Thursday, June 9, 2011

Biological Determinism: Aren't Men Just Better at Math and Science?

This blog post is a response to an article written by Ben Barres, a neurologist at Harvard University. The article is a commentary on the statement President Larry Summers made in regards to the small number of female participants in math and science.

When I was in middle school, I desperately wanted to grow up to become a marine biologist. I devoted my time outside of school to online searches of colleges that offered programs in the field. I convinced myself that, no matter what the monetary cost, I would attend the best school for marine biology that I could get into. I researched science scholarships and applied myself in my classes, thinking that even my middle school grades would influence my ability to succeed. Being verbose, I told all of the adults in my life of my aspirations. Most of them brushed me off. After all, how could someone my age be sure of what they wanted to do for the rest of their life?
            Certain others attempted to dissuade me. I remember one of my teachers reminding me that science was extremely difficult as a career. They wondered if I would be able to overcome the obstacles, and besides I was a girl after all. They suggested I play towards my strengths in English instead. I argued vehemently that I was capable enough to pursue a career as a marine biologist. I swore I would prove them wrong. As I progressed through my academics, my grades were strong. However, somewhere along the way I lost confidence in my abilities in math and science. Earlier, I had seen these as two of my best subjects. I scored high on aptitude tests and did well on homework. However, my exam scores were low. Eventually, I tried to opt out of math classes altogether, instead seeking out English classes that I did well in.
            Very few of my math and science courses were taught by women. I remember all of them being harshly ridiculed for their accused ineptitude. I felt uncomfortable in the majority of my math and science classes taught by men. I often felt that the female students were singled out for the hardest questions, or faced comments on their appearance rather than their work. I believe that these harsh environments contributed to my own increasing disinterest in the subjects themselves.
            The self-fulfilling prophesy that results from the stereotype of women being somehow less able to perform in math and science is very real. As Barres writes in his commentary, when we propose that an entire group of individuals is less likely to succeed based on their biological makeup, we do a disservice to our whole community. In my own experiences, I have seen women facing a higher bar than men in order to be just as successful. Biological determinism is a weapon of discrimination. I love the perspective that Ben Barnes offers. As a transgender man, he has seen both sides of gender discrimination. I agree wholeheartedly when he likens a discrimination based on gender to racial discrimination. I hope that, like racial bigotry, gender discrimination will continue to make its way out of our culture.
            I also agree and want to reiterate the need for encouragement for women attempting to break into the male dominated, to and often female unfriendly, worlds of math and science. Our culture spends a great deal of energy breaking women down. A lack of confidence is a major contributor to women holding back their own potential. I hope that people start, and continue, to reach out to the women in their lives to help.
            When someone, especially someone who these women may look up to, claims that the reason women are fewer in these subjects than men is not because of a gender bias, but instead because of something that cannot be changed about themselves, a biological foundation, what ground do they have to stand on? Instead of pushing women out of math and science, we should instead be helping them climb the ladder of success. Suggesting that men and women are innately different to the level of one being lesser than the other is counterproductive to advancing society as a whole.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Megan!! I really like this! It sounds like I've been lucky so far. I've only had one male math teacher and he's a graduate student. I've had some difficultly with a couple of my male science professors though. Sadly, I would have to say that the people who have tried the hardest to pull me away from my scientist dreams are the men I'm related to / men I've been close to. Lucky for me, knowing people don't think I can do it only makes me more motivated. I am more than happy to prove anyone wrong who doesn't think I can achieve my goals.
    ~Emily G