Nature vs Nurture: Girls and STEM

Buddhini Samarasinghe and Rajini Rao and I have addressed the consequences of gender stereotypes for science careers, in a post just been published in Nature News & Comment. I want to talk about why this issue requires interdisciplinary collaboration. The idea that men and women are innately different in terms of abilities and knowledge due to our biology permeates every aspect of society. The social sciences are fundamentally concerned with undoing this biological argument. Empirical evidence shows that girls and boys actually perform similarly on tests until they come to believe a biological narrative due to socialisation. The idea that girls are somehow fundamentally inferior in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) does not reflect nature; it is an issue of culture. So how and why does this biology narrative take hold?

Gender stereotypes are perpetuated through the stories we tell children as soon as they’re born. For example, little kids have few preconceived ideas about what a scientist looks like until they start going to pre-school. In Prep and Grade 1 they still draw scientists in gender-neutral ways, but by Grade 2 onwards, they start drawing White men in lab coats. By Grade 5 the stereotype that only White men are scientists has taken hold. The stereotype is both gendered and racial, as research shows that even minorities tend to draw White men, thus affecting diversity in science on multiple levels.This stereotype is used in other ways by teachers, parents, the media and other figures of authority to force girls to consider that maybe they’re not fit to do STEM. It turns into a phenomenon known as stereotype threat which affects women’s memory recall, decision-making and resilience.

The stereotype is repeated in high school, in the way women scientists and people of colour are missing from the science curriculum, to university, where women role models are largely absent from the syllabus. At every step of girls’ progression from education through to their careers, gender stereotypes are used to discourage women both in tacit and overt ways. This is known as the leaky pipeline, with studies showing how girls and women leave STEM at various stages due to the cultural pressures and institutional obstacles they face.

Let’s now consider the importance of tackling diversity in stem through interdisciplinary collaboration.

Interdisciplinary Change

Sociologists like myself understand that ideas about gender are socially constructed, meaning that the idea that women and men are essentially different is shaped by culture. We also understand that the meaning ascribed to biological differences exist solely to make inequality seem natural, taken-for-granted, and not worth trying to change. The flawed logic goes, Hey, it’s nature; you can’t fight nature! Well first off, nothing in nature is static, and human evolution is an ongoing process. The biological argument rests on a problematic assumption about biology, by assuming that the way things are today are the way they’ve always been and that the social order reflects how things are supposed to be. Second, we can most certainly can change gender inequality through intervention programs, which Buddhini, Rajini and I cover in our analysis.

Social scientists have tools such as theories and methods to understand gender stereotypes, and this includes having the language (shared concepts and values) to help us study and address inequality. Other sciences do not always have access to the same resources. In fact, my volunteer work in several science communities shows me first-hand the resistance by many scientists and science enthusiasts (the general public) to dismantling the “nature” discourse. All too often, when women post about gender inequality in science communities, they are shouted down, “How is this science? The factors that affect the practice of science goes to the very heart of science itself. How we do science, including how individuals and the system we work in contribute to gender inequality, affects science and innovation.

It is imperative that those of us committed to gender equality and diversity in STEM collaborate across disciplines to tackle this problem. We can’t take for granted that our colleagues will eventually come to see the damage done by biological arguments. We can’t simply leave girls to navigate gender stereotypes on their own. We can’t rely on women being “more confident” and assertive when faced with discrimination, as research shows these individual approaches don’t work.

Read our article including the empirical evidence on the Nature website: http://blogs.nature.com/soapboxscience/2014/09/04/nature-vs-nurture-girls-and-stem

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