Woman’s hour presenters make awkward and insensitive comment

In the UK, “woman’s hour” is a daily show on the quality news sender Radio 4. It often has feminist themes. The show follows the 10 o’clock radio news in the morning. This morning, the news reported that the oldest woman alive has passed away.

The “woman’s hour” presenter (Jane Garvey) said immediately after this news item in the opening of her show:

That is a good line, isn’t it, outlived her husband by 84 years.

What an awkward and insensitive comment to make! It really made me think. The woman never remarried, and with 3 children it is sad that she lost her husband so young. Maybe that is not something that matches the perspective of the show, which is often viewing women as victims of men. It seems just wrong to try to score points using this news item, though.

Am I being too sensitive here? Did the presenter just mean that it is just a very unusual situation that one partner outlives the other by so many years, and that it is good in the sense of newsworthy? In the context of a feminist show, it is probably difficult to tell what the presenter means exactly.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

If you are in the UK, you can listen to the segment on the BBC iPlayer, here is the link.

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Five common misunderstandings about gender differences research

Almost everybody loves to read about gender differences. At least, so it seems, given the large number of newspaper articles and opinion pieces about this topic.

The media’s attention for the topic reflects an enormous interest in gender differences in the population. For most people, understanding gender differences is very important for all sorts of things in life. For example for finding a partner and reproduction. You need to understand at least a little bit about gender differences in order to succeed in these things.

Anyone doing academic research on gender differences knows this too: Gender is a very popular topic, but it is also a very sensitive topic that is often emotionally discussed. There are various misunderstandings about gender differences research which make debates unnecessary heated. My aim here is to eradicate these misunderstandings so that people can discuss these issues with a cool head!

Misunderstanding 1) People generalise too much!

When people hear about a gender differences study, people check if the findings reflect their own experience. That is a natural thing to do, but some people fail to realise that most of the research is about averages, not absolutes. For example, even though it is true that men are taller than women, on average, there are actually really tall women and very short men. Thus, it is not absolutely the case that every man is taller than every woman. That does not make the finding that men are taller than women untrue. It is just that researchers typically mean “on average”. Most of the research on gender differences tries to find out what the average man and the average women think and do.

This has implications for how individuals should and should not apply these findings to their own situation. For example, even though girls have better reading and writing skills (on average!), there is no reason to advise your son not to pursue a career in creative writing if that is what he wants to do; he is just an individual, and he might be very different from the average male student.

The lesson here is that when you read about gender differences research, add “on average” to every statement about men and women.

Misunderstanding 2) “The differences between men and women are much smaller than the differences within gender groups”.

This is related to point 1, and you hear it regularly, like in the tweet below.


The wrong logic behind this misunderstanding goes like this: 1) There is a difference between men and women (e.g., men are a few centimetres taller than women). 2) There is a considerable difference between the shortest and tallest man, and equally, there is a considerable difference between the shortest and tallest adult women (this can easily be half a meter). 3) Therefore, the differences within genders are larger than between the genders. 4) Therefore, the height difference between men and women is meaningless.

Yet, this is simply not true from a statistical point of view. In fact, in psychological studies you typically have a situation where group differences are considerably smaller than the range of values within each group. Even though the group differences between men and women’s height will be only a few centimetres, the range between the shortest and tallest men (or women) is much more than a few centimetres. Even so, this difference is statistically significant. The good thing is that statistics offers tools to determine whether groups differences might be the result of random variation (e.g., t-test) and tools to express the sizes of group differences (e.g., Cohen’s d).

As with point one, the way gender differences are reported often leads to confusion. Point one of this list showed that gender differences are not absolute, and this second point shows that even relatively small differences between groups have real meaning. The findings have not necessarily direct relevance to individual people’s lives, though! It is meaningful for researchers and those who want to design interventions to counter group differences where necessary and possible. In the case of height, there is no interest to abolish this gender difference, because social psychologists have recently found out that the (add “on average”, please!) heterosexual woman prefers a taller man. Again, I can imagine how even reporting something like this can easily lead to a heated debate, for example, because it generalises (I am sure there are many women who do not care about height), and because it gives the impression that people’s desires are, to some degree, instinctive and selfish rather than in line with modern notions of equality and politeness (I mean, it is arguably not so fair or polite to say that someone rather dates somebody else purely because of height).

