Q: Girls Can’t Do Science Because? A: We Tell Them So

Posted on September 9th, 2014 by - 7 comments

Female scientist

Science is losing out on the input of women because of the mistaken belief that “men are from Mars and women from Venus”

Professor Gina Rippon is a leading neuroscientist based at Aston University and recently announced that it was time to debunk the myth that gender differences are hard-wired into our brains. Hear hear! Such a lot of tosh has been written about that topic. (see Men/Women, Nature/Nurture? Who Cares)

In reality, Says Prof Rippon, there is no significant difference between the brains of a girl and boy in terms of their structure and function. She comes down firmly on the nurture side of the debate. Experiences and even attitudes can change the “plastic” brain on a physical level, causing its wiring to alter.

It’s this that leads girls and boys from an early age to head in different directions. Girls tend to tend to gravitate towards fields of communication, people skills and the arts, boys are more likely to become scientists and engineers. Even when we women venture into science, it seems we tend to choose careers at the “softer” end of the subject, such as biology, psychology and sociology, rather than physics and maths.

Prof Rippon said:

“We’re stuck in the 19th century model of the ‘vacuum packed’ brain, the idea that we’re born with a brain that gives us certain skills and behaviours. The brain doesn’t develop in a vacuum. (My bold.) What we now know is that the brain is much more affected by stereotypes in the environment and attitudes in the environment, and that doesn’t just change behaviour, it changes the brain.”

Last year, 5,000 boys in the UK completed Level 3 engineering apprenticeships, while only 40 girls did so. Boys taking physics A level also vastly outnumbered girls.

Professor Rippon says this has nothing to do with innate differences in the way the brains of girls and boys work; it’s likely to be the result of their brains being altered by experience.

For example, one of the most often quoted examples of gender difference is spatial ability – the ability to understand the relationships between different objects in space. Boys and men are said to be naturally more spatially gifted. According to research, if girls aged six to eight are given the tile-matching puzzle game Tetris, their brain wiring changes and their spatial ability improves. Why is this such a revelation, I wonder? We’ve known for ages that the memory bit of taxi drivers’ brains gets bigger than average, and that mindful thoughts can change the brain, so this seems entirely logical to me.

It seems that as women have greater access to education and power, gender differences begin to disappear. That’s a very powerful thought.

So there we have it. Ditch the gender stereotyping for both sexes, aim for gender neutral education, from an early age and we’ll have access to a massive range of talent not just in science but everything else!

By the way, I Googled for a picture ‘images of scientists’. Predictably they were predominately male ones (another bit of brain wiring) but then I found this one above courtesy of pickledhedgehog.com

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