Engineering, gender differences and Ginger Rogers’ high heels
23 February 2016
Author: Edel Rigas, coaching psychologist
My deep dive into the world of gender difference research began quite recently, after meeting with a client who was returning to the workforce after the birth of her second child. A highly qualified experienced engineer, successful in her field, she was experiencing a particularly toxic emotional cocktail of anxiety and self-doubt at the prospect of returning to work.
She was keeping herself awake at night asking endless questions: How would her colleagues perceive her after being away for so long? Would they see her more as a ‘mammy’, less of a professional? Would she still fit in with ‘the lads’? Had technology moved on so much that she would appear incompetent? Would it be better not to run the risk of epic failure, the painful discomfort of it all and just stay put at home, with the kids – for now?
Traditional male domains of engineering, computer science, mathematics and physics
All questions, in my experience, more frequently asked of themselves by women working in the traditional male domains of engineering, computer science, mathematics and physics (Reference: see UCD Engineering Graduates Association report ‘Towards Gender balance in Engineering’).
However, what really made me gasp (mentally, of course) was a piece of advice she had recently been given by a recruitment agent. They told her that if she was looking for a job and truly wanted to stand a chance of competing against ‘the lads’ out there, she should remove her wedding ring a few days before an interview, so there would be no tell-tale marks on her finger.
My particular area of interest is career transitions and I have been working in this field for a fair few years. However, I have never heard this piece of advice before. In a country currently regarded as having the fastest growing economy in Europe, I ask myself would a man returning from parental leave be given the same advice?
There are no ulterior feminist issues lurking here, just a deep concern about how objective and unbiased our workforce actually is in terms of gender. At the risk of both sounding naive and stating the obvious in one sentence, it is 2016 and really about time we looked for a way to combat gender stereotypes more successfully.
Let us also ask, while we are attempting to increase the take-up of science, technology, engineering and maths – STEM – subjects at second and third level (Reference: see Accenture report on STEM 2015: ‘Attracting more young women into Science and Technology 2.0’), are we doing enough to vigorously address the basic issues that ultimately determine career opportunities in these fields?
Meaningless to attempt to pigeon-hole such rich complexity and variability into two crude stereotypes
So, let me pose another question. Suppose somebody asked you to make two lists describing males and females, according to our own cultural beliefs and traditions. Would you stare at them blankly and exclaim, ‘What do you mean? It would be pointless and meaningless to attempt to pigeon-hole such rich complexity and variability into two crude stereotypes – every person is a multifaceted, unique, sometimes even contradictory individual, and with an astonishing range of personality traits within each sex, and across contexts, educational level, social class, experience, age, sexuality and ethnicity’?
No. Odds are you’d pick up your pen and start writing. And if you’ve nothing better to do for the next few minutes, it might be interesting to see what you come up with.
Opinions on gender differences run strong. A simple Google search will reveal both ‘scientific’ and anecdotal claims that men can’t iron and women can’t read maps; that men are logical and women are empathic; that men’s brains are bigger and heavier, and women are “incapable of penetrating to truths that are slightly difficult to discover…everything abstract is incomprehensible to them.”
OK, that last bit is a tad outdated, but I thought you might enjoy it. The 17th century French philosopher, Nicolas Malbranche, attributed this state of affairs to the “delicacy of the brain fibres”. Presumably, one abstract thought too many and – ping! – those fibres would just snap.
Growing genre of ‘popular’ pseudoscientific accounts of sex differences
The growing genre of ‘popular’ pseudoscientific accounts of sex differences ranges from simplistic genetics-only explanations to equally simplistic environment-only explanations – all easily destroyed in the cauldron of experience and common sense.
The information that is being served up to us in magazines, newspaper articles, books and sometimes even scientific journals increasingly tells a tale of two brains, and the result is more often than not a validation of the status quo, serving to justify power relations that maintain rather archaic divisions between men and women.
Quite honestly, researching popular claims about the differences between male and female brains is not an activity that is particularly good for the blood pressure. The over-interpretations and misinformation is startling.
To be clear, I am not disputing the existence of differences between men and women. There are sex differences in the brain. There are also large (though generally decreasing) sex differences in who does what, and who achieves what. It would make sense if these facts were connected in some way, and perhaps they are.
Surprising number of poor methodologies
But when we follow the trail of contemporary science rigorously we discover a surprising number of poor methodologies, gaps, assumptions, inconsistencies, and leaps of faith – as well as more than one echo of the insalubrious past.
Worryingly, we are told that even if we don’t consciously subscribe to gender stereotypes, they, as well as attitudes, goals, and identity appear to exist at an implicit level, and operate “without the encumbrances of awareness, intention, and control”, as social psychologists Brian Nosek and Jeffrey Hansen have put it.
So, unlike explicitly held knowledge, where we can be reflective and picky about what we believe, associative memory seems to be fairly indiscriminate in what it takes on board. Most likely, it picks up and responds to cultural patterns in society, media and advertising, which may well be reinforcing implicit associations we may not even consciously endorse.
