Women in Science

Have you ever joined a conference, symposium or any sort of science event?
Was the percentage of women more or less the same as men’s one?
I bet the answer is no. Why? Are boys cleverer than girls? Are boys better than girls at science?
We asked this question and we tried to have a scientific approach to the problem. First, inquiring genetics. How boys and girls differ genetically?
The composition of the 23rd pair of chromosomes in the human genome has a direct influence on sex. Usually if this composition is XX, an individual will be a female, while if it is XY, the person will be a male. The Y chromosome has fewer genes than the X one, 78 vs over a thousand in particular. In an XX pair, one of the X is deactivated and does not get expressed [1].
Not really interesting, right? So maybe it will be simpler to ask if there is any scientific evidence of boys being more intelligent than girls. Here the first issue to solve is the definition of “intelligence”. If we agree on defining intelligence as “the ability to learn from experience and to adapt to, shape and select environments” [2], then we have to face the difficulty of measuring intelligence. IQ tests are very popular for example, but are they able to measure “innate intelligence”  whatever it is)? Not really, these tests mainly measure cultural learning [3]. However, there is a construct, developed in psychometric investigations of cognitive abilities and human intelligence, called the g factor, which is widely used nowadays. Even though this is controversial and still under discussion, several studies show that mean g values are the same for males and females [4-5]. This hypothesis was confirmed in a very recent article published on the journal “Intelligence” [6]. Society often comes up as a fundamental influence on cognitive skills, right next to genetics; in fact differentiating between these two aspects is tremendously difficult.
Once established that there is no scientific evidence so far of men being more intelligent than women, we could go back to the original question: is there any scientific proof of a gender-difference in natural tendencies and attitudes towards specific subjects? In a 2013 study regarding human brain, the data showed that, on average, men’s brains are more suited for an improved perception and coordinated actions, whereas women’s for social skills and memory [7]. Again, talking about an “innate difference” between human females and males is not really possible. Ideas and conventions are like germs that can be spread among humans, but they are not so “immaterial” as we can imagine.
They are self-replicating brain structures, actual patterns of neuronal wiringup that reconstitute themselves in one brain after another! So “external” (society and environment proceeding) ideas can “build” neural connections other than the ones we inherit genetically [8-10].
If boys are not naturally better than girls at science why the percentage of women employed in science is 28.4% worldwide? [11] It is time to try to make a step deeper inside this intricate matter and get to the real problem.
Ian J. Deary estimates that about 50% of a person’s intelligence depends on genetics; the rest is dictated by environment, society, education [4]. Nowadays it
is generally recognized that sexist dynamics played a major role against female education and therefore success in the working world, but what about the contemporary situation?
Women’s condition is still a real social issue. A proof of this can be provided by the generality of the problem. It is not just Science! As of 2015, Nobel Prizes have been awarded to 822 men, 48 women, and 26 organizations [12]. But let us make it personal: how many books you read were written by a female author? Same number as male authors’? How many movies you watched were directed/screened by a woman? How many of these movies had a female as protagonist? How often are actresses not talking about a man?
Not many, right?
If these considerations on their own might look pointless, they will not be if we think about the fact that we cannot make the same statements on boys. According to the Global Education Monitoring (GEM) 2016 report gender parity in education decreases with the rising of the education level and the falling of the family income. Even though a lot of women choose to work, cultural norms and discrimination limit the extent to which well-qualified women gain access to better paid occupations and rise within work hierarchies. Significant pay gaps persist between women and men doing the same job in virtually all the occupation [11].

How our deeply seated social beliefs about sex differences shape our lives is evident in a well-fitting case for the purposes of this article. Boys historically performed better in maths than girls. This trend is changing and the gap is very small in countries like Norway or Slovakia where gender equality is higher [11]. There is more! Sam Sommers in the book “Situations matter: understanding how context transforms your world” reports that simply telling the students that a math test has been designed to eliminate cultural gender differences before the test, makes boys and girls perform the same. It is the same test in a slightly different situation and no gender gap! [13]

In this scenario which future is expecting us?
This and other further considerations can be found in the full article!

Giovanna D’Angelo

Download this article as a pdf file!

[1]   Gender and Genetics. http://www.who.int/genomics/gender/en/index1.html.
[2]   Sternberg, R. J., Intelligence. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience 2012, 14 (1), 9.
[3]   Diamond, J., Guns, Germs, and Steel. W. W. Norton: United States, 1997.
[4]   Deary, I. J., Intelligence. Current Biology 2013, 23 (16), 4.
[5]   g factor (psychometrics). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G_factor_(psychometrics)
[6]   Iliescu, D. I., A; Ispas, D; Dobrean, A; Clinciu, A I, Sex differences inintelligence: A multi-measure approach using nationally representative samples from
Romania. Intelligence 2016, 58, 8.
[7]   Sample, I., Male and female brains wired differently, scans reveal. The Guardian 2013.
[8]   Dawkins, R., The Selfish Gene – Third Edition. Oxford University Press: United Kingdom, 2006.
[9]   Delius, J. D., On the Natural History of Culture: Gene and Meme. Zeitschrift fr Semiotik 1990, 12 (4), 14.
[10] Aunger, R., The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How We Think – Reprinted Edition. Free Press: 2010
[11] UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report 2016; 2016.
[12] All Nobel Prizes. https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/lists/all/.
[13] Sommers, S., Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World. Riverhead Books: 2012.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *