What's biology got to do with it?

23 October 2008

By Sita Dinanauth

The fact there is to be a sexism debate at the Union confirms there are, for some, still reasons to justify pointing an accusing feminist finger at Cambridge as an institution. Since anecdotes of a “friend of a friend” and the rare occasions when sexist comments are reported are unreliable exceptions, I decided to look at the statistics when pondering Cambridge and sexism.

These do not appear to support a hatred of women lurking in the dark corners of Cambridge. In other words, the statistics do not show any evidence of obvious disadvantage against females in academia.

Data supplied by the Cambridge University Equality and Diversity report in 2006 showed the proportion of women amongst researchers as above fifty percent in Arts and Humanities, social sciences, biological sciences and clinical medicine.

Interestingly, Physical Science and Technology were the only two schools that showed the proportion of women to be unusually low, with twenty five percent and twenty seven percent female students respectively.

The Cambridge University Reporter figures show that roughly 51% of undergraduates admitted in the academic year 2007 – 2008 were men while the remainder were women. At graduate level, fourty two percent of PhD students were female and fifty eight percent were male for the same year.

While certain subjects may show women as being under represented, the majority do not. Is it surprising that women are slightly under represented at the PhD level and heavily in physical science and technology?

Not if one ponders evolutionary biology and the need for men and women’s brains to have adapted to process certain situations in the outside world more easily than others. It is important not to misunderstand the point; I have met a few exceptionally gifted female mathematicians and engineers and I do not doubt that in most cases, very intellectually talented men and women are capable of excelling in any field they choose.

Yet interest in a subject is also a curious factor, one has to ask; are women less hard wired to enjoy engineering than men without necessarily having less ability? Indeed, there is a wealth of research indicating that men and women’s brains are hard wired in a way that is likely to produce variations in aptitude.

However, it is important to put this into perspective and realise that there is also reliable data showing performance in aptitude tests, including those in science and engineering, whose scores have no correlation with sex.

Physically speaking, the average male brain weighs roughly eleven percent more than the female brain, even when corrected for greater male physical size. Harvard Medical School found in 2001 that parts of the brain involved in decision making and regulating emotion were proportionately larger in women than men, to mention just one interesting study.

However, there are numerous reports which show differences in the size of brain regions, number of neurotransmitter receptors and response to drugs between men and women.

If the evidence proves to be accurate after both time and rigorous repeated experiments, it should not be surprising if these strong and indisputable biological differences are paralleled by behaviour, preference for people or systems and thinking when solving language or engineering problems.

This could be a reason why repeated experiments have shown that males tend to perform better at construction tasks than females and other bodies of research imply that females perform better than males in tests of social skills from an early age.

We can label certain opinions on the sticky and emotionally charged subject of sexism as sexist, but this will not and cannot change the facts of nature and the way we have evolved.

There is a marked contrast between claiming men and women are different in the general sense and claiming they are unequal. Inequality is not a term that can be applied to Cambridge or to any other institution where males and females are given equal opportunities.

With respect to the question of whether the University is a sexist institution, what is most important is to not label females as being universally inferior in any respect, or to go to the other extreme and label those in charge with being dismissive of women.

What needs to be done is to approach issues such as the underrepresentation of women at certain levels of academia and in certain departments with an open mind.

This may lead to fruitful discoveries about the differences in the way men and women think, their priorities and interests in life, how much they feel they are valued in the work place and academia or maybe even something else entirely.

But the main aim of this discussion should be the truth, whether it is considered politically correct or not.