Men are from Earth, so are women

Loving mum Marie Curie. She also got a couple of those Nobel thingies.
Loving mum Marie Curie. She also got a couple of those Nobel thingies.

I once got corrected by some pedant for talking about a “tennis bat”, so as you may realise, I don’t know much about the sport. But I do like Andy Murray, ever since I saw an interview with him after he’d won some big game that lasted for ages. The journalist mentioned that his mother and girlfriend were in the crowd, and that it must have been really hard for them. A professional athlete is trained to react instantaneously to this by talking about “my greatest supporters, always there for me, an inspiration, etc.”. Not our Andy. “Aye, maybe” he muttered, “but it was a lot harder for me”.

Andy tells it like it is, and in this interview he explains why he picked a woman to coach him: because Amélie Mauresmo is the best in the world. He also describes the reaction to his choice and how the press blamed Mauresmo when he lost – something that never happened when he was being coached by men, despite the fact that he rose from world number 14 to number 3 thanks to her.

You don’t expect a tennis player to be smarter than a Noble prize winner, but compare that with science laureate Tim Hunt, reported by The Guardian: “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.” And if you think Andy Murray is clueless about the media, Hunt made this remark at a meeting of science journalists.

Sexism in science isn’t always so aggressive or panicky. There’s also the “benevolent sexism” discussed in this article in Scientific American. The authors quote the obituary of Yvonne Brill: “She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job, and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said. But Yvonne Brill, who died on Wednesday at 88 in Princeton, N.J., was also a brilliant rocket scientist, who in the early 1970s invented a propulsion system to help keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.” Can you imagine a male scientist being described first in terms of his housekeeping and parenting accomplishments before mentioning that he “also” had a major impact on his field?

A “PISA in Focus” study on What Lies behind Gender Inequality in Education? published in March found that girls – even high-achieving girls – tend to underachieve compared to boys when they are asked to “think like scientists”, such as when they are asked to formulate situations mathematically or interpret phenomena scientifically. The PISA authors suggest that this gender difference may be related to students’ self-confidence. “When students are more self-confident, they give themselves the freedom to fail, to engage in the trial-and-error processes that are fundamental to acquiring knowledge in mathematics and science.” Parents are more likely to expect their sons rather than their daughters to work in a science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) field, even when their 15-year-old boys and girls perform at the same level in mathematics.

The PISA results confirm what you probably suspected, namely that sexist attitudes towards girls and women in science start early. Various other OECD studies along with data from research carried out elsewhere show that although boys and girls initially have the same ability and interest in STEM, a series of social and cultural factors help to split certain disciplines and professions according to gender. For example, in an experiment conducted in French high schools, cited by the OECD Global Science Forum in Encouraging Student Interest in Science and Technology Studies, fictitious orientation files with the same data were tested with teachers. When the fictitious first name is male, teachers’ orientation of the student towards science is twice as frequent as when the first name is female.

Heartbreaker Hunt isn’t the only one worrying his pretty little head about women. And his unease about clever girls has a long history. In 1914 when lesser spirits were getting in a flap about the impending war and other trivia, Berlin University professor Hans Friedenthal warned the world of where the real danger lay: “Brain work will cause the ‘new woman’ to become bald, while increasing masculinity and contempt for beauty will induce the growth of hair on the face. In the future, therefore, women will be bald and will wear long moustaches and patriarchal beards”.

Now that’s what I can call “thinking like a scientist”!

Useful links

OECD work on gender

Key data on gender equality

Patrick Love

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  1. Morgan Thomas - 14/06/2015 Reply

    I wonder whether Yvonne Brill would appreciate having her name associated with a commentary which essentially does to a distinguished male scientist what was done to her? I.e., reduces his entire scientific career to a footnote to what the international media machine is capable of grasping and really gets their glands salivating: a foolish, unpremeditated few words from a naive old man which slot neatly into preconceived, impeccably “correct” and easy-to-grasp narrative about girls discouraged from going into science.

    At least, when it finally got around to mentioning it, Brill’s obituary did correctly name her field of expertise, a detail regarding Tim Hunt, a physiologist whose work in cell division won him a Nobel prize, which you found too uninteresting to cite. You also left out that his 39-word “girls in the laboratory” sound bite resulted in his immediately being required to resign from University College London and the European Research Council.

    I would think that the place to start, if one wanted to further the admirable goal of encouraging bright girls to go into science and math, would be to valorize those fields themselves. Whereas the take-home message from a story like yours, and the innumerable others it mimics, is that no matter how long and productive your career, we journalists will gleefully reduce you to a laugh line — Heartbreaker Hunt”, an alliterative witticism worthy of a Daily Mail headline — if you wander into the territory of fashionable and hot-button issues on which we build our careers, and which we claim the sole right to police.

    This year, an expendable male is offered up as a sacrifice to the furtherance of gender equality. That might seem like a reasonable tradeoff, but it is not impossible to imagine some future female researcher finding her career in tatters as a result of casually taking the “wrong” line about, say, the human causes of global warming or the inarguable justice of gay marriage. What’s certain is that actual science, and scientific accomplishment, will be shown to count for nothing in the scales of media judgment.

    Finally, if you and your fellow journalists truly believe that even one single talented girl would have been discouraged from pursuing her interest in science or math by Tim Hunt’s dopey verbal gaff, had you not valiantly teamed up to take him down, I would say that you have a far more patronizing view of female ambition and determination than he almost certainly has.

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