The gender-math gap debate is an academic discourse drawing largely from neuroscience research. Research in this field has been geared towards identifying the origins behind the observation that more men than women are represented in top level scientific research in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects. For the past four decades, neuroscientists have typically provided researchers and policy makers with ’hard data’ that supposedly give biological and cultural justifications for why men do better than women in these subjects. An experiment that has been used by researchers to analyze mental acuity with regard to mathematical aptitude in males and females is the Mental Rotation Task (MRT) introduced in 1971 by Shepard and Metzler. The MRT measures visuo-spatial abilities. Despite the fact that this experiment was originally designed to test the relationship of mental processes to reaction time and task difficulty, contemporary discourse holds it as the authority in linking abstract thinking to intellectual capacity. Neuroscientists have claimed that visuo-spatial skills are utilized in academic subjects like mathematics (Burnett, Lane, & Dratt, 1979), chemistry (Barke, 1993), computer sciences (Norman, 1994), engineering (Sorby, Leopold, & Go´rska, 1999) and other careers where abstract thinking is required; academic programmes in which the largest sex segregation can be observed (Meinholdt & Murray, 1999; Vetter & Babco, 1986; White, 1985). The aim of my research has been to examine through empirical research the process through which gender/sex differences in cognitive abilities are established. In contrast to medical and biological disciplines that understand physical characteristics, i.e. the difference in genitalia, as the absolute determinant for a person’s gender/sex, I adopt the gender studies perspective that identifies the political nature of gender/sex demarcations, pointing out that intellectual attributions should not rest on physical characteristics. I argue that cognitive differences are based on the legislation of power and pre- defined norms that allow certain bodies to be interpreted in a manner that reflects their societally assigned roles. The terminology ‘gender/sex’ that I use here embodies the understanding that even biological sex, is malleable, changeable, and ‘do-able’ just as gender is (Butler 1990). The question of how ‘difference’ is conceptualized forms a central theme in this research. Following the multidimensional focus of this research, the project was broken down into three working packages. The first part of the project took me into the laboratory where I examined processes that enable the tangibility of gender/sex, i.e. the making gender/sex ‘visible’ and objectifiable in neuroscience labs for evaluation. To accomplish this, I observed the workings of neuroscientists as they evaluated the role of gender/sex in psychological performance in a kinematic task. The second working package traced the contextualization and origins of the gender-math debate. Here I examined the process through which these contexts shape laboratory work. I discuss the articulation of prevailing historical social and political contexts through empirical work. Empirical research is discussed here as an aspect of the moral economy that embodies and mirrors popular discourse against a background of power relations. In the third working package I study the transfer of social ideas and values about gender/sex difference into actual empirical outcomes. The process through which ideology explaining how and as what women/men are to be characterized becomes embodied in the outcome of laboratory results, resulting in the naturalization of social attributes is discussed explicitly. I argue that the neuroscientists’ understanding of the concept of gender/sex is limited to what is conciliatory to social and political power positioning, i.e. without room to examine how power relations shape the expression of gender/sex. WORKING PACKAGES I. EXPERIMENTING WITH GENDER: How science constructs difference International Journal of Gender, Science and Technology, Vol 4(1): 48-61 Kuria, E.N. 2012 This first package analyzed the role of experimentation in materializing gender/sex in the laboratories. Here I examined the role of experiments in establishing the existence of gender/sex differences in psychological performance. I demonstrated that establishing cognitive differences is not (at all) a straight forward process that results from simple observation as might be assumed. Creating and visualizing difference as a tangible, consistent and measurable variable is a technical collaborative process that involves a set of props in the form of organized activities, tools, closed terminologies and technologies. It is a process that carefully assigns meaning to abstractions onto laboratory tools and components. I argue that the understanding of gender/sex difference as a simple outcome of empirical research has resulted from “blackboxing”. Blackboxing (Latour, 1999) refers to the veiling-up or closure of the processes that hypothesis go through before they become accepted and integrated into the ‘thought collective’ (Fleck, 1981) of the scientific community. This segment of my research explored the constructedness of gender/sex differences in psychological performance. Perspectives from three disciplines namely neuroscience research, science studies research and gender studies research were implemented. Here, a kinematic experiment that evaluated the influence of gender/sex attributions in psychological performance was analyzed. In the kinematic experiment examined in this package, females and males were enrolled for the task through announcements that were posted all over the university campus. Participants enrolled themselves and received a small monetary fee for taking part. Once they were in the laboratory, their name and age were requested, but they were not usually asked about their gender/sex. In general, the