Does sex matter?

Let’s start with an excursion in phrenology…

Phrenology was a (pseudo)science popular in the 19th century. Developed by the German physician Franz Joseph Gall, the central theme of the theory states that the different bumps on a person’s skull determines their personality. Gall developed his theory after examining thieves in prison and discovering that most of them had lumps above their ears. He claimed that a person’s moral and intellectual abilities were innate and could be determined by examining their skull. The theory led to widespread stereotyping and even formed the basis for some Nazi theories of race superiority.

With some exceptions, phrenology was widely discredited by the beginning of the 20th Century. New discoveries in science led to an increased understanding of the brain versus the shape of the skull. Research in neuroscience has also proven that intelligence is not just innate, but the brain continues to evolve throughout life.

At the beginning of the 21st century, we have an increasing body of research focusing on the innate differences between men and women. We regularly read articles in the press highlighting the scientific evidence for differences in personality traits between men and women, differences in how they view the world, process information etc. Our educators are told to understand the differences between girls and boys, so that they can focus their teaching appropriately on both genders.

I am not a scientist, and will not argue against the accuracy of all this research (although I would like to point out that many renowned scientists disagree). I do however wonder how helpful the research is to the advancement of women’s opportunities. If men and women believe that their differences in personality and learning are innate, we offer both genders an excuse to stick to the status quo. In an article I recently read, one researcher who claims that men and women are inherently different pointed out that government initiatives to attract more women into science and engineering might be pointless, as girls tend to choose careers and education that fits their personality.  In other words, girls don’t have the personality for engineering? That sounds remarkably similar to the argument that boys with lumps above their ears will be thieves.

Whether the differences between men and women are innate, driven by differences in their brain function or driven by society and culture is irrelevant in how we deal with gender equality in the 21st century. Regardless of the underlying reasons, men and women are treated differently today, and behave differently. We hear plenty of anecdotal evidence from women who were pushed into arts subjects, even though they were interested in science. We read about women who drop their science subjects at university fearing they are not good enough, even though they have better grades than their male peers. We talk to lots of female engineers who are unsure about their career and future, and don’t feel at ease in the culture of their company. Sharing from my own experiences, I will never forget a tutorial I had during my master’s degree where I was singled out for not having read the materials on the reading list. One of my fellow students only half-jokingly pointed out: “it doesn’t matter my dear, in the end you’ll make a good housewife!”

Men and women alike, we are all stereotyping every day, and it is not helpful. We talk about the need to accommodate job sharing and part time working, to attract more women who want a better work-life balance, assuming men are not nurturing, and do not want to spend time with their family. There are lots of well-meant political initiatives that reinforce stereotypical thinking about women, and do nothing to advance equality in the workplace. In the Netherlands, the desire for part time working and increased family time is shared by both genders, and many men and women work four days per week, allowing each parent to spend a day with their children. Consequently, both men and women will combine their career with their important family life, and employers cannot willingly or unwillingly treat women less favourably on the assumption that they will need more time off. It is assumed that the desire to nurture one’s family life is gender-neutral. When developing plans to attract and retain more women in areas where they are traditionally underrepresented, like science and engineering, the best starting point is to forget everything we know about the genders, and ignore all assumptions in our head about behaviour and attitude. When recognising that people value family time and might prefer to pursue careers where a life-work balance is a real option, let’s focus on all individuals who value increased time off, rather than singling out women as a “target group”. When talking about changing company cultures to attract more women, let’s focus on a company culture that welcomes a more diverse group of people instead, men and women alike.

Above all, let’s always acknowledge that everyone is different. If we really want to help women feel more comfortable in their environment and advance in their chosen field, let’s start with their real personality rather than their assumed traits.