The danger of this second misunderstanding is that people reject all research about gender differences. A danger because it is clearly the case that males, as a group, and females, as a group are affected by different issues and challenges, and only evidence-based interventions will be suitable to deal with these challenges. Even though the effects might be relatively small and difficult to generalise to your own world, these differences can add up to considerable problems in the population as a whole. Take for example psychological problems affecting children and adolescents. Boys suffer more from attentional problems and girls suffer more from eating disorders; you need to take gender into consideration as an important variable when investigating these issues.

Misunderstanding 3) “Sex differences are either entirely caused by biological factors (nature) or by learning factors (nurture), but not by both”

This is a common misunderstanding. All researchers studying biological factors involved in explaining gender differences are fully aware that gender differences are the result of a combination of both biological factors (such as genetic, hormonal, hereditary factors) and learning and social factors. Biology and the environment constantly interact with one another, and that makes explaining thought and behavior very complex.

It is difficult for people, in general, to simultaneously consider that many factors play a role at the same time. This difficulty is often reflected in newspaper articles, where problems such as why girls do not as well in mathematics as boys in international comparisons are often attributed to a single factor. The issue is, though, that the reality is far more complex than that. That is difficult to convey in a short newspaper article, where the authors do not have the space to elaborate on all factors or to explain that other factors than those mentioned play a role too.

Misunderstanding 4) “It is damaging for women’s education to say that biological factors play a role in explaining sex differences”

This is a misunderstanding. It is not damaging to report findings of academic research one way or another. It is ultimately up to the journalists to inform the public responsibly. But that is often difficult to do in the little space that journalists have or in the short air time researchers get to explain their findings. I recently wrote a whole blog about this.

Misunderstanding 5) “Sex differences due to biological factors can never be changed”

In general, people believe that anything that is caused by biological factors is completely fixed. That is why many people like environmental explanations, because it gives the impression that we can do something about it by improving society. And it is why many people dislike biological explanations, because it make situations seem hopeless.

Fortunately, this is a misunderstanding. Not only is it the case that biological factors never work in isolation (see point 3), we can change the influence of biological variables. Even though it is true that many of our “inborn instincts” are difficult to change, we have the intelligence not give up on overcoming biological limitations. Medical science is the best example of how people have managed to overcome the restrictions of biological factors. And the fact that we can fly to the moon or dive to the bottom of the ocean is proof that we can overcome our biological limitations with ingenuity.

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Is gender equality endangered by stating that biological factors influence our thought?

Occasionally, people tell me the following: Saying that “biological factors play a role in psychological gender differences” is dangerous for a number of reasons. Reason 1: Some say that it simply not true that biology has any relation to gender differences.These people argue that all differences between people result from socialisation and environmental factors. Reason 2: Others are not so much interested in whether it is true or not that biology plays a role, but they are more interested in the potential implications of that statement, arguing that “accepting the role of biology” will support old-fashioned sexism and traditional gender roles that hinder progress in gender equality. Here I will argue that this is not the case, and that one can even make the case that “exclusively accepting the role of socialisation and environmental factors” can lead parents and society to bigoted decision making.

Question 1: Do biological factors play a role in psychological sex differences?

I would argue that practically all researchers would accept that biological factors influence psychological gender differences at least to some degree. If you think that all human attitudes and knowledge are learned from scratch (i.e., no biology is involved), and that only animals have clearly many instinctive behaviours (i.e., arguing that only some female animals have inborn maternal instincts), you probably need to reconsider that humans are animals as well. It just seems impossible that humans have developed into a species that does not have built-in mechanisms influencing our psychology. Of course, some religious people might not accept this, but that is another story.

