In which I ponder the power of perspective

Whenever you stick your head above the parapet and express a strong opinion in a high-profile venue, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll receive a large number of emails in response. Most of the follow-up I receive tends to be from people in the same position who recognize and share the sentiments expressed, writing to share their gratitude. But – probably of more interest – a smaller percentage of respondents are those who disagree and want to tell me why. (An even tinier fraction are from a certain sort of person eager to explain their revolutionary ideas about quantum uncertainty, string theory or government conspiracies, but these we can classify under ‘entertainment’ and swiftly move on.)

Some of the naysayers make excellent points that make me think, and the best of these cause me to shift my position slightly to accommodate the new perspective. The most effective of these are those who have gathered thoughtful evidence, usually in the form of official surveys from reputable establishments such as Ipsos MORI, or peer-reviewed data.

But these people are in the minority. Usually what I get is anecdotal evidence.

It is, I suspect, a very strong tendency of human nature to generalize one’s own personal experience into a broader worldview. Such an approach is, after all, entirely natural – we filter our whole universe through personal sensation and, though we can be influenced by outside opinion and evidence, the most intimate and immediate impressions are those we gather ourselves. If those two perspectives happen to clash, it’s understandable that many would prefer to place more value on their own. Indeed, part of basic scientific training is to teach people to rally against these natural tendencies in favor of objective, measurable outcomes.

A few months back I wrote a piece for Nature about women scientists being under-represented as pundits, in which I speculated that this might be related to detailed empirical observations I’d made over 20 years of conference attendance: in a gender-balanced audience, far fewer women tended to ask questions at lectures. (As an example, I’ve recently returned from the British Societies for Cell Biology and Developmental Biology annual joint meeting in Canterbury, and of the first eight talks I attended [seven male speakers and one female], out of a total of 24 questions, only 3 were posed by females; the audience was roughly 50:50.)

Anecdotal evidence is especially insidious when it derives from highly isolated environments that buck the trend. For example, one response I received was from a man from a British institution who wrote that, because more than fifty per cent of professors in his institute were women, there was clearly no problem with women in science. Leaving aside the fact that my piece was not discussing the professional representation of female scientists, it’s a perplexing extrapolation for someone to make: perhaps he was unaware of the stats overall. But when I pointed out that only about 9% of UK professorships in science and mathematics were held by women, it didn’t change his opinion. In this case, hard data could not sway personal experience – not even that of a scientist who should know better.

Another response I received was from a woman – let’s call her Mary – who was frustrated by the fact that no one was willing to admit that the real story about gender skewing in science was down to the fact that women were not as mentally capable of doing science as men. We’ll leave aside for the moment the fact that (a) my piece had nothing to do with the gender basis of scientific aptitude, and (b) I was speaking about a phenomenon that occurred in a gender-balanced population – the life sciences, where numbers are close to equal as far as the pool available to give opinions. In this case, Mary’s opinions had been formed by talking to other like-minded women, but (it seemed to me) more significantly on the basis of the view of her father, a highly respected engineer who used to teach post-grad trainees in a leading industrial equipment company.

According to Mary, her father ultimately came to the conclusion that, despite their degree in engineering, the women he was charged with training just didn’t have the right sort of brain for designing equipment. So this view helped shape Mary’s conviction that women are underrepresented in engineering not because they are intimidated, but because they simply lack the basic mental skills. In her email, she implied that the phenomenon held true in the scientific research sphere as well as in engineering.

And here’s where both the scientist and novelist in me started to feel intensely curious about this man and his group of female apprentices. I began trying to fill in the gaps with the limited information to hand. Of course one possible explanation for his observations was that women in general just aren’t as apt at design of industrial equipment – or that this group of women in particular were not. But it wasn’t difficult to hypothesize other scenarios. I was guessing that these subjects were children in the 1950s, plus or minus a decade. What was the upbringing of these women like? Were they given Lego, toy trucks and Scalextrics to play with, to help hone any innate aptitude during their formative years, or were they rather showered with dolls and tea sets? What was the parental reaction if any of the girls tried to play with their brother’s toys? When they expressed an interest in becoming engineers, did their parents and teachers give them support, or did they react badly? During their studies, were they taken as seriously as their male counterparts and given the same opportunities; did they have the same level of confidence as a result?

