Cooking up a twitter storm. Or: What not to do about the gender divide in science

6 February 2013 by Suzi Gage, posted in Uncategorized

We need to learn, and teach, that our limits are 'the sky', same as for everyone.


Today, an article appeared on the Guardian website, not in the science section (it was on the US news blog), but tweeted by @guardianscience and containing the word ‘science’ in the title. About girls and science, its headline claimed to explain ‘why the gender gap exists and what to do about it’.

I’ve written about women in science before, as there is a large and worrying body of research which suggests that women are less likely to pursue science careers than men, and that there is a ‘leaky pipeline’ whereby women are disproportionally lost from science (or indeed STEM careers in general) at all stages throughout their career. Not only that, but attempts to address this problem have sometimes faltered, been massively misguided, or downright offensive.

So, an article addressing these problems is exactly the type of thing I want to read. However, I didn’t have to get far in to this one to realise these were not the droids I was looking for. The author cited a couple of studies as evidence that girls perform worse at STEM subjects than boys, though her argument was slightly hard to follow as one study showed girls doing better than boys, apart from in US, UK and Canada, whereas the other suggested girls do worse at maths in countries with poorer gender equality. Anyway, that aside, she used the premise that environmental differences between the way girls and boys are brought up affects their STEM ability and motivation, to peddle some dangerous or baffling ‘tips from the experts’.

Ignoring the complete lack of links (there are 'sources' at the bottom of the article, but it's not clear what comes from where, and these are books, rather than peer reviewed research) to evidence for these 'tips from the experts', the huge problem I have with this article is that, rather than discuss how we could remove the gender divide, bringing up our children as equals and removing these imaginary differences between little girls and little boys, the article gleefully points out ways in which girls are different to boys (real or imaginary), and leaps upon these as a way to reinvent teaching science to girls, because they don't 'get it' when it's done more generically. It’s completely backwards; the problem isn't girls' ability to learn science, it's the motivation and encouragement to pursue and enjoy science that needs to be fostered and nurtured. And that’s before we get to the pseudoscience.

Talk of girls using the left, or language side of the brain, being more responsive to colour, and needing to read instructions aloud are ridiculous, but at times the article is sexist (learn science through cooking? Women learn best when science is applied to domestic scenarios?) or actively gives bad advice (learn by rote if you don’t understand? Play with Lego, but only to follow the instructions?!). I sincerely hope there are no parents of young girls reading this who think these are good ideas.

ScienceGrrl was originally set up after the ‘Science, it’s a girl thing’ video debacle, but articles like this remind me once again of its relevance and importance. There are women in science (and despite what this article seems to imply at the end, there are plenty of excellent female role models in science), and we need to encourage the next generation to follow in our footsteps. Applying 1940s science-of-the-kitchen logic to engaging them is not the answer, not when there are science museums full of hands on activities and wonder, people like Fran Scott and Maggie Philbin on TV showing the awesome-ness of science, and organisations like ScienceGrrl keen to get a diverse range of inspirational women in to schools to engage first hand with the female (and male) STEM leaders of tomorrow. Science isn’t something different for boys and girls. It’s for everyone, and it rocks.

Or, if you want the tl;dr version, here’s what Anna Zecharia, SienceGrrl’s head of Comms, said in the comments:

ScienceGrrl ( was formed in response to laziness of this kind. And, whoa, isn't it multi-layered laziness?! First, many of the claims are unsubstantiated by evidence. Second, it reinforces the narrow view that all girls must be collapsed into a limited stereotype. Third, it delights in the ‘gender divide’ and the advice it gives reads as patronising because it is: girls can be shown the world, but only if it isn’t too overwhelming for them, poor lambs. Articles like this show us that true equality may not be here yet, but the ScienceGrrl motto is to be positive and to move forward with action. We believe the best way to challenge such attitudes is to celebrate the diversity of women: to give girls a wide range of role models to choose from, so that when they find the one they identify with they can be themselves, not one of many suffocating in a box. Science is for everyone. -- Anna - Communications, ScienceGrrl @Science_Grrl

Basically: that.