A good example of instinctive thoughts and behavior beyond the control of learning and socialisation are related to our sexual preferences. For example, whether we are attracted to men or to women is strongly biologically determined (both hetero and homosexuality). You cannot really help it, it just happens. Another example is the maternal instinct.

What is also interesting is that there is no evidence whatsoever that anyone can change sexual orientation through learning. Some conservative Christians (who do not believe in evolution) have tried but failed miserably. If you are interested in facts in a easy to understand way, this video about nature vs nurture might be a good place to start. Thus, not only are some psychological traits based on our biology, some of these traits are fairly stable, in the sense that you cannot overrule them with learning. Of course, other traits can be overcome with learning. I haven’t looked up the data on this carefully, but fear of height seems something to be that can be changed with experience.

It is easy to see that if one psychological variable can be influenced by biological factors (such as hormones), that other psychological factors can as well. That does not mean that socialisation and learning do not play a role. The point is that both play a role, not just learning and socialisation, etc, as some people argue.

Question 2: Does believing that biology play a role foster old-fashioned sexism?

Let me first make one thing clear. Of course there is such a thing as old-fashioned sexism, and I feel sorry for people who are the victim of this, such as people who were denied the opportunity to study what they wanted because parents or teachers told them that it would not fit their idea of what boys or girls can do. I do not believe that this is very common today in developed nations, though. At least, not that I am aware of it, but I know that some people argue it is related to a more subtle everyday sexism.

My main point here is that the statement that “biology plays a role in the explanation of psychological gender differences” does not support the old-fashioned sexism, nor believing in traditional gender roles any more than “environmental variables play a role in the explanation of gender differences“.

Now some of you might ask, how could believing only in the role of environmental variables lead to any bad political or personal decision making? I will just give here some examples. One is homophobia. Extreme anti-homosexuality lobbyists will argue that homosexuality is not an inborn trait, but that it is chosen behavior that can be changed with conversion therapy. They argue that this might be caused due to a problematic childhood, the wrong friends, and so on. I am not sure there are many of such people around these days, the idea seems fortunately on its way out.

In fact, you could argue that “accepting the role of biology” counters prejudice! In many ways, the biological proof that heterosexual or homosexual orientation is beyond anyone’s control (there might be some exceptions, but I am talking about the large majority) might have supported the fact that people today mostly accept people’s sexual orientation like people accept that no one has control over his or her racial background. Again, here is a good video about this.

You can come up with other potential scenario. You could imagine that if parents want specific types of behavior from their children just because they find that desirable, they might want to influence their children’s behavior with special toys. They might only give very girly pink toys to a girl to make sure she socialises into becoming the girl the parents want her to become (again, because they might believe that she must be socialised in becoming heterosexual, which they might believe increases the likelyhood of many grandchildren, or something similar). After all, in general, an exagerated believing in the role of socialisation puts an enormous burden on parents to constantly choose the correct environment they think is needed to develop the right personality and character; this because the socialisation people argue that a child can literally become any type of person depending on their type of socialisation and environment.

Instead, more biologically aware parents understand that there are limits to what the role of socialisation can do, and that ultimately the inner drives of a child will help the child to indicate to the parents what it likes to play with, and that parents have no control whatsoever over the development of the sexual orientation of their children.

Still, nobody argues that we should silence researchers who believe that “environmental factors play a role in learning and can explain differences between people” because, for example, some intolerant homophobes or extremely over-controlling parents base their ideas on the imporant role of socialisation and environmental factors.

I hope that this blog won’t lead to such a silencing. Can you imagine that angry people on twitter ask a researcher to stop claiming that “socialisation plays an important role in child development“, because we know that this fosters over-controlling parents in making their children’s life difficult?

So now over to you. Do you agree or not? Leave a comment please! Debate is always good, and if your comments are convincing and with strong arguments (rather than just “you are wrong”), you really have a chance to change or strengthen opionions.