experimenter made the judgement of the participant’s gender/sex based on visual cues like clothing and physical appearance, i.e. body structure. Here, gender/sex difference in intellectual performance is neither straight-forward nor obvious. Data has to be collected along physical demarcations that the experimenter sets from the onset of the experiment. This specific intervention by the scientist becomes part of normal lab practice that is often not open for scrutiny or debate, shedding some light on aspects of the blackbox. The intangibility of gender/sex and the need for physical transformations is also another aspect of the blackbox discussed. The readability of data within an experimental system (Latour, 1999; 24-79) like the kinematic task examined in this section requires the implementation of tools (i.e. table, computer, cameras, and infrared markers) and technology (ELIGRASP system) that map observations onto new reference frames. Gender/sex differences in this sense are not readily available for examination, and have to be mined through organized procedures with assigned meanings. To illustrate this point, I discuss the doing of gender/sex in this experiment. First infrared markers attached to the participant’s thumb, index and wrist. Kinematic motion of the hand was captured and traced by cameras at the four corners of the table using the ELIGRASP software system. The cameras transformed the marker’s motion into cardinal points on a virtual 3D grid on a computer grid shown in the figure below. Neither the computer nor the cameras could tell the gender/sex of the participants carrying out the task, so the experimenter had to catalogue the observations i.e. same-sex, opposite-sex and neutral interactions, thus giving gendered meanings to the data harnessed. Finally, I illustrate that difference does not emerge as the outcome of the experiment, but as a substance of the discourse created around the specific experimental paradigm. Articulating gender/sex difference from laboratory work requires specific scientific contexts that carry common understandings and shared knowledge. For example, outcomes reported in this experiment became relevant only in the context of previous research in the field that explained how kinematic results are to be interpreted. These already stated outcomes dictated where difference was to be sought. They also provided the relevant meanings for the outcomes legible from the above-named experimental system. I discuss the experimental system as the structure that makes the activities around validating a concept become invisible including the scientist’s active engagement in introducing implicit selectiveness into the experimental system, hence blackboxing. II. Rethinking Gender Politics in Laboratories and Neuroscience research: The case of spatial abilities in Math performance. Medicine Studies, 3(2): 117-123 Kuria, E.N, Hess, V. 2011. The second section of the three working packages analyzed the culturally rooted context within which research in neuroscience regarding gender/sex disparities in STEM subjects finds itself. Neuroscience research does acknowledge the role of upbringing, training and context in shaping individual intellectual performance. These discussions however do not extend to how social contexts also shape laboratory work and results. In fact, not much research has been carried out to point the exact influences of macro-power structures on the field (of neuroscience) itself. My research takes on this challenge and argues that the broader androcentric Western societal context, for example the fact that women had been locked out of scientific activity for centuries, organizes and shapes scientific discourse. In this section, the evolution of the Mental Rotation Task MRT is examined as a tool that highlights the evaluation of sex/gender difference in intellectual performance specific to the gender-math gap within the wider social context. Highlighted are the contradictions that surround the interpretation of the origins of difference as well as various factors that directly affect outcomes. A feminist perspective is utilized to discuss power structures and analyze what neuroscientists refer to as ‘social influences’ in evaluating the interpretation and meaning of results demonstrating difference in intellectual performance. Dominant preconceptions placing women’s intellectual capacity below that of men existed even before empirical research on the subject. Paul Broca , a prominent physician, anatomist and anthropologist whose publications irrevocably shaped the focus of cognitive neuroscience by proving that cognitive function could be localized to distinct brain regions had the following to say about gender/sex difference: “On average, the brain mass is larger in men than in women, in clever men than in ordinary ones, and in superior races than in inferior ones . . . There is an obvious relationship between intelligence and brain volume” (Broca, 1861). Broca went on to carry out several experiments weighing the masses of male and female brains in order to empirically demonstrate his hypothesis. The relationship between brain mass and function has long been disproved, but Broca’s notions indicate the conceptualizations of gender/sex that confronted cognitive neuroscience at its inception. Theoretical considerations such as these were the basis upon which man and woman, gender/sex were understood and investigated at the turn of the 20th century. Following this background, this section of the thesis explicitly argues that scientific research on gender/sex reflects social and political ideologies in its theory and practice as Ebeling and Schmitz (2006) elegantly demonstrate. It is also demonstrated that cognitive differences are not stable, and they are not fixed to any gender/sex, but rather, they are contextual, flexible and changeable. Dar-Nimrod and Heine (2006) for example show that belief and attitudes regarding gender/sex differences in math ability shape intellectual performance