Now, I’m off to talk myself (aloud) through this jigsaw puzzle. Where are my safety goggles?

71 Responses to “Cooking up a twitter storm. Or: What not to do about the gender divide in science”

  1. Lisa Reply | Permalink

    Hi there, I completely agree with your article. I teach a co-ed fairly high-ability science class to 14/15 year olds. The girls in that class have no problem accessing any information or enjoying it regardless of what I'm teaching. They often do much better in tests showing they have no problem in understanding the content. However the boys in my class do, if allowed, completely dominate the environment. The boys are much more confident, more likely to ask/answer questions, always first to grab the lab equipment and also much more likely to tease someone (male or female) if they have done well.

    Purely as an observer I have always felt that this difference stems from attitudes they have learnt from society rather than any problems they have accessing the content. As a result I enforce a male/female turn system for answering questions, will spend more time engaging/talking with female groups during practicals, and also have spoken to the whole group at length about the importance of respecting others successes. Confidence, motivation and encouragement def the way forward.

    • Suzi Gage Reply | Permalink

      Absolutely brilliant. We could do with more teachers like you. Great ideas for classroom equality.

  2. spjey Reply | Permalink

    Regardless, I still feel we will NEVER see a woman as the World Chess Champion.

    • Matthew (@MCeeP) Reply | Permalink

      It's not clear from your pithy one liner if you think that the bias of male chess champions is because men are better at chess or that you think the gender bias can never be fixed. So to cover this I thought'd I give two answers.

      In case you think men are inherently better at chess; nope there not, see link below for a more detailed break down as to why.

      In If you think that the gender bias can never be fixed then I would suggest that you have a very defeatist attitude. I'm not sure I'm prepared to give up the fight for better gender equality because it might be a bit hard.

  3. chessman Reply | Permalink

    The reason is that women do not possess an inherent skill known as spatial awareness.

    The ability to visualise ahead is the key to becomming successful at chess. Having this skill makes it easier to grasp abstract concepts, such a vector speces, rings, modules and groups, all of which are areas of a branch of pure maths called algebra.

    I'm not saying there aren't any good female algebraists, just that it's quite rare.

    As for chess, being a "sport" it also requires the killer instinct, ie wanting to better your opponent, (something not required in academia) which therefore makes women even less likely to succeed.

    • Reed Roberts Reply | Permalink

      "Women do not possess...spatial awareness"? That's bullshit. They do possess it just, on average, slightly less than men. And even those studies aren't as clear cut as you'd think, showing relatively small differences and, if tests aren't timed, no difference in accuracy. Furthermore it's not at all clear that these differences are in fact innate with some studies suggesting that men outperform women due to differences in spatial experience rather than innate ability. So, at best, women have slightly lower spatial awareness. Perhaps this would translate into fewer female chess champions but none is way overstating the case. Chess is not and never has been portrayed as a female sport. Were this to change I would expect that there would be at least some female Chess Champions.

      You present the "killer instinct" as a further argument. Is there any evidence females in competitive sports want to win less than men or don't fight as hard? Also this is very likely to have a large cultural component so not innate. Watch a game of women's water polo and tell me they don't have the "killer instinct".

  4. Catt Reply | Permalink

    The last comment (from Chessman) is a *hilarious* satire of a man using ridiculous pseudoscience to back up his sexism, right? Right?

  5. AWMcDaniel Reply | Permalink

    Women, especially women in male dominated fields have been hearing arguments like this our entire lives. "Women can't be good soldiers because their emotional...women can't lead a country because they aren't strategic in nature....women can't be astronomers because physics is just too much for their fluffy language oriented brains to take...etc, etc, to infinity."

    Although women have been allowed to play chess with men longer than in some sports, women were once only allowed in female only chess clubs. Still, even today, a completely separate championship still exists for just women. There is a culture in chess that often pushes women out, using pseudoscience such as "The reason is that women do not possess an inherent skill known as spatial awareness," as fact. By separating women out of the normal championship ring, it's the same as saying that women should be allowed to compete, but we men would really prefer it if you stayed over there in your own corner.

