Scientists = Men, Say Biased Scientists 

Gender bias in science

Gender bias in science

If men are better systematizers — better at unraveling the rules of the universe — then it’s only fair that science research labs are bastions of testosterone.

Biased (unscientific) research has made it seem so.

Take a look at these points from Dr. Cordelia Fine’s book, Delusions of Gender.

Mobile gazing = systematizer?

One well-known study confirms that men are superior scientists because boy babies stare longer at mobiles, compared with girls.

Hummm…

Does it matter if the mobile is pink or blue?

Does it matter if the mobile is pink or blue?

102 infants who were only a day and a half old — too young to have been affected by socialization — had the option of staring at a woman’s face or a mobile for one minute.

Males spent more time gazing at the mobile: 51% vs 41%

But:

  • Babies can’t see very well at that age
  • Researchers knew the sex of the baby and may have unconsciously directed the boys’ and girls’ attention
  • Looking at a mobile longer means you are a better systematizer?
  • One minute observations of newborns justify women’s exclusion from science?

A more carefully designed follow-up study didn’t find a sex difference, anyway.

Mom’s totally unbiased opinion about baby boys and girls

In another study moms were asked questions like this: How easily can your children figure out controls of a DVD player.

Most moms thought their boys were better at this sort of thing.

Maybe they were. But:

  • Parents are more likely to jump in and fix things for girls, while giving boys more time to figure things out
  • Parents could misremember in ways that fit stereotypes

Messy = bad scientist. Have you seen Einstein’s desk?

Messy = bad scientist?

Messy = bad scientist?

Questions measuring one’s “Systematizing Quotient” include:

  • Notices something in the house has been moved or changed
  • Minds if things in the house are not in their proper place

Have you seen Einstein’s desk?

Boys toys = scientific brains

Boys toys have also been identified as “more systematizing.” Because they have parts that move:

  • A trailer with four cars
  • A garbage truck
  • A set of three plastic pieces of equipment

But what about some of these “girl toys”?

  • Barbie in a pink car
  • Toy stroller
  • Toy vacuum

Spatial and construction skills are also thought more “systematizing.” Yet Lincoln Logs were removed from studies because girls like them so much.

And gender-neutral play like puzzles and sketch pads didn’t count. Because they were gender-neutral?

And isn’t sewing a type of construction?

Contradictory data “confirms” that boys are better at science

Are boy monkeys, with their high testosterone, naturally drawn to toys with moving parts?

Vervet monkeys were offered a choice to play with the following toys:

  • “Boy toys”: police car, a ball
  • “Girl toys”: a doll, a pan
  • Neutral toys: a picture book, a stuffed dog
Monkeys playing with toys

Monkeys playing with toys

(Would a monkey know that a pan is a girl toy? And used to cook dinner?)

Finding:

  • Males spent one third of their time playing with each type of toy
  • Females spent more time with feminine toys

So actually, the males had no preference for “boy” over “girl” toys.

And when the toys were re-categorized as “animate” versus “object” there was no sex difference.

Meanwhile, a study of rhesus monkeys found that females and males were equally likely to play with wheeled toys.

These contradictory studies have been interpreted as evidencing inborn sex differences.

Testosterone associated with better, worse, and equal mental rotation

Meanwhile, studies of humans have associated testosterone with, alternatively, better mental rotation, worse mental rotation, and equal mental rotation.

A test of mental rotation

A test of mental rotation

Harvard psychology professor, Steven Pinker, acknowledges that the evidence is messy and contradictory. But he thinks something can be salvaged from it.

Taken together (and depending on what Prof. Pinker thinks can be salvaged) the studies actually evidence researcher bias.

Source: Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on August 14, 2015, in feminism, gender, men, psychology, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 24 Comments.

  1. In America, the social sciences, like psychology and anthropology, are regarded as female occupations – because they are.

    But does that mean women are self-selecting women and there is bias against males in those fields? It depends on who you ask.

    • I assume that by feminine you are focusing on the people-orientation aspect, as opposed to other traits assigned to “feminine” (like being passive, emotional instead of rational, raising children instead of going outside the home to work, or preferring pink — all part of the social construction of gender and not reflecting a real sex difference).

      In 1966, women earned 15 percent of sociology PhDs. Today we are at a high of 65% of sociology PhD’s being women.

      the percentage of psychology PhDs awarded to men has fallen from nearly 70 percent in 1975 to less than 30 percent in 2008. But in 2008 women were still only 53 percent of the psychology work force.

      If you look at the psychological and sociological research that is out there today it is actually gender balanced, because The range of ages is from the 20s through the 60s.