That’s just the cohort of women to consider. What about the male trainers of women trying to be engineers in that era, such as Mary’s father? Were they a big believer that women belonged in the field? Did they do their best to make these women feel welcome? Did they treat their female students as seriously and respectfully as the male students? Or did they have a private opinion that the girls just weren’t up for the job at hand, and did this become a self-fulfilling prophecy? It is well documented (see here for a nice summary) that a phenomenon called ‘stereotype threat’ can cause women to do worse on math exams than men if they’re reminded beforehand that they’re not supposed to be as good at it – an effect which disappears when they are not prepped. Also, there are plenty of peer-reviewed studies (as always, elegantly outlined in Virginia Valian’s book Why So Slow) showing that women and men with otherwise equal qualifications and talents are not perceived to be equal; were engineer trainers of the day susceptible to that extremely common and unfortunate bias? And of course, this was one company in one physical location, many years ago: is it really possible to extrapolate to the entire, present-day world on the basis of this man’s subjective experience, no matter how respectable? And finally, most importantly, can we extrapolate from engineering to every other scientific disciple to conclude, as Mary had, that women are just not cut out to be scientists and should instead focus their efforts on endeavors more appropriate to their innate skills, such as nursing?

For me, as a scientist – female or otherwise – , the answer is obviously ‘of course not’. We don’t have enough information to draw a reliable conclusion one way or the other about the women under her father’s care. The best we can do is look to the peer-reviewed literature, which despite many attempts over the years, to my knowledge still fails to show that the innate differences in scientific aptitude between the sexes is larger than the variation within them (see for example summaries by Spelke and Hyde – please do send me any contrary studies, as I’m genuinely interested).

I could, of course, counter her arguments with anecdotal evidence of my own. In the 21 years since starting my PhD, I have never noticed a gender-based difference in scientific aptitude among the many hundreds of scientific colleagues I’ve encountered in labs around the world. I’ve never noticed that the male students I’ve supervised have had a better grasp, or the female professors who’ve mentored me have had an inferior one. Of the thousands of scientific papers I’ve devoured over these two decades, there has been no tendency for the best ones to be authored by men, or the weak ones by women. Sitting through thousands of research talks and group meetings, I haven’t noticed that the men on average produce better research data or come up with more insightful experimental designs or hypotheses than their female counterparts. All I have noticed is variation from individual to individual: some people are brilliant scientists, some are weak, and the rest fall into a long continuum in between.

I could counter her arguments this way. But I won’t – because it’s not scientific.

But what, then, is the best way to help people think beyond the merely anecdotal ? Do we reply with statistics and citations and hope to sway minds that way? Can better education that emphasizes critical thinking and objective measurements help to counter our natural tendencies to believe what we think we see and to prize this view above all others? Or will personal experience always reign supreme?

Note added later: I should note that anecdotal, or personal experience, is a powerful persuasive tool and I don’t advocate avoiding it for rhetorical purposes. Ironically, my op-eds in Nature have contained such items, largely because the editor encourages their use (and references are not normal for that format).

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
This entry was posted in Scientific method, Scientific thinking, The profession of science, Uncategorized, Women in science. Bookmark the permalink.

47 Responses to In which I ponder the power of perspective

  1. Chris says:

    Just to add to your anecdotal store in regards to Engineering… I worked at an Australian Institute of Technology, and my boss (equivalent of PVC these days) was the previous head of engineering. We knew the students were a rough lot; they were known as the “rude mechanicals”. At an event for an organisation known as WISE (women in science and engineering), he was pleased to meet again the first female graduate from his school… but mortified when she told him she felt so out of place that for 3 years she ate her lunch in the only place she felt really safe from unhelpful banter: the women’s loo! It took some guts to get that degree.