    What we should be asking is "Why are there so few women competing as adults when there is equal interest and participation by both genders at younger ages?"

    Perhaps the answer lies somewhere along the lines of "Why on Earth would I ever want to spend my time with a person who assumes their male brain makes him superior to me without any proof of merit?"

  6. AWMcDaniel Reply | Permalink

    Also....grand apologies for my misuse of their rather than they're.

  7. Nick Reply | Permalink

    What the...?? A Hungarian psychologist, Laszlo Polgar, and his wife raised 3 female chess masters. So how is it again your genitalia will dictate so call spatial awareness and intellect?

    Read more here:
    How did one family produce three of the most successful female chess champions ever? -

  8. iainmacl Reply | Permalink

    Excellent post. The creeping of psuedoscience bunkum into serious issues like this is only going to make matters worse. We are all humans with a broad range of skills, interests and motivation levels, steered by the attitudes of our society and our lives are not predetermined by biological difference. Time to ask more revealing questions about the 'leaky pipe' rather than the colour of lab coats.

  9. Khalil A. Cassimally Reply | Permalink

    Excellent post, Suzi. Fighting for equality in the sciences and elsewhere is a must. Not only is it beneficial for women, it's also beneficial for society as a whole because women are in many ways different to men and can thus add a lot of things (different perspectives, etc) to life and society.

    I feel sometimes that too many people focus on attempting to portray women as having the potential to be just like men. I'm not sure that's the right strategy. Reiterating, women are different from men, and this should be embraced not frown upon (as is sometimes the norm). The goal shouldn't only be to have the ability to follow same career paths as men for example but should also be to better push qualities inherent of women into society.

    This is where I'd love to see some more work done. Embracing our differences is the best way to move forward together.

    • Suzi Gage Reply | Permalink

      That's ok, I worked it out. Despite only having a woman's brain...!

  10. Khalil A. Cassimally Reply | Permalink

    Just to make my previous comment clearer, I completely support the "fight" to give women equal opportunities, etc. But I also think that women are in many ways better than men and they should push those better qualities too... for the good of society as a whole.

  11. Stefan Baier (@StefanMBaier) Reply | Permalink

    Yeah I saw the original article yesterday on Google+ and my mind was quite blown. Once I have a daughter, I would struggle to take some of that advice's too seriously.

    Why is there no mention of going into nature? Develop a sense for the natural world and asking questions on her own terms? Buy her a telescope, a chemistry set? That's what I'd consider.

    Instead: "If you encourage your daughter to experiment in the kitchen, she will be more comfortable experimenting at school."

    and: "Keep doing jigsaw puzzles, even when she seems to lose interest(....).The same goes for crossword puzzles and card games."

    Really? :)

    The article mentions a lot of teaching around family activities, which I get. But I believe that a passion for science begins as a personal relationship with the natural world.

    It's important people can explore on their own terms. Push the kids out the door and let them explore, then answer their questions in a way that leaves them excited for more. My two cents.... :D

  12. Eva Reply | Permalink

    I'm glad you mentioned the Lego instructions. That part annoyed me the most in that entire article. If you're going to give kids (any gender!) Lego to encourage scientific thinking, just give them the bricks with no instructions! I built entire machines out of Lego as a kid, without any instructions, and with using parts the "wrong" way (wheels as gears or as base for rotating platforms). The whole point of Lego is that you can make mistakes and take it apart and try again in a different way. It's very experimental on its own.

  13. chessman Reply | Permalink

    The Polgar sisters indeed are good at chess though still not amazing (Judit reached an all time high of 9 in the world but both her older sisters did not even make it to the top 100).

    Apart from Judit, there has never been another female chess player reaching her standard.

    I would like to correct one reader in that there is no such thing as male chess championships. Female are welcome to enter but since they fail to qualify, ther's a separate section (the female championships) for them.

    Snooker is similar to chess where the ability to visualise the state of the balls is of paramount importance and yet again there are no tp female players. Like chess, they are allowed to play in the same tournaments as the men but failed to qualify.