in test settings: Women who are presented with evidence for no gender differences in math performance during the MRT outperform women who are convinced that there are either negative stereotypes or genetic reasons related to women’s performance in math subjects (Coleman and Hong 2008). Feng et al. (2007) demonstrate that spatial skills can be improved through training, thus challenging any assumptions that might suggest that difference is located in the biological structure of the brain. I conclude this segment by demonstrating the role of power in shaping cognitive performance. The research outcomes of Gneezy et al. (2003) demonstrate a relationship between power and the enactment of gender. In their work, women’s competitive attitudes within a patriarchal system versus a matriarchal system (e.g. the Khasi in India) were examined. Results demonstrated that women were not competitive towards men within patriarchal systems, but they competed actively against other women. Within matriarchal societies, the opposite pattern was observed where women were more competitive in general than men (Gneezy et al. 2009). This interdependence of competitive attitudes with (political) power structures within communities of people introduces interesting considerations that directly link our claim for the intersection of gender, science and power. Guiso and colleagues (2008) have also confirmed a positive correlation between gender equality and the gender-gap in mathematics i.e. its disappearance in more power balanced communities like Norway and Sweden. They forward social–political–cultural factors and power relations as sufficient conditions for shaping cognitive performance. The reader will also note that women are often measured against the background of the male (norm) who is often reported to demonstrate no significant changes in attitude or aptitude with changing social contexts. This is another aspect of gender/sex research in psychological performance that is contested in this research. III. Los desafíos de la investigación de género en neurociencia. Perspectivas Bioéticas, Nº30: 62-84. Kuria, E. 2011. The third working package examined the transfer of gender/sex social attributes from the powerstructured context discussed in section II into laboratory results. This section discusses various challenges under the sub-topics: terminology and inclusion (i.e. which bodies/brains are seen to be male or female, which others are excluded?), naturalization, extrapolation (borrowing research from animal studies), ideology, stereotyping as well as ambiguity in the definition of ‘difference’, i.e. is difference in the anatomy of the brain, or in the technique utilized for problem solving, or in the neural network engaged in the task? Following these demarcations, I studied the process that enables the naturalization and absorption of gender/sex socialized notions of difference into cognitive facilities in the context of neuroscience research within a framework that is informed by feminist empiricism. I draw attention to the fact that current research explaining disparities in access to power and resources are established by obscuring the influence of socially instituted gender/sex distinctions. The following example demonstrates how this evaluation is achieved: Wang et al. (2007: 228) present an experiment that examined gender- specific neural circuitry of psychological stress. Perfusion-based fMRI was utilized in the measurement of cerebral blood flow responses to stress in 32 healthy people (16 males and 16 females). Psychological stress was elicited by means of mental arithmetic tasks under varying levels of psychological pressure to perform. Researchers report that men activated the left orbitofrontal cortex which is implicated to the ‘fight or flight’ response, while women activated the ventral striatum, putamen, insula and cingulate cortex which form part of the limbic system. The researchers’ interpretation and discussion of these results clearly reflect the background upon which difference is examined. The outcomes were discussed in line with the evolutionary theory that acknowledges a ‘fight or flight’ as the acceptable reaction for a stressful situation. Difference in physiological stress response is linked to women’s performance, and researchers explain this difference by citing women’s care-giving and nurturing roles. Giving birth is the important attribute cited to explains this ‘female’ psychological reaction, and the examiners support this claim by stating that these attributes and behaviours are ‘especially mediated by oxytocin’. Problematic in this discussion is the linking of the limbic system to emotion, to care- giving needs, to female reproduction and biology. This results in the naturalization of social-cultural gender/sex roles that are implicated as implicit mediators of the functioning of the brain in important gender/sex demarcated ways, demonstrating the manner in which social and political positioning about what it means to be female or male are made relevant for psychological performance. This philosophy is echoed in economic studies that suggest that men make better economic choices (because they are rational ) compared to women under similar conditions who are reported to engage with their emotion (Van Vugt, De Cremer & Janssen, 2007). These elucidations demonstrate the modern reconstruction of difference that integrates social roles and females’ and males’ cultural experience into biological brain matter. Several prominent neuroscientists including Cordelia Fine (2010) in ‘Delusions of Gender’ and Anne Fausto-Sterling (2000) in ‘Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality’ have criticized this logic that builds on the idea that the ability to carry offspring affects how female species relate with the world around them in significant ways. CONCLUSION The outcomes of this research are as follows. I succeed in exhibiting the physical process of constructing and making gender/sex difference