  2. cromercrox says:

    Oooh, Jenny, your spelling. ‘Prophesy’ is a verb. What you mean is ‘prophecy’. As for the rest of your piece, Borat is right. Women have the brains of squirrels. This is a well-known fact, especially in Kazakhstan, apparently,

  3. Thanks for your anecdote, Chris! I’ve been really lucky to be in a field where there is always a lot of women around. The only time I feel a little niggling of dissatisfaction is when sitting in conferences and hearing mostly men give talks – this hasn’t changed for decades. I find it very hard to flourish in a place where I feel I’m not wanted.

  4. rpg says:

    A gentleman might have gone about that slightly differently.

  5. rpg says:

    Wow. That’s amazing, but to be brutally honest not really surprising given the geography. Doubly amazing that she persevered.

    More anecdote. In my year at Oxford eight of the nine engineering students in my college were women. My college had run a recruitment drive to get women into engineering the previous year, and it had paid off. Unfortunately, across the University the statistic was reversed, and I think it tailed off in subsequent years at my college. I’d love to know how those women were getting on now.

  6. Cromercrox says:

    Oh poo. Some people are so worthy you’d think they’d shit marble.

  7. rpg says:

    If you’re criticizing the idea that we should be a bit more courteous and thoughtful, then fuck off.

  8. Ian the EM guy says:

    I’m so used to not being wanted I don’t even notice anymore 😉

  9. forsyth says:

    Generalising from an anecdote can be bad enough, however understandable, but it is apparently surprisingly easy to compound the error by bad reasoning. Even if it turned out to be somehow true that “women were not as mentally capable of doing science as men”, the statement gives information about the groups, and not (say) a specific woman in front of you applying for a given job, or a specific scientific paper written by a woman (or a question at a conference). The generalisation doesn’t say where in the distribution that particular individual will fall. So, for most practical purposes you might as well ignore it, and make your assessment more sensibly.

  10. Indeed. I guess it would only become a factor if the differences were really drastic and it was clear that resources were being wasted by trying to promote the inclusion of a certain group.

  11. cromercrox says:

    Time for us to settle this at the Betjeman over a beer and a burger and an arm-wrestle. Even though you arm-wrestle like a girl.

  12. rpg says:

    I know some very strong girls.

  13. cromercrox says:

    yeah, well, maybe I’m just generalizing on the basis of anecdote.

  14. rpg says:

    And everybody else thought we were just bitch-slapping!

    No! We were giving a worked example.

  15. cromercrox says:

    Well, isn’t that just exactly the point? Even though there is absolutely no overlap as regards some of the proclivities and propensities of men and women (men can’t have babies); the capacity of men and women do ‘do’ engineering should present, I expect, complete overlap, or as near-complete as makes no (significant) difference. Sure, there will be some women who faint at the thought of decocting the negative spline on a a left-handed sprocket grommet, whereas others laugh in the face of having to rewire a large hadron collider – just as there will be some men who’d be unmoved by football, fishing or going to the pub, preferring to curl up at home with the latest issue of Good Housekeeping.

  16. Steve Caplan says:

    Another thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I think you are absolutely right about the value of collecting quantifiable evidence in support of equality–although this of course makes the process scientific and slow, and not as appealing to the masses. In the long run, at least in democratic and (on paper) equality-seeking western countries, things will even out.

    As a related aside, I fear, though, that when democratic countries that maintain normal relations with countries that trash the right of women (no vote for women, or driving cars in Saudia Arabia, for example), that our own leaders are sending a nuanced message of some level of tolerance for gender inequality.

    With regards to the specific example you brought up, my tendency would be to chalk it up to a male chauvinistic attitude, rather than explanations about girls and exposure to lego and building toys. My rationale would be that any girl, that despite the prevalent attitudes of society, nonetheless embarked on a career in engineering and industrial design was likely to be more gifted and talented (not to mention committed) than her average male counterpart.

