Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Reconsidering the Boys Club

eli's picture


Reconsidering The Boys Club

By E. Newbury


You've got it wrong. It isn't socialization that we should blame for gender roles, it's just pure logic and biology. Oh, and it’s these factors, combined with shoddy job market, that cause the lack of women in scientific fields not discrimination. It’s because our brains are different that women are bad at science and math.

This is the gist that the media took off with from a statement made by Lawerence H. Summers in 2005. Now Presidents of Harvard University make statements from time to time, and normally they don't cause more than a few ripples in the world of academia. Certainly nothing to bother you or I. Yet the ripples Summers made were not limited to just academia, and it ended up costing him his job. Then again, that's what you get for bringing up the gender and science debate.

Admittedly, if you read the transcript of Summers' address, the above statements are a few steps removed from what he actually said. In his address entitled "Remarks at NBER Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce," he seems quite contrite that there is a disparity of women in the typically male-dominated science and engineering workforces. Repeatedly, he states he wishes this predicament could change, or that he wishes science were more inclusive for women.

However that sentiment can get a little bogged down when you make statements about how women are different from men at a biological level, and use this to explain why there has been a history of a lack of women in science. Not because it matters if this is true or not, but because then the focus of the statements will not be how regrettable it is that women are not included in science. The focus instead will be on how women are different from men at a biological, or neurological, level. The focus instead will be on how we are irrevocably different from the opposite gender. The glory with blaming socialization for the gender differences is because we can work towards changing this behavior. To say that it’s our biology that causes difference can be interpreted as saying that the way things are can’t change.

Put another way, Summers uses an anecdote from his life. He recalls his experience with raising his two twin toddler daughters. Being the forward thinking parent that he is, he tried to give his young daughters trucks to play with instead of dolls. Remarkably, he observed that his daughters still personified the trucks; one truck was “daddy” truck and the other one was “baby” truck. Because his daughters were only two, he concluded that socialization could not be responsible for this behavior. The message from this life example was that we have intrinsic biological differences, that we will always behave due to our gender roles.(pg 3, Summers)

For a moment, let’s pretend he’s right. Let me put forth the question: why is this such a big deal? As a species we have long become accustomed to the idea that women and men are different on a biologically different, mostly due to reproductive biology and anatomy. Doctors have long gotten used to this, and even recognize that individual persons have unique medical needs. One type of medicine isn't necessarily going to work on one person just because it works on their brother. So why is it such a big deal to assume that gender factors into this?

The fear is that we will treat women as having a disability. For if we generalize, taking it from just an individual level and saying that entire groups of people are different biologically and as a consequence need special care because of this differing biology, then it matters. It is one thing to give one person Advil and another person Aspirin for their headache. It’s an entirely different matter to say that one will work on this person because they’re male and one will work on another because they’re female, and science says they have different brain chemistry based on their sex.

It is different to say that men can do one thing with their brain because they are men, whereas women can do another thing, particularly when this thing is science. In our culture, where science is held in such high regard, to say that women are not as biologically disposed to it is to say they are inferior.

Let me take an outside example that many people might be familiar with: video games. Bear with me here, I promise this is pertinent. In the United States, video and computer games are stereotyped as a masculine recreational activity. One of the reasons for this is that the games are marketed with young men aged, from their preteens to their early thirties, in mind. Another reason is that the games are designed to be enjoyable for men, with lots of violence, guns, and little bits and pieces exploding all over the place. Furthermore, female characters are often nonexistent, or extremely stereotyped, often being portrayed as damsels in distress or sexual objects. This further removes women from the video gaming equation. Finally, most of the people who design the video games are also men. Why? Because of this mentality that men are different from women on a neurological level. As the male demographic is the one that people are catering to, the games need to be designed to be pleasurable for men. When designing the aesthetics of a game, how can women know what's best? They have a different brain, different things are going to trigger the pleasure centers. It's a proven fact! Basically, that men know what men want best.

This last point might sound like a load of crock, but there are many publications devoted to explaining how electronic games are designed in such a way that men find enjoyable, but that women find either unenjoyable or even disorienting. If I had a nickel for the number of times I have heard a male tell a female that she can’t play a first person shooter because she’ll get disoriented, I would be rich. But it’s a theory that, like Summers arguments, are supported by scientific fact. Sheri Graner Ray, who wrote the book on "Gender Inclusive Game Design," points out at one point in her book that the reason for violence in electronic games is not because men are inherently more violent. The reason why games that involve a lot of violence, with blood spurting everywhere, is not because men necessarily enjoy violence. At a neurological level, they enjoy visual stimuli of movement blood spurting and bits and pieces flying all over the place. They actually get an adrenaline rush that women don't get when watching games. On the other hand, women get the same sort of neurological fireworks when they receive tactile or emotional stimuli. (pg 52-55, Ray)

This gives the impression that, if you want to include women in video games, you have to design games like “Barbie Fashion Designer” or “Nintendogs”, both of which are games that are marketed towards young girls and include tactile and emotional stimuli, to appeal to them. In short, you have to change the technology to suit women’s needs. This just isn’t true. Ray points out that you don’t have to radically change the game to include women. It’s as simple as changing even a war game from ‘random mindless killing spree’ as the objective of the game, to 'save your comrades from the aliens.’ (pg 48, Ray) The game is basically the same, but by giving the player a reason for playing you make it that much more inclusive for women.

This is all playing with the biological differences between men and women. It still doesn’t entirely account for the fact that women are excluded from the discourse of electronic games. And you might be wondering why it matters in the first place if women are excluded from electronic games. After all, it’s just entertainment. Just like Summers’ children and their trucks, though, the way a child plays makes a big impact.

There is nothing inherent with a person’s biochemistry, whether they be male or female, that should give them a preference when it come to interacting with a computer. A computer, used by men and women alike, is a technological object that in today’s society we must all interact with on a daily basis. Yet children already show technological preferences when in elementary school. An example that Ray provides in her book is a study of children in a computer lab. Let us pretend that you have a coed classroom filled with boys and girls, and you bring them to a computer lab. This study, conducted by Her Interactive in 1997, show that boys in the class would literally crowd out girls from using computers if there were not enough computers to go around. (pg 44, Ray) This sort of behavior was shown to exist even in preschool students. In short, girls are less likely to seek out computers for recreational purposes, choosing other activities while boys will utilize the technology for play with such things as, you guessed it, computer and video games. The boys thus gain more familiarity with the technology, whereas the girls don't. More familiarity with computer technology, logically, leads to more an edge in our technologically bent society.

For me, this is what matters. I don’t believe we can mark out socialization, and I don’t believe we can discount biological differences. But neither should matter. What should matter is that we use these as an excuse to target specific demographics for any one activity. Even if the neurological differences are insurmountable, it does not change the fact that women are being stereotyped as foreigners in the fields of technology and science. Different neurological doesn't give one sex any greater advantage over the other when it comes to video games, nor does it give them a better grasp of mathematics or sciences. Video games, mathematics, and science, these are tools. Tools of entertainment, tools for trying to find answers. It makes me wonder if the reason why we are so concerned with letting women into these fields is because it is scary to think that we might change the way they are. Bringing a different perspective can be scary. Changing video games to having more emotional qualities can be scary. Changing science can be threatening, if one considers that due to these ‘irrevocable biological differences’ women might want to take a different approach to age-old mechanisms. But also? Changing these fields might just be a necessity to avoid stagnation, and bring about a new evolution in thinking.



Outside Bibliography:

Ray, Sheri Graner. “Gender Inclusive Game Design: Expanding The Market.” Charles River Media, Inc.: Hingham, Massachusetts, 2004.