I’m on a science-y roll with all the exams I’m taking. My previous post on female reproduction reminded me of another persistent problem I have with sexism in math and science – specifically the hypothesis that women might have something “innate” about them that makes them less apt in math and science careers.

I grew in a middle class but highly educated household in Bangladesh. I seemed to be a smart kid (!) and everyone encouraged me to aspire to intellectual career options. I had never heard that girls may have anything “innate” about them that makes them less mathematical. In all my grades, the top scorers across all subjects were girls, and often the same ones. Doing well in the math and sciences is something I associated with studying hard in general, not an “innate” interest. Now of course some people might have more trouble than others in certain disciplines, but not so much that a creative teacher couldn’t explain concepts to them. And of course there are people in Bangladesh who believe girls’ brains are not made for the sciences or that girls are dumb in general. But among educated people the understanding was more that both girls and boys who seem smart should be encouraged towards math and sciences since that’s where the money is. And even though patriarchal families prefer women not be careerists, they recognize that it’s a cultural requirement, not lack of intelligence.

It’s only in America, in college as I picked up on some evolutionary psychology that I heard some scientists really thought women were worse at math than men, and many women internalized it. To me the comment is not so much a scientific hypothesis as it is a patriarchal hypothesis. Let’s see where this hypothesis stems from – women are underrepresented in the sciences, and hence, along with some social factors, there could be a biological difference between men and women. Well which fields are women not underrepresented in? Nurses, secretaries and sex work. I’m not sure women are the majority among celebrity chefs and restaurant chefs, even though cooking is a traditional job for women. And if indeed women are more “verbal,” “emotional” or “literary,” then why is the literature we study, at least in English, dominated by men? So think about it, when you’re saying women are worse than men in the sciences, you’re really saying women are worse than men in everything. Or as a feminist sees it, women were kept out of the public sphere for a long time and have only made gains in some areas that society thinks is more womanly, like nursing, secretarial work, modeling, some interior decoration, etc. Some other areas have been harder to break into because not all women are willing to deal with the added misogyny of a male dominated workplace.

Another point to note – representation in math and science careers does not require an interest in math and science. Interest makes it much fun, of course, but the interest of money can also make good engineers or doctors. I don’t think the majority of men in math and science based professions are geniuses. I think they’re mediocre, and yet have made a decision to pursue a job that they understand well enough to make money. Yet, when women are mediocre in the math and sciences, they’re made to feel that it’s because they’re women, and not because they’re like the mediocre men. If a man isn’t a great computer programmer, it’s because he’s not the best in his field, if a woman is a mediocre programmer, it’s because of her womanly brain. And it is attitudes like this that keep women out of male dominated fields, unless they’re in the minority of men and women who have a burning desire for one career.

Even if a person doesn’t have an “innate” interest in something, practice makes perfect. How did I get into medicine? Around  6th grade when I realized my face and fat disqualified me from being a Bollywood actress, I decided to focus more on academics. That and my parents being South Asian acted like the world would freeze if I made a 95 on a math exam (as opposed to 100). Now I’m not condoning strict parenting, I’m just saying that our brains and bodies are shaped by the way we use them. The more we use our brains, the better our memories are. The more we use a certain part of the brain, the more active it gets. So in cultures where girls are not actively encouraged to break stereotypes, it’s plausible that their brains are being shaped by stereotypes. And as adults, when brains or bodies are not as plastic, it’s harder and harder to change. Judith Butler has written quite a lot about this plasticity and culture. She’s pointed out how social discussions seem to come to a halt when “biology” is mentioned because there’s a sense in Western science that biology is destiny. But biology itself is constructed, as is every level of an experiment of biology, from how we define the variables, to how we ask the question, to how we interpret the answers.

So am I saying that there’s absolutely no possibility of a link between genetic and phenotypical femaleness and less interest in math? No, but I don’t even see any basis of making such a connection. And in a patriarchal society where girls already have an uphill battle in being involved in the public sphere, it’s detrimental to perpetuate stereotypes by calling them “innate.” It’s probably worse to say “a woman can’t do this” than saying “a woman shouldn’t do this.” That’s Sexism OS XII. – vidyarthi

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