And no prizes for guessing that, when measured, generally speaking implicit associations reveal that men, more than women, are implicitly associated with science, maths, career, hierarchy and high authority. In contrast, women, more than men, are implicitly associated with the liberal arts, family and domesticity, egalitarianism and low authority. Now is the time to go back to that list you wrote earlier to see if your own implicit associations fall in line with these findings or, happily, reflect more gender-neutral beliefs. (According to a report in The Irish Times, and based on a study by DCU in conjunction with BNY Mellon, “senior women managers are most commonly found in HR and marketing roles – areas that are typically seen to require skills such as a high degree of emotional intelligence – rather than in finance, sales, operations or IT”. And the headline from that story revealed that a mere 14 per cent of Irish companies have women leaders!)
Gender differences not inevitable and can be changed
The most exciting information emerging from the latest and most robust research in neuroscience and psychology, however, is not about whether gender differences arise from social structure or from brain structure, a misleading distinction in my opinion, but that they are not inevitable, and they can be changed.
In fact, not only are the differences in male and female language use, empathy or maths skills often non-existent, but they are actually strongly influenced themselves by our own ideas about what women and men innately are like.
The potential impact of these findings on career choices are staggering. Studies show that while women, on average, do not appear to have any more empathic ability than men, if the testing situation is set up to remind women that they are supposed to be the empathic gender, that they are expected to excel at empathy-related tasks, they will then outperform men in the test.
But there’s a twist in the tail. When tests are set up in a more gender-neutral way, men perform just as well as women. In other words, changing the context can change the mind which in turn can impact actual ability.
Let’s take a look at how this applies to an area that may be of interest to engineers; and that is the largest and most reliable gender difference in cognition – the visuospatial skill of mental rotation performance. In a typical sample, about 75 per cent of people who score above average are male. Some claim that male superiority in this domain plays a significant role in explaining the better representation of males in science, technology, engineering and maths.
People’s mental rotation ability is malleable
We now know that people’s mental rotation ability is malleable; it can be greatly enhanced by training. However, there are far quicker, easier ways to modify mental rotation ability. Yes, you guessed it – by manipulating the social context in such a way that it changes the mind that is performing the task.
In one such study, the task was ‘feminised’. In other words, when participants were told that performance on mental rotation is associated with success in in-flight and carrier-based aviation engineering or nuclear propulsion engineering, the men came out well ahead.
However, when the same test was described as predicting capabilities in clothing and dress design, interior decoration and interior design, creative sewing and knitting, this (emasculating) list of activities had a draining effect on male performance. Interesting, don’t you agree?
Yet another revealing approach has pushed gender into the mental background; reminding one group of relevant gender stereotypes, while focusing another group on their exclusive private-college identity. Women in the latter group scored significantly higher than gender-primed women.
Likewise, although gender-stereotype-primed men outperformed gender-stereotype-primed women, those men and women who were primed with an irrelevant stereotype produced a similar performance on the mental rotation task.
Italian researcher Angelica Moè’s staggering outcome with secondary school students
Angelica Moè, an Italian researcher, recently achieved another staggering outcome with secondary school students. Before getting them to perform the task, she told one group that “probably for genetic reasons, men perform better than women on the task”. While her control group was given no information about gender, she told the third group a downright lie – that “women perform better than men in this test, probably for genetic reasons”.
Unsurprisingly, men outperformed women with the usual size of gender difference in both the men-are-better and the control group. However, here’s a turn for the books, women in the women-are-better group (those who had been told that little white lie) performed just as well as the men.
It is apparent that there are many ways in which the social context can change, for better or worse, the mind’s power and effectiveness. But if changing the way a task is described, or bringing a particular social identity to the fore, or telling a simple fib can have such an erosive effect on the most robust gender difference in cognition in literature, there is surely scope for believing that the days of strongly held gender stereotypes – whether about ourselves or others – are numbered.
This article just scratches the surface of the topic but hopefully opens a doorway, even just a chink, to allow in another way of thinking. Perhaps in light of new understandings, each of us can choose to take responsibility for our own implicit beliefs and challenge whatever gender stereotypes lurk there.
But if we are to remain unconvinced and maintain the status quo, for all intents and purposes a woman doing traditionally male work will continue to face the same problem as the dancer Ginger Rogers, who was once famously noted to have done “everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels”.
- Accenture report on STEM 2015: https://www.accenture.com/t20160114T021355__w__/ie-en/_acnmedia/Accenture/Conversion-Assets/DotCom/Documents/Global/PDF/Dualpub_12/Accenture-Stem-Report-Final.pdf
- UCD EGA report on gender balance 2014 https://www.ucd.ie/t4cms/TowardsGenderBalanceinEngineering.pdf
Edel Rigas is the founder and director of Rebalance. Clients she has worked with include Boston Scientific, Pfizer, Gerard Laboratories/Mylan, Cork County Council, the Department of Finance, Houses of the Oireachtas, and the Welsh Assembly government. She also works with Engineers Ireland as part of its Cork team for Career Consultancy Service. Contact Edel via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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