    Allison Fisher was the best but because the women's game attracted little sponsorship, she opted to play Pool in the US.

    To those who don't agree with my views, what are your reasons for there being few brilliant chess and snooker players?

    Academia is hard to compare so I'll pass on that.

  14. Alex Reply | Permalink

    You've partly answered your own question on the snooker front: money. A talented male club player can see the potential financial rewards of being a top player. Once they start regularly competing in tournaments, they will start to earn sufficiently that they can become professional and focus solely on the sport and so continually improve. For a variety of reasons, the money available to female players, and their media exposure, is massively reduced at every level of the game, meaning there are almost no professional female players.

    You also need to consider the history of the game. Billiards was played by upper class men of an evening while the women got on with their handicrafts. As the game became more working class, it was focussed in pubs and snooker halls, which were largely focussed around the social norm of men going out drinking of an evening while women stayed at home. Those sorts of 'traditions' do no just disappear easily.

    There are probably a host of other reasons before you get anywhere near the idea that women are somehow intellectually ill-suited for playing snooker. Also, on a side note, I am a (male) mathematician, and the suggestion that women are somehow genetically inferior at algebra is in no way reflected by my own experiences.

  15. scagby Reply | Permalink

    Get your facts right or simply read what's been stated.

    Snooker tournaments, like chess, are open TO ALL, male and female.

    The reason why there aren't any women players featured in tournaments where men play is that the women simply are not good enough.

    Nothing to do with money.

    On the other hand, the tournaments ONLY open to women are short of cash but that is understandble (rather like football) because few are interested in it.

  16. liam Reply | Permalink

    Love how confused people get on the tail end of stats curves. Fact is, a chess master is so rare it makes no sense trying to predict what makes one. I'm firmly of the belief that with outliers being what we talk about, there is nothing stopping the best chess master the world has ever been being female. If there are more male chess masters than female its because of encouragement - encourage your daughters to play chess, and one of them might be that outlier chess master.

  17. tracbar Reply | Permalink

    That's just it, chess is played by many, possibly as much as 50% are females but they still don't reach the heights of men.

    Statistically, you'd expect more than just one top class player (Judit Polgar) but in relality there aren't any and it can't be just down to a lack of encouragement.

    Why is is so hard to accept that it could be possible than women are inferior at certain things?

    For example, we know people of African / Caribbean origin are the best at sprinting and long distance running and conversely less good at swimming.

    On the academic front, the Chinese are perceived to be best at mathematically orientated subjects. Certainly their IQs are the highest, if that means anything.

  18. Science Grrl Reply | Permalink

    As I said on another blog, if my parents attempted to spark my interests in science by relating it to cooking and shopping they would have failed miserably. Cooking and I mix like water and oil, and growing up in a working class family made me a very frugal child. The lego comment seems to counteract the goals of the author. Science is about exploration, it isn't about following a series of rules.

    What made me interested in science was having a father who actively provided me with an environment in which I was encouraged to learn and explore. I was given lego sets and I did whatever I damn well pleased with them. I got dirty. I played in the woods. I caught frogs, snakes, and bugs and I took them home as pets. I watched the discovery channel, and in black and white I watched the Magic School Bus with it's lady scientist Ms. Frizzle. To my parents dismay I liked mixing random household objects to see what would happen (I even made a weak glue!). I was given a telescope and and a model of our solar system. I was given a prism that broke white light into the many colours of the rainbow. I owned my very own ant farm and I was asked to think. Rather than being made to sit still and be obedient, I was encouraged to wonder.

    It's sad that my sister wasn't offered the same freedom that I was. Both my mother and my maternal grandmother felt that they wanted a feminine daughter that they could relate to so they successfully forced my sister into a gender role after having failed with me. I still managed to rub off on my sister and I definitely rubbed off on my brother. They're both considering careers in science and like me, my brother loves lego.

    P.s. I still hate jigsaw puzzles and no amount of them forced on me would have ever given me a greater appreciation of science.

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