Wednesday , May 23 2018
Home / Ladies & Women / A Different Take on Sexism in Science

A Different Take on Sexism in Science

Recently Scientific American ran a blog post by John Horgan, which argued that science is sexist at its core. Horgan wrote:

Is science sexist? Of course it is, in two ways. First, women in science (including engineering, math, medicine) face discrimination, harassment and other forms of maltreatment from men. Second, male scientists portray females as males’ intellectual inferiors. These two forms of sexism are mutually reinforcing. That is, male scientists use science to justify their sexist attitudes toward and maltreatment of women. Then, when women fail to thrive, the men say, See? Women just aren’t our equals.

The first claim that Horgan makes is that science is sexist because women face discrimination, harassment and other forms of maltreatment. We do not deny that women face such challenges in STEM, as they do in many other professional environments and industries. However, the prevalence of sexual harassment in the scientific and technical industries is not nearly as high as it is service-sector and low-wage jobs, and we believe that it is premature to claim that sexual harassment has caused the uneven gender ratio in STEM. There is no clear evidence demonstrating a causal link between the two.  

The second claim Horgan makes is that scientists portray females as males’ intellectual inferiors. He argues that Darwin and Galton were sexist (of course anyone from the 19th century is sexist if judged by today’s standards) and then jumps to the present day by presenting a line out of Geoffrey Miller’s The Mating Mind as evidence that nothing has changed in 140 years. The evidence Horgan provides of Miller’s “sexism” is this quote in Chapter 3:

“Men write more books. Men give more lectures. Men ask more questions after lectures. Men dominate mixed-sex committee discussions.”

The core hypothesis of Miller’s book is that intelligence and creativity evolved in humans through a process called mutual mate selection. That is, across deep evolutionary time, women have selected men who have displayed cues of creativity and intelligence, and men have selected women in a similar fashion.

The quote Horgan uses is taken from a chapter of Miller’s book that explores the hypothesis that creativity evolved through a process of runaway sexual selection, not mutual mate selection. In exploring this hypothesis Miller rules it out as implausible, because, he argues, if runaway selection were responsible for human intelligence and creativity, we would see much greater sexual dimorphism in the brain than we do. The quote about men writing more books, giving more lectures and asking more questions after lectures segues into a discussion of men using verbal display in their courtship efforts to attract women, and Miller raises culture, not biology, as a possible explanation for these courtship efforts.

Horgan then goes on to cite Angela Saini’s book Inferior, which makes the claim that hunter-gatherers were “remarkably egalitarian.” Yet this claim too, is exaggerated. While the trope that hunter-gatherers were remarkably egalitarian has been a popular one within the press, it is not supported by a wide reading of the anthropological literature, as recently shown by William Buckner in Quillette.

The discussion then turns to James Damore and his infamous “Google Memo.”

Horgan boils Damore’s memo down to the claim that women are “under-represented at Google and other tech firms because they are on average less ambitious and more prone to ‘neuroticism’ than males and ‘have a stronger interest in people rather than things.’”

From a research perspective, the points Damore made in his memo have merit to them, and there is no reason why acknowledging as much should be considered controversial. First of all, the term “neuroticism” refers to a person’s tendency to experience negative mood, and research has shown that women tend to, on average, exhibit higher rates of this personality trait than men.

Studies have similarly shown that women are more likely to prioritize work flexibility and job stability over earnings growth when it comes to occupational choices, and to gravitate toward socially interesting, as opposed to mechanically interesting, jobs.

Horgan also refers to Saini’s claim that “Damore and others” (which would probably include us) “cherry-pick studies that supposedly prove male intellectual superiority.” We challenge Horgan and Saini to show us exactly where in his memo Damore suggested that men are intellectually superior to women.

Somewhat ironically, Horgan then cherry-picks to argue that sexism is pervasive in the STEM job selection process. He cites a single study from 2012, which asked 127 scientists to assess identical job applications; on the study Horgan writes:

Half of the names on the applications were male, half female. Both male and female scientists rated the “male” resumes higher. Some women, tragically, have internalized the sexist attitudes of their culture.

While this is indeed an interesting study, it is hardly the only study that has been carried out on sexism in STEM. Here, Horgan should have mentioned the 67-page review published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest in 2014 called “Women in Academic Science: A Changing Landscape,” by Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams. This review compiled data from several hundred analyses of women’s participation in sciences—from the life sciences such as psychology—to the more math-intensive disciplines such as engineering and physics.

They found that the biggest barrier for women in STEM jobs was not sexism but their desire to form families. Overall, Ceci and Williams found that STEM careers were characterised by “gender fairness, rather than gender bias.” And, they stated, women across the sciences were more likely to receive hiring offers than men, their grants and articles were accepted at the same rate, they were cited at the same rate, and they were tenured and promoted at the same rate.

A year later, Ceci and Williams published the results of five national hiring experiments in which they sent hypothetical female and male applicants to STEM faculty members. They found that men and women faculty members from all four fields preferred female applicants 2:1 over identically qualified males.

In an attempt to “protect” women in science from sexist scientists, Horgan commits the sin he accuses others of. He ignores the work of female scientists whose work has challenged popular narratives of sexism in STEM, and he avoids dealing with the female writers and commentators who have publicly supported Damore.

Support for women in science should not be dependent on politics. Stratifying this support for women in favor of those who tout politically expeditious opinions—and castigating those who do not—counters the very idea that women are individuals who have self-determination and are capable of independent thought. There is also something oddly hypocritical about a man educating women on just how oppressed they are.

And finally, we want to stress that the fear that research into sex differences gives fuel to those who claim that women are naturally “inferior” to men is misguided. Difference is not “inferior” unless one thinks that what is male-typical is preferable and what is female-typical is somehow undesirable. We do not share this fear, because we do not view masculine typical traits as the gold standard and female typical traits less than. 

Selected News