      There are plenty of male sociologist and psychologists to notice a gender bias favoring women.

      But because of internalization — both women and men internalize a patriarchal culture (and I have talked before on this blog how I have internalized patriarchy, myself) — even women PhD’s can have a male bias. I’m not aware of a female bias in the field. If you are, let me know.

  2. Interesting discussion, Georgia. With all these bias right from birth, we did see a Marie Curie in the field of science, winning, not one but two Nobel prizes, in physics and chemistry, in as early as the beginning of last century. That said, it is high time for a paradigm shift in nurturing and upbringing; toys and other learning tools may be more uni-sex than gender defined, creating, right from early formative years, a climate for girls to opt for science and technology, as much as the usual other career options. May be, we will see more Curies…

    • A lot of women have a natural talent for science, and despite a culture that has a bias against that development some women have been very successful. But a lot more would be without the bias. And that would be good for everyone. Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. I saw an article recently about a toy shop that had merged all its toys instead of having them in gender based sections. Their thinking was that it allowed the kids much greater choice. There was outrage from the parents!

    • Parents have unconsciously internalized the sexist society. I also heard that some schoolbooks in the US were changed to be more gender-neutral, and again, outraged parents!

  4. To my friend thanks for your visit in my blog, you can have a good weekend
    together with all good friends and familie a big hug from Herluf.

  5. It seems that so much of the gender/race differences we hear about is based on scientific study that is “messy and contradictory.” Yet once it gets into the media or education system, it is difficult to correct and the danger is it creates biases that can sweep across the population. Great post.

  6. Those rotation questions! They do my head in.
    That was interesting information about systematisation. My partner always notices if anything has been moved, and is disturbed by it. He likes everything in its place and cannot understand how I can function in my non-systematic way :).
    I don’t believe there is such a thing as a science gender; more that there is a type of brain that is wired for science, and that brain can be owned by a man or a woman. There are lots of things that can contribute to wiring a brain of course. I’ve always loved Biology and biochemistry and my partner is a scientific thinker as well. Both of our children (a boy and girl) scored the highest marks in their school in a university science test. Coincidence? Probably not.

    • There isn’t any evidence that men are better at Science, and girls are increasingly winning science contests as we let go of gender stereotypes. But most of us – including me – have an unconscious bias of thinking of men as scientists. I know this because I took a test at implicit.Harvard.edu. Most people have a strong bias, but I have a slight bias. So I’m much better than most people but even with my studies and feminism and teaching women studies, it’s still there.

  7. It’s a common idea that women don’t have proficiency in science! As if all males are born scientists…ridiculous!

  8. Even though its true that in Engineering colleges you find more boys than girls, but in my college and most other Engineering colleges I know, every department topper is a girl!! 😉

    Most of the renowned scientists are male coz they had the luxury from society to go in that field. If women were encouraged, they too might have been equally famed.

    • You seem to be right. As gender equality has increased, and we have done more to redefine sciences something that girls do too, girls are increasingly entering in winning science contests.

  9. This is so interesting… I have once studied Milgram’s and Asch’s experiments, which as you may know are related to social conformity and obedience to authority figures, respectively… Tossing aside the experiments themselves, the way the investigators introduce their own values here as preconceived ideas or even as prejudices, reminded me of those studies.
    Obviously, the results are biased… and one wonders why social patterns could be introduced in such a way!.I am now thinking about the subtle hegemony of Patriarchy and how this influence is undeniable and unavoidable at times 🙈🙉🙊… I bet you agree!.
    Thanks so much for sharing, dear Georgia!… Best wishes. Aquileana ✨

  10. This many not be completely related but it made me think of a 60 minutes episode that I saw awhile ago. The segment on was on pharmaceutical drugs and how prescriptions for both sexes, male and female, were the same. The researchers when constructing the drugs used male patients as ‘controls’ because they did not have the pesky hormones that females have. Obviously, women and men are created differently and using men as controls does not mean those drugs will work work for women. The end result is that a lot of women have received the wrong prescriptions and have suffered because of it. Now, there is one drug with different dosages for men and women but there is still a lot of work to be done. I think this relates to this article in the sense that they are saying that testosterone is leading to a lot of different results and are favoring this hormone in a lot of ways because it is associated with a man. I though you brought up a lot of interesting points in how the research was conducted. Science is so often framed as unbiased but the fact of the matter is everything is biased by the way you framed your work and the questions you act and the mind you see your results through. I hope we can bring a more holistic look into science and women will play a bigger role.

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