    Of course, as you noted, this is all speculation.

  17. Rebecca says:

    There’s a nice book called Failing at fairness which was published by a couple of American sociologists (Myra and David Sadker) in the early nineties if you want a slightly more historical perspective on the issue. It’s predominantly anecdotal-type evidence (lots of interviews with pupils and teachers as well as some systematic analysis of classroom behaviour), but collected over a number of years and across schools and universities, so the range is quite broad. It is actually very striking just how blatant sexism in education used to be – not just no lego for the girls but worksheets encouraging kids to match kitchen stuff with a picture of a woman and tools/spanners/cars with a picture of a man.

    On the other side, I think Simon Baron-Cohen is quite into innate differences in male and female ability. The “extreme male brain” theory of autism for example is based on men as a population having a higher innate “systemizing” ability, while women as a population have a higher mean “empathizing” ability. See for example Is autism an extreme example of the male brain and Cognitive style predicts entry into physical sciences and humanities . My main concern with all of this is that it’s also quite subjective – a lot of the categorizing into systemizing/empathising is done by asking people to score themselves on abilities/preferences like “If there was a problem with the electrical wiring in my home, I’d be able to fix it myself” which doesn’t actually tell you anything about actual ability/learning style, only about personal confidence.

    Incidentally, even people that are highly trained in objective thinking like anecdote. A big-shot professor mentioned how he had met/had dinner with Baron-Cohen. I, being a nerd, asked what he thought of the whole systemizing/empathizing business. He replied that there had to be something in it because his daughter was really caring but his son liked playing computer games. Sigh.

  18. I don’t know about decocting the negative spline on a a left-handed sprocket grommet, but I just cooked up a mean Förster resonance energy transfer experiment on the confocal microscope – my cells were sizzlin’!

    Rebecca, thanks for those book references. Looks like interesting food for thought.

  19. rpg says:

    Yeah? The FRET worked??


  20. I don’t, in fact, as such, actually know if it WORKED yet…per se…em…but I got clean numbers to crunch.

    Apparently it doesn’t matter what your eyes tells you: FRET is all in the math. I’ll try not to worry my pretty little head about that bit. 🙂

  21. rpg says:

    Yeah. Math is a man’s job.


  22. I am sympathetic to people offering anecdotal information, especially in informal settings where they are just sharing what they’ve noticed, but it can be jarring to see their conclusions. How differently might the conversation have gone if they guy in the oddly evenly distributed faculty had said, “Interesting – I’ve been a part of this 50:50 faculty of men and women so long I forgot things were ever different. I wonder whether that’s deliberate/lucky/whatever on the part of the institution. How should we help share whatever is supporting it?”

  23. Slightly surprised Steve Caplan didn’t mention the non-science-but-perhaps-maths-related area of chess-playing. We had a brief discussion of the relative lack of women in chess (which is true both at junior and at elite levels) in the comments of one of Steve’s blogposts here.

    In the biosciences have no sense (from my personal anecdotal experience!) of innate scientific ability being “gendered”. Conditioning and context are all, from what I’ve seen.

  24. Steve Caplan says:

    Good point, Austin. With regards to chess, where without a doubt the vast majority of tournament players are male, it has been documented that there is no difference in ability between boys or girls who are taught chess. In fact, interestingly enough, studies show that “intelligence” is necessary for playing ability, but only to a point. Specifically, kids (boys or girls) with an IQ of 130 or more fared better than counterparts with lower IQs. However, there was no difference at all between kids with IQs of 130 compared to even higher IQs, suggesting that interest, and persistence (both probably resulting from ENCOURAGEMENT) made all the difference.

    I suspect that encouragement is the key word for girls in science to even things out.

  25. I think some male scientists feel a bit defensive about this issue – I don’t blame them. It might, however, get to a point where defensiveness starts to blind you to the obvious ideas you mention in your comment.

