claim that “girls generally begin processing information on the brain’s left, or language, side” and therefore that girls “deconstruct math concepts verbally”? Existing studies do indicate a slight advantage for girls in acquiring language at a very young age (1-2 years), but — crucially — this difference has been shown to disappear by the age of six. A recent review even concluded that overall sex differences in language ability and language-related brain functions are “not readily identifiable”.

Needed: a systemic approach

The original gender-stereotyping blog post had good intentions. It opened by noting that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently reported that among 470,000 15-year-olds in 65 developed countries who were given a science test in 2009, the girls generally outperformed the boys — except in the United States, Britain and Canada.

Offering pseudoscientific and gender-stereotyping tips for parents is not going to solve the science gender gap in those three countries. What is needed is a broad societal structural change, as Chambers and Clancy point out:

The broader societal constraints that lead so few girls to consider themselves “science people” by middle school derive not from whether we push them into science, but what we value in girls as a culture. What gendered representations of science continue to exist in underperforming countries like the US and UK? What messages do we send about how we value intelligence and knowledge, about how girls contribute to society? And, what would it take to overcome these obstacles to produce a more egalitarian learning environment?

Just telling parents of daughters to force their children to become scientists, without providing the foundational support of institutional change (or at the very least, some institutional navel-gazing), is telling parents to work alone and with the wrong tools. We would rather see a systematic approach to combating social inequality than another list that tries to tell parents they’re doing something wrong.

You’ll find all three articles linked together on the Guardian website.

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