For something intangible, a glance can be a powerful thing. It can carry the weight of culture and history, it can cause psychological harm, and it can act as a muzzle. Consider the relatively simple act of a man staring at a woman’s body. This is such a common part of modern society that most of us rarely stop to think of its consequences, much less investigate it with a scientific lens.
Tamar Saguy is different. Leading a team of Israeli and US psychologists, she has shown that women become more silent if they think that men are focusing on their bodies. They showed that women who were asked to introduce themselves to an anonymous male partner spent far less time talking about themselves if they believed that their bodies were being checked out. Men had no such problem. Nor, for that matter, did women if they thought they were being inspected by another woman.
Saguy’s study is one of the first to provide evidence of the social harms of sexual objectification – the act of treating people as “de-personalised objects of desire instead of as individuals with complex personalities”. It targets women more often than men. It’s apparent in magazine covers showing a woman in a sexually enticing pose, in inappropriate comments about a colleague’s appearance, and in unsolicited looks at body parts. These looks were what Saguy focused on.
Think of a scientist – not anyone in particular, just a random individual working in the field. Got one? Did you picture a man or a woman? If it’s the former, you’re probably not alone. There have been a few times when I’ve only ever known a scientist through their surname on a citation and automatically assumed that they were a man, only to learn, to my chagrin, that they’re actually a woman. It’s always a galling reminder of how pervasive the stereotype of science as a male endeavour can be, even at an unconscious level.
Now, Brian Nosek from the University of Virgina, together with scientists from over 14 countries, has charted the extent of these implicit associations across the globe, and shown that they predict the size of the gender gap in school-level scientific achievement.
Nosek suggests that these biases and gender gaps feed off each other in a vicious cycle. The sex differences already present in the sciences, especially at the top echelons, are hard to miss and they can make stereotypes feel very real. In one study, women who saw a conference video where three in four attendees were men (a very real situation for many female scientists) felt less belonging and less desire to participate.
Stereotypes can also create themselves. Women who buy into stereotypes are less likely to take up a maths or science degree. Even if they refuse to be pigeonholed, they can be so stressed about conforming to a stereotype that they actually increase the odds of doing by taking a hit to their performance. This phenomenon is called “social identity threat” and it’s evident in research that shows women do more poorly in tests if they have previously been reminded of the supposed male superiority or even, simply, if their gender is highlighted.
Nosek’s group relied on a powerful tool that provides a standardised measure of the strength of stereotypes across different countries – the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The computer-based tests ask people to group words into pairs categories using assigned keys. One key might represent male words (he, boy) as well as science words (physics, chemistry), while the second key might represent female words or arts-related ones.
History has had no shortage of outstanding female mathematicians, from Hypatia of Alexandria to Ada Lovelace, and yet no woman has ever won the Fields medal – the Nobel prize of the maths world. The fact that men outnumber women in the highest echelons of mathematics (as in science, technology and engineering) has always been controversial, particularly for the persistent notion that this disparity is down to an innate biological advantage.
Now, two professors from the University of Wisconsin – Janet Hyde and Janet Mertz – have reviewed the strong evidence that at least in maths, the gender gap is down to social and cultural factors that can help or hinder women from pursuing the skills needed to master mathematics.
The duo of Janets have published a review that tackles the issue from three different angles. They considered the presence of outstanding female mathematicians. Looking beyond individuals, they found that gender differences in maths performance don’t really exist in the general population, with girls now performing as well as boys in standardised tests. Among the mathematically talented, a gender gap is more apparent but it is closing fast in many countries and non-existent in others. And tellingly, the size of the gap strongly depends on how equally the two sexes are treated.
Three years ago, Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard University, claimed that genetic differences between the sexes led to a “different availability of aptitude at the high end”. His widely derided led to his dismissal, but is views are by no means uncommon. In the same year, Paul Irwing and Richard Lynn conducted a review of existing studies on sex differences in intelligence and concluded:
“Different proportions of men and women with high IQs… may go some way to explaining the greater numbers of men achieving distinctions of various kinds for which a high IQ is required, such as chess grandmasters, Fields medallists for mathematics, Nobel prize winners and the like.”
Irwing’s opinion aside, there clearly is a lack of women in the areas he mentioned. In chess for example, there has never been a single female world champion and just 1% of Grand Masters are women. And as long as that’s the case, there will always be people who claim that this disparity is caused by some form of inferiority on the part of the underrepresented sex. Thankfully, there will also always be others keen to find out if those who hold such views are full of it.
Among them is Merim Bilalic from Oxford University. Himself a keen chess player, Bilalic smelled a rat in Irwing’s contention that men dominate the higher echelons of chess because of their innate ability. In an elegant new study, he has shown that the performance gap between male and female chess players is caused by nothing more than simple statistics.
Far more men play chess than women and based on that simple fact, you could actually predict the differences we see in chess ability at the highest level. It’s a simple statistical fact that the best performers from a large group are probably going to be better than the best performers from a small one. Even if two groups have the same average skill and, importantly, the same range in skill, the most capable individuals will probably come from the larger group.