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

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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Posted on September 9th, 2014 by

7 Responses to “Q: Girls Can’t Do Science Because? A: We Tell Them So”

  1. This is a subject close to my heart as I ended up taking science A’levels. I thought we had moved on with regard to the sciences and girls, but perhaps not.

    • Jane says:

      Well, it seems not as much as we might have hoped, Janice. There’s still a lot to be done, but at least now it’s becoming apparent. It works both ways too. Boys rarely get the chance to learn other skills deemed ‘girly’ at school

  2. It’s a long time since I was at school but I am guessing that the problem really lies in education. As far as I am aware every child whether boy of girl has the same opportunities. Is the problem therefore the way that subjects are presented by the teachers?

    • Jane says:

      I don’t think children do have the same opportunities, for lots of reasons, but gender and assumptions about gender certainly plays a part. You’re right about education but it’s education for all of us, grown ups too. As you can see in this post about stereotyping when it comes to jobs. Thanks for commenting, Roland.

  3. Inge Woudstra says:

    Brains are not significantly different. Really?? We know they are. Boys and girls tend to have different preferences. 1 day old girls focus on faces, whilst 1 day old boys focus on moving objects (a mobile). However, there are a lot more similarities than differences.

    Different preferences make that girls and boys tend to behave and respond differently, and therefor it seems logical to me that parents and teachers respond differently. No point blaming teachers.

    The real question is: what can we do to tap into the preference of girls to make science more interesting for them (eg more people focussed), whilst keeping boys interested (with a preference for facts and systems). You can’t change preferences, but you CAN change behaviour, and ability by teaching and practice. In the Tetris experiment girls learned (!!) better spatial skills.Which suggests that they did need more exercise. The brain can change. And boys and girls are capable of the same. But there’s no point pretending everyone IS the same.

  4. In the 1980s I did some research as part of my degree into why girls were less likely to enter the sciences by considering their attitudes at primary school age.

    Yes, this was in the 1980s!

    And my research showed that the girls were better organised, more logical and creative in their scientific studies than the boys, but they didn’t think they would enjoy studying science, whereas the boys thought that they would.

    The Boys on the other hand were more likely to break the “rules” and try different things, lose their focus on the task, but instead follow their own creative agenda (mainly fun related!). The quality of work was no different, and there were no factors revealed in my little study that showed any brain hardwiring in favour of science for boys over girls. And indeed the opposite when it came to process and analysis (at 9 years old).

    Now my study was a tiny insight into this big subject, but isn’t it a shame that we are still discussing this nearly 30 years later!

    Let us please move on from this idea that you can ability or aptitude stereotype by gender! Any debunking of gender myths very welcome…

  5. Peer pressure and pink toys are making it increasingly difficult for girls to take up science options which run against their cultural models. So their opportunities to develop the skills and confidence to “do” science are limited. At the same time, workplace practices can make careers in science, engineering and technology sectors a challenge for women. Employers are gradually offering more family friendly workplaces, so hopefully more role models will emerge for young women to follow into the science world. But we have a way to go before studying science is a gender-neutral choice

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