A recent BBC Horizon episode “Is your brain male or female?” got me thinking (in a “female” kind of way). In this particular episode the two presenters (Dr Michael Mosley and Professor Alice Roberts) discussed whether men’s and women’s brains were wired differently from birth, or whether the differences we see between the genders are born from societal influences. Basically put; a debate of nature vs. nurture. Some of the research presented seemed to suggest that, indeed, men are born with a more innate interest and talent for engineering and related subjects than girls are. As a scientist I should be able to consider the points they offered as evidence for their claim and review them in a logical manner. But as a female studying physics I just found myself frustrated and shouting “No! No! No!” at the screen.
It is only in recent years that we’ve really started seeing initiatives and government funding getting behind the issue of women in science. The balance is shifting, albeit slowly, and to start quoting evidence that women are born less able or with less capacity for science is about as damaging to this drive as you can get. I’m not suggesting that funding will dry up, but more that it will be another nail in the coffin when it comes to our attitudes as a society towards girls studying science.
Take this example. There is little that is more damaging to maths education in schools than the term “a maths brain”. The myth that some kind of “maths brain” is needed in order to understand basic mathematics has resulted in young people giving up on the subject from a depressingly young age. This trend then continues into adulthood and starts a vicious cycle. You don’t hear people say “Oh I just don’t have a ‘history’ brain…” do you!? But this phrase doesn’t (yet) present itself as being based on gender. But what if it did?
If we continue to present subjects such as physics and engineering as ’masculine’ to children from a young age, however unconsciously we may do so, it will be as damaging to girls who want to study physics as it is for boys who want to study English. Obviously there is a lot of work to be done in schools in the area of encouraging girls to take physics and maths A-levels but the messages we give our children start long before they turn 16.
In short, as a girl, studying physics as university, I know I am just as able as my male counterparts and I know the majority of my female peers feel the same way. To suggest that we are the exception rather than the rule is annoying, not only for us, but for all those that came before us, and all those who will follow in our footsteps. Only when you completely remove environmental influences can you truly reveal what is decided by our chromosomes alone.