materialize in the laboratory by examining actual empirical work. This neuroscience-based ethnographic research is amongst the first of its kind on the subject of gender/sex difference. I demonstrate that gender/sex difference in cognitive ability are distinctions that are embodied within a specific body of knowledge, and a specific scientific ‘thought collective’ that construct it. Difference is enabled by pre-conceptions of what and who man/woman is, and the outcome of empirical research in neuroscience is a reflection of these pre- conceptions. This thesis has set about to expose the relationship of socially constructed conceptualizations of gender/sex difference to scientific observations made in laboratory work, and arguments presented within the Western global context. This project contributes to the growing body of knowledge in the newly emerging sub disciplines of critical neuroscience, neuroethics and philosophy of neuroscience research that are now discrediting the neutrality of neuroscientific research by demanding a multidisciplinary approach and mutual exchanges of subject areas that have especially long been studied by other existing disciplines. IMPLICATIONS Student achievement in STEM subjects has come under the lens of academics, mainly due to the historical disparities in these subjects. The implications of gender/sex research are far-reaching and demand a balanced perspective on the part of policymakers whose role is to translate empirically presented results into executable action plans. Although the proportion of women in STEM subjects has increased, women scientists in Europe remain a minority (SHE figures 2009) with most women dropping out of science before they can fill the top jobs. According to Sadker and Sadker (1995), policy and legislation have influenced women’s occupational choices. In the 1960s for example, their vocational choices were restricted to secretarial, nursing and teaching careers, or motherhood. In a study evaluating gender/sex differences at critical transitions in STEM Careers, the National Research Council (2010) affirmed that explicitly encouraging the hiring, promotion and tenure of women into STEM and medicine careers, including the allocation of institutional resources will substantially address the inequities identified. I further argue that additional caution by neuroscientists who are wary of the consequences of stereotyping and prejudices in their own research can further mitigate the gap, especially because there is a new move by educational psychologists to implement neuroscientifically-based outcomes to guide educational decisions regarding teaching, learning approaches, strategies, and interventions. Policy-makers seeking to narrow the gender-gap in science should consider (even demand) the intellectual exchange between relevant stake-holders and cross-border interactions among disciplines already engaged in the subject, e.g. gender studies and feminist material. This could open up spaces for new ways of thinking about difference, and perhaps provide alternative ways of addressing the issues concerned.
Um die ungleiche Verteilung von Männern und Frauen in naturwissenschaftlichen, ingenieurswissenschaftlichen, technologischen und mathematischen Fächern zu diskutieren, werden zunehmend Erkenntnisse aus neurowissenschaftlicher Forschung herangezogen. Insbesondere auf dem Gebiet der educational neuroscience wurden empirische Ergebnisse über kognitive Geschlechterdifferenzen implementiert, deren ethische Relevanz kontrovers diskutiert wird. Die zentrale Fragestellung meiner Dissertation liegt darin auszuloten, auf welche Weise die Neurowissenschaften diese Differenz erklärt. Ausgehend von einer Perspektive der Wissenschaftsforschung zeige ich, wie Geschlechterdifferenzierungen im Labor hervorgebracht werden und welche Rolle dabei auch Versuchsanordnungen und die eingesetzten Werkzeuge spielen. Indem ich Arbeiten aus den Gender Studies vergleichend heranziehe, analysiere ich diese Situationen als geprägt von spezifischen Machtbeziehungen, die Geschlechterdifferenzierungen hervorbringen. Besonders beleuchtet wird dabei, wie das subjektive Verständnis über Geschlechterdifferenzierung von Wissenschaftler_Innen die Verfahren im Labor und die Interpretation der Bedeutung der Ergebnisse beeinflusst. Meine Forschung habe ich in drei arbeitschritte organisiert. Erstens habe ich im Labor Prozesse [ethnographisch] untersucht, welche die „Greifbarkeit“ beziehungsweise Konkretisierung von Geschlechterdifferenzen hervorbringen, mit anderen Worten: die Sichtbarmachung und Objektivierung von Geschlechterdifferenz in neurowissenschaftlichen Laboren. Zweitens bin ich mit einer diskursanalytischen Methode den Ursprüngen der gender math debate in den Neurowissenschaften gefolgt und habe ihre soziale Kontextualisierung analysiert. Hier diskutiere ich die empirische Forschung als den Aspekt einer “moralischen Ökonomie” die weitverbreitete Diskurse der Geschlechterdifferenzierung widerspiegelt. Drittens gehe ich dem Transfer von Ideen und Werten über Geschlechterdifferenzen in neurowissenschaftlichen Fachartikeln nach. Die Rolle des sozialen Kontexts, in dem diese Versuche stattfinden, wird betont, um eine kritische Position zum Verständnis von Wissenschaftler_Innen zu Geschlechterdifferenzierung und den darunterliegenden Hypothesen zu entwickeln. Meine Arbeit zeigt, dass Geschlechterdifferenz nichts Gegebenes ist, sondern dass das Auffinden von geschlechterspezifischer kognitiver Performance nur durch ein kontextualisiertes Verständnis von Geschlechterdifferenz möglich wurde. Darüber hinaus zeigt meine Studie die politische Notwendigkeit einer ausbalancierten Perspektive für Gesetzgebung, Pädagogik und Psychologie, wenn wissenschaftlich gewonnene Daten Eingang in relevante Entscheidungen über das Bildungssystem und Lehrstrategien finden. Aus historischer und globaler Perspektive können solche Interventionen eine bessere Einbeziehung von Frauen in die Naturwissenschaft und Mathematik bewirken.