  26. Could also be that the extreme ends of the IQ test aren’t a very reliable measure, no?

  27. Steve Caplan says:

    Actually, 130 isn’t really considered near an “extreme end” of the scale. I’d be more inclined to say that the tests are relatively “accurate”, but don’t have an awful lot of bearing on successful careers in life (or chess) after a certain level.

    So I would say (and I DON’T AGREE with this in any way or form, based on all the scientific data I’ve encountered), that even if there did happen to be a difference in “intelligence” between genders (and that difference happened to be that females were slightly below males), I doubt that it would have any bearing on these issues we are discussing.

  28. ricardipus says:

    Or that the IQ test isn’t a very reliable measure of anything in particular.

  29. cromercrox says:

    In the book ‘Word Freak’, journalist Stefan Fatsis explored the strange world of competitive Scrabble and asks, some way through the book, why there are fewer female than male high-level Scrabble players. There are quite a few low-ranked female Scrabblers, but they get fewer towards the upper reaches of the game. To the reader the answer seems clear – the high-level males all look – to me – as if they are well advanced on the autism spectrum, which is something associated more with men than with women. Men are more likely to spend a lot of time obsessively memorizing lists of arcane words – something top-level Scrabble players need to succeed. The few women Fatsis interviewed said that they weren’t so bothered about success as the men, and tended to concentrate on tactics more than brute word knowledge. They also seemed a lot more ‘normal’ than their male counterparts – friendlier, more sociable and less overtly competitive. I think there’s a lot of testosterone talking.

  30. Just for the record, I suck at Scrabble. This is because I’d rather use a lovely, unusual five-syllable word that only earns me 5 points rather than sticking a B in front of the word OX on a triple-letter score and earning much more.

    Novelists shouldn’t play scrabble.

  31. antipodean says:

    I can think of two other reasons that women don’t ask questions at conferences with a 50:50 gender split.

    1. It’s not a gender thing, it’s a seniority thing. Because there are far fewer female professors but there’s still a 50:50 split that means that most of the women are trainees or early career. Less likely to ask questions not from female timidity but from noob timidity and fear of looking like an idiot in front of a room of people who decide whether you have a job or degree next year.

    2. 50% of questions are from question asking arsehats and women are less likely to be this particular flavour of arsehat.

  32. There are lots of reasons, I’m sure. About your point 1, though, I’m not sure I entirely agree. At least in my field, lots of the questions from the floor are from young men. Also, although this is anecdotal, I meet regularly with a large women’s networking group, which includes several established FRSs, and they say even they feel intimidated and scared sometimes to ask questions. So it could be a bit more complicated than you imply.

    On point 2, I couldn’t possibly comment, and will leave it to the reader to decide! 😉

  33. Re. point 1, it is well recognised, at least anecdotally (!), that youngish people “on the rise” (like senior postdocs aspiring to lectureships, or junior academics aspiring to tenure or research grant ownership) account for a good fraction of questioners at meetings… it is certainly one way to help get your face/voice/name known.

    As to whether those people are arsehats (“asshats” …?)…, similarly to Jenny I couldn’t possibly comment, though (again anecdotally) the Venn diagrams may overlap.

  34. cromercrox says:

    QED. Mrs Crox eefuses to play me at Scrabble because she says I am too competitive. My (canny lawyer) mother, on the other hand, is a a Scrabble demon and usually beats my (canny lawyer) Dad.

  35. cromercrox says:

    I’m not sure that the word ‘asshat’ dosn’t devalue blogs on OT. It might be OK for high-fivin’ femwhinin’ d00dsplainers and shoe fetishists in a ’68 Telegraph Avenue timewarp, but not here [eats watercress sandwich].

