A recent blog post, by the wonderful but anonymous blogger Female Science Professor (FSP) led to a heated debate on workplace gender inequality and biases towards one sex- again. Those debates seem to be everywhere at the moment, at least in my twittersphere and blogosphere but I am not complaining, as I am fully convinced of the prevalence of gender inequality, and aware that many people are not.
This particular post was entitled “Life is just unfair to men”. While the heavy sarcasm infused in the title is obvious, this post was about a genuine letter FSP had received from a male reader. I will let you read it for yourself but the gist is that this person thinks there is no bias against women in academia or anywhere else, and worse that men are treated unfairly as a reason of that perceived bias by all the feminists out there (I may be paraphrasing, don’t hold it against me).
What I like most about blogs, in general, are the comment sections, and as always I was not disappointed. In this instance, the debate raged on, and as a feminist myself, I was sometimes enraged, and sometimes disheartened by some opinions. Of course, I also agreed with many of them. The protagonist of FSP’s original post took the opportunity to make several dubious or downright wrong comments himself, but I don’t want to get into that here. Instead, there is one thing that he mentioned that I kind of agree with, and trust me this is not easy to confess.
It’s the one thing that I have been struggling to deal with in this gender equality debacle debate: women and men are biologically different. I mean it doesn’t take a scientist to see this, for example, on average women will have less upper body strength than men. If you are after scientific proof, I am sure you can find peer-reviewed studies showing differences in average male and female brain use or hormones and how this affect the way they act, or think- I am however too lazy to dig them out myself (is that a male or female trait??). I suppose that it is also true that on average men tend to be more assertive and aggressive at work than women. The fact is we are intrinsically different.
The reason this truth makes feminists, or at least me, uncomfortable is that it is used as a key argument by people saying that women are not equal to men in terms of overall capacity- including in academia. Because I know academia better than other sectors, I will comment on this career only and say that this argument is utter rubbish! Do you want to know why I can reconcile this intrinsic sex difference into a framework of equality in science? It is because it does not matter! It does not matter if the path a woman and man take to solve a problem is different, as long as it is solved. Who cares if the woman relied more on one part of the brain and the man on another? Who cares if the average woman spends more time thinking about shopping/shoes/make-up/*insert girly cliché here* than the average man? Does anyone think that the average male scientist spends his entire time thinking only of science and the pursuit of knowledge and nothing remotely frivolous?
There is no evidence that a woman scientist cannot intellectually perform as well as her male counterpart. Those who say men are better than women at math or physics -you know the proper hard sciences- are talking nonsense. And please don’t start with the argument that there are more male geniuses than female geniuses in the world. To be honest, it means very little to me and most people because those few geniuses are not responsible for the huge pay gap between equally qualified men and women. The reason why there are less female professors than male professors as nothing to do with abilities and everything to do with unconscious (sometimes conscious) bias against women. Yes, you will find individuals that are better at one aspect of academia than other people. This applies however to both males and females and it has nothing to do with their own gender, just their individual abilities.
So, I wish that everyone would acknowledge that women and men as a group are different from each other on my aspects, and that is a good thing. However, this difference is never a reason for them not to be equals.
Dr Alienor Chauvenet is a Postdoc at the Institute of Zoology (ZSL) and the
National Wildlife Management Centre (AHVLA); she can be contacted via Twitter