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Gender equality in schools

On the 27th of June, I gave a talk for Annual Conference of the British Education Studies Association. On the 11th of July, this talk was covered in the British press, here are some links to it:

Times Education Supplement: Gender equality in Stem would ‘deny human nature’

The Telegraph: ‘Give up’ on gender equality in the sciences at school

The Herald: Claim gender job divide is natural

Daily Mail: ‘Stop trying to make girls take science’: It goes against their human nature, claims psychologist

The problem with these newspaper articles is that they are exaggerating my point and try to make it unnecessary controversial. I wrote a statement in my own words on my webpage about this, and I have copied it here:

Summary of my talk at BESA:

To start with: I am all for gender equality in education! The main point I made in my talk is that it is unlikely that we will be able to get equal numbers of boys and girls in all optional subjects (such as computing or psychology).

The fact is that boys and girls do not perform similarly in British secondary education. Boys fall behind in most subjects in GCSEs and A Levels, except a few, such as mathematics and physics. I think we should try to do something about that. Further, boys and girls differ in how they choose optional GCSE and A Level subjects, with more boys choosing Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths (STEM), and girls more choosing social sciences, arts, and languages. I think that it will be pretty much impossible to change this.

Despite that there is strong political support (from all big political parties on both the left and right) for getting more girls in STEM subjects, all efforts seem to have failed, though! Computing in the A Levels is a dramatic example of that, with a really small percentage of female students studying this.

We should not really be surprised about this gender difference, though, given that psychologists have repeatedly shown that males and females strongly differ in their vocational interests. Men’s interests are more focused on “things”, and women’s interests are more focused on “people”. This is well summarized in a paper by Rong Su and colleagues. In other words, men and women’s interests vary along the people-things dimension. Of course, there are always exceptions, but this is what you see on average across the world. This gender difference is strong in highly developed and gender equal countries, such as Norway (for a great documentary about this, watch this). It is also interesting that you see that girls do better than boys in mathematics in some countries, but that these are not the countries from which you would expect it, such as Qatar. You can read about this in our open access PLOS paper.

Both societal and biological factors play a role in how people choose subjects and careers, but the role of biological factors is often ignored by many policy makers. We know that even something like exposure to pre-natal hormones (which is different for boys and girls) influences vocational interests in later life. For example, see a paper by Adriene Beltz and colleagues. That said, societal factors certainly also play a role, but how is not well understood. What we see, for example, is that in highly developed countries, there is a more stable mathematics gap between boys and girls than in developing countries; you would not expect this if gender equality policies really have a major influence on this gap (You can read about this in our open access PLOS paper, Figure 4).

I mentioned in the talk that policy makers and activists (with the best intentions) often focus on things we know (to the best of our knowledge) do not work in school children, such as same-sex role models or stereotype type threat interventions (for a good paper on this see that of Colleen Ganley and colleagues). The psychological and biological reality is that it is very hard to change people’s psychological attitudes, and it might be impossible to change the way men and women think about what they would like to study and work as (if you know of good opposite evidence, please let me know). Therefore, in the face of limited resources, we should be cautious in spending money on interventions that will have no effect. Instead of focusing on equal numbers of male and female students in all subjects, I think we should strive to get boys and girls to at least attain similar grades in all subjects (which will be very hard in itself). This would require a major investment in trying to find out what we can do to make sure that boys do not fall behind so much in schools. In my talk I mentioned that one of the factors that might play a role in boy’s poorer performance is the time they spend on video games (there are various papers showing the detrimental effect of this on homework, etc, such as a paper by Robert Weis and Brittany Cerankosky).

I would like to add that these issues are being taken seriously by politicians on both sides of the political spectrum (the position of Labour and Conservatives is essentially the same). Unfortunately, though, what many people think might help (such as same sex role models to which I responded in Times Higher Education) is often based on intuitions and not on evidence. As a society, we need to make sure that we base our decision making on evidence. We have accepted that we do that for economic decisions about medical treatment, and we need to start doing this for educational interventions as well. There are good British organisations that fund such evidence-based intervention research, such as the Educational Endowment Foundation.

