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Scientific sexism | Final girl

The use of science to justify sexism is a practice nearly as old as science itself. In 1887, biologist George J. Romanes noted that, “seeing the average brain-weight of women is about five ounces less than that of men … we should be prepared to expect a marked inferiority of intellectual power in [women].” 

But are Romanes’ conclusions really believable? What if they were backed with MRIs, statistical analyses and published research?

Haley Alvarez-Lauto | Senior Graphic Artist

University of Pennsylvania neuroscientists Ruben and Raquel Gur theorize that men are superior to women at spatial reasoning because of a neurophysiological difference. In Gurs’ study, those who performed the best on a spatial reasoning task were men with the largest volumes of white matter the myelin insulation coating axons that speeds up neural signaling in comparison to all of the female participants. 

Gurs’ reasoning is that large volumes of white matter are a “requirement” for complex spatial processing such as those used in math and physics which, in one sense, would unfortunately imply that us girls aren’t destined for a career in STEM. The Gurs discussed these results in a book, “Why Aren’t Women In Science?” The central claim of their work asserts that women make up a minority of scientists because, neurobiologically, they aren’t built for it. 

This methodology is not only erroneous — it’s dangerous. Women aren’t in science not because they can’t be it’s because they’re told they can’t be. 

Claims like these are how scientific spaces become male-dominated. This is how bioessentialism is perpetuated as a marker of sexism and transphobia. Although the Gurs warned that “correlations could be spurious,” it is still irresponsible to speculate such bold conclusions as a professional.

A century of scientific thought separates Romanes and the Gurs, and yet their conclusions are eerily similar. Both perceive a difference between male and female neuroanatomy and infer psychological function from it. 

How does skull size signal intelligence, or white matter volume equate to spatial reasoning? It’s the same faulty logic as seeing a 1969 NASA computer, which weighed 70 pounds, and inferring that it’s a much more powerful device than a tiny iPhone when, in actuality, the iPhone is millions of times faster. It’s a fallacy to think that a biological difference in male and female brains explains a significant difference in behavior or capacity. To purport such an explanation, scientific reasoning must go a step further and show that this functional or structural difference has an effect on ability. 

Countless “gender difference” studies make claims based on fallacies with no evidence of actual effect, he conclusions don’t follow the science. The conclusions are predetermined, and the science is meant to justify them. 

The idea that women are worse at spatial tasks, more emotional or any sexist prejudice is the status quo in our world. Researchers internalize these stereotypes and conduct studies to justify them, which calls into question the validity of their methodology altogether. 

I want to clarify that I’m not saying there’s zero neurophysiological differences between the two sexes,  but we can look to other explanations for these observed differences without relying on prejudice. 

Science has epistemic and sociopolitical power, but it’s not value-neutral. You may think of it as an impartial truth, but at its core science is influenced by our biases, preconceptions and stereotypes. 

Unfortunately, even science can be sexist.

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