The nature of sex

Is the shortage of top women scientists down to 'institutionalised sexism', or scientific differences?

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Politics
  • Science fact

Anyone who has taken a humanities course at university in the past 30 years will remember being taught that gender is a social construct: stripped of their cultural makeup, men and women would think and act the same way. The fact that there are disproportionately fewer women politicians, lawyers and bankers in the world is the product of society’s patriarchal shortcomings.

This line of thinking is now the norm in social policy. We hear a great deal about the ‘glass ceiling’ that is preventing women rising to the top of the most sought-after professions. If we combat sexism, this imbalance will be amended.

In the sciences, however, the ‘biology doesn’t count’ argument has come under substantial scrutiny over the past 10 years. Neurologists and geneticists are increasingly of the belief that men and women are prisoners of biology: we act differently and assume different roles in society because our brains and bodies are ‘wired’ differently.

Male brains are better suited for spatial problems, female for verbal ones, which is why men are better at parking cars but women superior at asking directions. Because men are better at things and women with words, 100 percent of bricklayers and carpet-fitters are men and 98 percent of receptionists and 72 percent of social workers are women.

Because men have on average 11 times more testosterone than women, and far lower levels of serotonin, they are more likely to be aggressive, competitive risk-takers. The conclusion that many scientists are coming to, be it unspoken or not, is that perhaps the ‘glass ceiling’ has been erected not by Man, but by Nature. There are few women politicians, managers, company directors and market traders because most women simply don’t possess the qualities to rise to the top: by virtue of biology, they are not competitive or risk-taking enough.

To anyone of an egalitarian, humanistic persuasion, this is intolerable stuff. Nobody wants to sound like a golf club bore, banging on about how women can’t drive – or appear to side with the essentialists on the other side, the Earth Mothers and Dworkinites, who insist that men’s inherently aggressive nature has made them a plague on the planet and responsible for every calamity in human history. Heaven knows, I wouldn’t want to be seen reading Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus in public.

At the same time it is intellectually dishonest to discount findings simply because we find them uncomfortable. This is not to say that they should be accepted unthinkingly. Nurture matters. And accepting that men are more mathematically minded and competitive is like saying: ‘men are taller than women.’ This is true – but only on average.

So if it is true that Britain’s scientific community is losing a potential pool of talent on account of ‘institutional sexism’, it should be a source of concern. In the latest issue of New Scientist, Susan Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution, writes that women are still not being given a fair go in the scientific world, that they are ‘patronised’ and ‘ignored’. In her research she ‘found institutionalised sexism right across the scientific establishment. It isn’t so much that people are rude to your face, more a feeling that there is a prejudice at a very basic level’.

However, Greenfield is evasive in offering solid proof for her claims. The adjective ‘institutional’ seems to have become code for ‘we think there’s unfair discrimination but we have no hard evidence whatsoever to prove it – only a “feeling”‘. This anti-empirical approach is not fitting of a scientist.

Somewhat ironically, Greenfield concedes that women ‘can be less assertive than men, and this makes it harder for them to succeed’. This is precisely what her fellow scientists have been telling us recently. Maybe, to find the answer why science still remains disproportionately the domain of men, she should turn to her peers.

  • Let them play Lego

The late Auberon Waugh once said that the correct way to greet an architect is to punch him in the face. And it will be a he. Although a third of architecture graduates are women, nearly all major architects are men. Perhaps this is because men are more competitive than women, eager to build more magnificent erections than their competitors. Norman Foster’s ‘Gherkin’ tower in London, completed last week, certainly has a phallic air about it, resembling a bloated penis or a sex toy.

Although Foster doesn’t quite merit the Waugh treatment, people do have a problem with architects. The chief problem is that they think of themselves as artists. They always have done, of course, but artists generally used to believe in aesthetics. For Victorians, the purpose of a painting was to inspire affection; their buildings served to do likewise. But artists today are more concerned with being ‘challenging’ or ‘important’ than with creating works of beauty.

This is all very well for the sculptor or the painter. If you don’t like modern art, then you don’t have to go and see it. I hate to sound like Prince Charles here, but there’s no escape from challengingly ugly buildings. I’m talking about the Trellick Tower, Centre Point, the Barbican, the Pompidou Centre, Gateway House in Manchester, and nearly everything in Bristol and Leeds city centres.

If only we could lock architects up in a room with Lego bricks and let them pursue their fantasies in miniature and in private.

  • A quandary

A question for eco-warriors: two weeks ago the American scientist Craig Venter announced plans to create a new life form in a laboratory. From scratch he will build an organism, a primitive single-celled microbe.

When he succeeds, will you:

a) Seek to have the ‘Frankenstein’ life form destroyed?

b) Demand that it be given full animal rights?

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

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Topics Politics


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