  36. There is also the possibility that some men, dare I say it, are into point-scoring. Upon occasion, when it is absolutely clear to me that the speaker has got their facts wrong, I tackle them privately rather than have a public slanging match. But not everyone goes down that route because it makes them feel good to be publicly superior. That might just go for the young in particular, male or female, not least because they need to demonstrate superiority to get the next job. But then I am extrapolating from my own personal experience of course…..Having said that, I am one of the women who rarely asks questions in general.

  37. When I ask annoying questions at seminars it is, of course, done solely in order to spare my younger colleagues from having to do it, and thus show themselves up as “question-asking whatevers”…..


  38. Steve Caplan says:

    I find that a lot of questions–in particular those asked by men at seminars–are not really questions. They tend to be nuanced monologs saying “recognize me, Dr. Speaker, I am a big shot in the field”, and sometimes one finds at the end of the monolog that there really isn’t a point in the diatribe where one could even insert a question mark…

  39. Steve Caplan says:

    I’ll have to open a bottle of champagne, or chalk that up to statistical error that you agree with me…

  40. antipodean says:

    “I’m sorry Dr Monologue. Was there a question in there somewhere?”

  41. antipodean says:

    I didn’t mean to imply that it explained everything- but it might explain a wee chunk? I made the mistake of posing it as a bald statement when in my head it was an hypothesis.

  42. stephenemoss says:

    I agree that innate scientific ability is unlikely to be ‘gendered’, but there are some curious divisions of ‘interest’ that I have noticed over the years (admittedly anecdotal). I attend a fair number of calcium meetings (being president of the European Calcium Society), and this appears to be one field in which women are hugely under-represented. I’m ashamed to say we have only female board member, and it is always a struggle to find female calcium physiologists as speakers at our meetings. There are a few, but probably out-numbered at least 50:1 by men.

    I spend just as much time at cell biology meetings, and there (as Jenny noted) women are well represented, both in the audience and as speakers. Likewise, the eye meetings I attend are well balanced with regard to gender. I wonder whether there are any other sub-divisions of the life/medical sciences more appealing to one gender than another, and if so, why?

  43. I’ve been to a number of joint cell and developmental bio conferences, and (anecdotally!) there seems to be a lot more female participation in the development side of things. I think I read somewhere that this was all down to one lab in the States which spawned dozens of strong women scientists who went on to be field leaders in turn, encouraging more women because they were role models.( As my neuronal apoptosis is well advanced, I’m blanking on all the names, which makes this anecdote even feebler than most anecdotal data!)

    When I was a retrovirologist, back in the days of yore, I got the impression that it was rather female friendly. Whereas cancer/apoptosis, my next stint, was so macho that I was a bit bewildered at first.

    And just as an aside/devil’s advocate sort of way: I guess when it comes to “interest”, you have to be a bit cautious. Are women not interested in Calcium, or is it a macho field that has historically put them off from feeling welcome?

  44. Wouldn’t call calcium “macho” (!) in any obvious way.

    One possibility is that we are talking about what were historically very “gadget-y” fields, where in days of yore the ability to fiddle with and even build computers, electronics, microscopes, things with lasers, patch-clamp amplifiers etc was, if not necessary, then highly useful. The scientist population in such fields would likely have been more biased towards people with either physical science backgrounds (which have historical issues about F:M ratios) or with overt gadget-nerd tendencies (which you might also think of as more male) . The “measuring calcium signals” bit of calcium would arguably have been one such gadget-y field.. Electrophysiology / ion channels would have been another.

    Now that so much of the equipment in these fields is off-the-shelf and/or big-ticket multi-user stuff, I would expect the M:F ratio to be equalising more. But it is a slow (turnover driven) process, as we have discussed.

  45. stephenemoss says:

    I also don’t think of the calcium field as being particularly macho, but even with the off-the-shelf equipment these days, is it one that appeals to female scientists? I see little sign of the M:F ratio correcting (according to ratiometric gender analysis) and I don’t view the calcium geeks as being ultra-nerds at the end of the gadget-boy spectrum. It’s a mystery.

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