Op Ed: The Australian, “It’s the Patriarchy, Stupid”


The Australian, 27 December 2018

It’s the patriarchy, stupid


As we read Heather MacDon­ald’s argument in The Australian recently that men, according to her, are inherently better than women at the board game Scrabble and therefore maths and science as well, we were struck by her assertion that “females aren’t as obsessively driven as males to nail down facts, correct errors and dominate a field”. From this she concluded we should “face reality about differences between males and females” and their capacities to excel in science, technology, engineering and maths.

What really surprised us was the lack of scientific rigour in the arguments made by Mac Donald, a fellow at New York’s Manhattan Institute. She used the world of competitive Scrabble and the gender make-up of Wikipedia contributors to determine that because women and girls are not dominating in these niche examples, their ability to perform in STEM subjects and related industries is questionable.

The argument that men are inherently better at science or maths than women is not only scientifically unproven but, from a cultural perspective, also harmful to the aspirations of women and girls. As a member of parliament and as one of Science and Technology Australia’s STEM ambassadors, we feel it is our duty to refute Mac Donald’s claims.

The scientific evidence shows that in pure aptitude and ability there is no difference between girls and boys, and between men and women, in performing STEM-related tasks or solving problems. There are countless studies dedicated to this. One example is a study this year by the University of NSW that included more than 1.5 million students, which found boys and girls perform similarly in STEM subjects.

There is an undeniable gender disparity in STEM industries and in higher education study, but not for the reasons Mac Donald argues. It is not because of some intellectual difference between the sexes but because of society’s structures that, unfortunately, continue to play a significant role in defining for people the limits of who they aspire to be and what role in our society they can play.

Last year a Monash University study found that girls at single-sex schools were likelier than those at co-ed schools to take STEM subjects. The researchers found that “in an all-girls learning environment, free from gender bias or social pressure from boys, girls thrive in what have been traditionally regarded as male-dominated subjects”.

Studies have shown that there is no difference in the achievement of boys and girls performing STEM-related tasks — until girls are reminded of their sex or the negative associations between their sex and maths. US researchers discovered that female students taking a calculus exam who were asked to check a gender box before the exam did worse than students who checked the box after their exam. The simple task of checking a box to say “I am female” was enough to remind students, albeit subconsciously, of negative stereotypes related to maths and to affect performance.

Our society places different expectations on people based on their sex. The influences that see fewer women entering STEM professions also see fewer men becoming nurses or event planners.

Patriarchy is the water in which we all swim, and unless it’s named and confronted, the structures that cause gender disparity in STEM industries will be perpetuated. These biases can be invisible. They are made up of a million decisions made on a daily basis and across a lifetime: the colour of clothing chosen for a child, the toys we give at Christmas, the books we read, the movies we watch. Each plays their role.

But Mac Donald downplays these influences. She argues that efforts to remedy the gender disparity in STEM may risk a nation’s global competitiveness in science and technology.

Clearly, it is the male-dominated status quo and the lack of gender diversity in the STEM fields that is the real risk to the future of scientific innovation in Australia.

We should have no interest in maintaining the status quo; Australia’s girls and women are capable of achieving anything to which they set their minds.

Peter Khalil is the member for Wills and on the Standing Committee on Industry, Innovation, Science and Resources. Candice Raeburn is a STEM ambassador at Science and Technology Australia.