A final point is that I think that we need to respect the interests and talents of individual students. To me, it seems often that some activists find it more important that we have equal numbers of men and women in every job that needs to be done than that people are choosing something they really want to do. That is based on the wrong assumption that those activists think that men and women make those career choices because of the wrong type of socialisation (such as specific colours of toys). They never seem to consider that our vocational interests can at least be partially influenced by our biology. Given that we now accept this for other psychological variables, such as our sexual orientation (which is clearly biologically determined and not changed by education or socialisation), why is it so difficult for some people to accept this for other psychological variables, like vocational interests, as well?

In summary, I am all for equal opportunities. But I just do not think there is good evidence that gender-specific attitudes to career interests and study subjects can be realistically changed by anyone. Some of the important differences between men and women come down to human nature. After all, we are animals evolved due to the brute forces of evolutionary selection, you cannot change that easily, and that is why people are often guided by their unconscious desires which were probably more useful in the stone age than now. In the stone age, it was useful for men to be hunters and women to look after babies, and nature has helped by encoding some of these skills in the hardware of our brain. That still influences how we think today.

This does of course not mean that women in modern society should stick with traditional roles. I am the first to encourage women and men to do whatever they want (I am neither religious nor socially conservative). Of course, today’s schools should not stop boys or girls choosing subjects opposite what the majority of their gender group wants (e.g., girls aiming for computing or boys aiming for psychology, like myself long ago) — quite the opposite, schools need to encourage children to fully fulfil their interests and talents, and not be driven by ideological agendas, whether they are socially conservative or the opposite. But as I pointed out in our PLOS paper, girls are a lot better than boys in mathematics in some of the most socially conservative countries in the world, which just shows that gender equality policies are less effective than people would hope.

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The gender gap in mathematics is unrelated to equality policies

Here are some basic facts about the gender gaps in mathematics and reading

Note: Sources+links at bottom

About the mathematics gender gap:

  • 15-year old boys are better than girls in mathematics (period: 2000-2009).
  • This is true for most countries, although there are countries in which there is no difference between boys and girls, and even a few countries in which girls outperform boys (see below)
  • Unlike what many people think, the degree to which boys outperform girls in mathematics is unrelated to gender equality.
  • The gender gap in mathematics is larger in the rich OECD countries than in the poorer non-OECD countries (note OECD is a cooperation of economically developed countries)
  • Among the poorest performing school children, the gender gap is non-existent or very small.
  • Among the best performing school children, the gender gap is large.
  • There are two high performing boys for every high performing girl.

About the reading gender gap:

  • 15-old girls are better than boys in the understanding of text. This is known as the gender achievement gap in reading.
  • This reading gap is 3x larger than the mathematics gender gap.
  • This is found in all countries, even though there is variation between countries.
  • Countries with a small mathematics gender gap have a larger reading gap. These two gaps are inversely related to one another.
  • The reading gap is growing.
  • The reading gap is largest among the poorest performing children.

A couple of things are really surprising in this study:

  • The mathematics gender gap is not closing as some researchers have been claiming.
  • The mathematics gender gap is not related to gender equality policies.
  • The gender gap in mathematics is particularly large in modern well developed countries, such as most Western countries.
  • The top 3 countries in which girls do better than boys in mathematics are:
  1. Malta
  2. Albania
  3. Qatar

These countries are typically not taken as models of gender equality policies.

  • Countries that are often taken as leaders in gender equality and women’s education, such as the Scandinavian countries have large gender gaps in reading, that is, boys do particularly bad compared to girls.

The bottom line: Gender gaps in school performance continue to exist. Equality policies seem irrelevant for closing the gap. No country has managed to overcome gender gaps, and more research is necessary to find out what exactly is going on.

Links to the study:


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Sex, cognition, and education

Research about sex differences is exciting and important! It is exciting because most people want to know how and why men and women differ in their ways of thinking. It is important, because this research has major implications for education. We know that boys and girls, on average, perform differently in a number of subjects, including mathematics and reading. If we want that boys and girls perform equally, we need to first understand the causes underlying these differences. There is still much work to do, and this blog aims to present and discuss new findings in this area.

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