Why do scientists seem so determined to find a scientific basis for a gender difference that would explain why there are more men than women at the highest levels of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics?

There are lots of ways one could read this question (including through the lens of evolutionary psychology), but I view it primarily as an ethical question, one about the impacts and obligations of scientists as they try to build knowledge while sharing a world with other people.

Often, people draw a distinction between the knowledge scientists build and how that knowledge is used. There is nothing unethical in discovering how to split the atom, although it is (arguably) unethical to use that knowledge to build an atomic bomb. So, one might argue that our main ethical worry with a scientific search for innate gender differences lies in what we would do with the knowledge (should we find it) that, on the basis of biology, men are just better at STEM disciplines than women.

Would scientific endorsement of STEM fields as innately male domains be used as license to cease educational initiative to expose more girls and women to them, to accept the gender biases of science faculty (1) as helpful rather than harmful, to stop worrying and learn to love the male-dominated conference panels (2) and patterns of scholarly citations (3)? Given some of the discussions of “realism” in policy that followed the publication of The Bell Curve, and a non-negligible supply of pundits who feed the narrative that girls’ “natural” interests and abilities lie elsewhere, it seems likely. Would this kind of societal response to a scientific finding be something we could properly lay at the feet of the scientists? I think so.

Yes, most members of the public do not understand the challenges of experimental design, the limits of what can be reasonably inferred from available data, the important differences between statistical regularities within populations and claims that apply to individual members of those populations. These issues make it utterly predictable that the public’s uptake of scientific findings will depart from a careful scientist’s understanding of what those findings actually mean. Scientists who do not anticipate this and take serious steps to mitigate misunderstanding, especially in cases where scientific questions cut close to societal battles being waged, bear at least some of the responsibility for the harm done by (mis-)transmission of their findings.

Here, it is also worth noting some of what may be communicated by researchers’ choice of question to pursue.

The very framing of a question (“What is the biological basis for men’s cognitive advantage in scientific tasks?”) can stack the deck in favor of assuming the existence of inescapable differences which, empirically, are far from certain. Even if researchers are careful not to assume the existence of such differences, however, devoting resources to the relentless scientific search for them, generation after generation, can convey to the public putting up those resources that scientists have good reason to believe they exist. Why spend time and money looking for differences you don’t expect to find?

Moreover, directing research to finding biological origins of cognitive differences between men and women that are presumed to be relevant to scientific or mathematical ability suggests that these are the most important parts of the system to understand – more important than features of the social structures in which science is conducted, or than discrimination and harassment that women in STEM fields actually face (4).

Does it matter if scientists hunting for innate cognitive differences make efforts to control for discrimination and harassment in their data if they do not also work to combat such discrimination and harassment in their professional world?

A challenge of research on “human nature” and on differences in cognition between sexes or racial groupings is how close the questions being posed cut to our pre-existing prejudices and culturally endorsed assumptions about how things are. Scientific findings that seem to fit with our biases can be taken as powerful support for the legitimacy of those biases.

It is worth asking the extent to which scientists seeking biological bases for gender differences in cognition are aware of their own biases, attentive to keeping the influence of those biases on the scientific knowledge they build to a minimum. After all, scientists come from the same cultures as their fellow humans. Individually, they have no better claim to an objective picture of the world than anyone else.

Scientific methodology is, at its best, a set of practices and social arrangements that help scientists overcome their subjectivity and avoid falling prey to cognitive shortcuts. This methodology is not magic – biases still creep in – but neither is it worthless. This makes it seem plausible that efforts to reduce barriers and to mitigate the effects of gendered bias when engaging with fellow scientists and their work could also be helpful.

We are, all of us, scientists and non-scientists alike, vulnerable to gendered biases. Providing what might be taken for empirical justification for our biased judgments is not an especially helpful thing for science to do. Perhaps a more fruitful question for researchers to pursue would be whether humans have an innate need to believe in gendered differences and, if so, what the biological basis for this need might be.

(1) Moss-Racusin, C. A., Dovidio, J. F., Brescoll, V. L., Graham, M. J., & Handelsman, J. (2012). Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(41), 16474-16479.

(2) Casadevall, A., & Handelsman, J. (2014). The Presence of Female Conveners Correlates with a Higher Proportion of Female Speakers at Scientific Symposia.MBio, 5(1), e00846-13.

(3) Lariviere, V., Ni, C., Gingras, Y., Cronin, B., & Sugimoto, C. R. (2013). Global gender disparities in science. Nature, 504, 211-213.

(4) Clancy, K. B., Nelson, R. G., Rutherford, J. N., & Hinde, K. (2014). Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): trainees report harassment and assault. PLOS One, 9(7), e102172.

Published On: January 25, 2015

Janet D. Stemwedel

Janet D. Stemwedel

Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist.


  • Angele says:

    I don’t understand the misleading title. Not only are we not hard-wired to believe in that nonsense, but we are not ‘hard-wired’ to believe anything!

  • Asgard says:

    Let’s turn it around and ask similar questions:

    Are we hard-wired to think that whether and why sex differences exist is primarily an ethical (and not an empirical) question?

    Is it so difficult to see that “biological differences” does not necessarily mean “innate or inescapable differences”?

    Do we intentionally deny the fact that there are as many researchers trying to prove that sex differences do not have a biological basis? Is it because that kind of research is morally less suspect?

    Is it possible that sometimes scientific research seems to confirm pre-existing stereotypes, not because the research itself is biased, but because the stereotypes were accurate in the first place?

    Are researchers and philosophers who question the integrity of scientists who seek a biological basis for sex differences aware of their own biases? Are they aware that the widely-cited Moss-Rakucin et al. (2012) study and the more recent Leslie et al. (2015) study do not necessarily have the implications many draw from them?

    It’s always nice to ask questions. Just keep in mind that others might ask questions as well.

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