Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Real Women

From a comment on the previous post:

I think it depends on what research you believe. My impression is that the quantitative sciences have shown more and more, in recent years, that men and women do show some differences on average, for example, in studies of how and when cortisol is released in the stress response (ref. Marianne Legato), in styles of map navigation or spatial rotation and linguistic abilities, brain scans of men and women performing the same task, to name a few that come to mind.

Like you said, L. Wu, I think it depends on what research you believe. While studies do show that grown men and women have different brain mappings, I don't think that really proves much. It has been suggested that hormones have an effect on brain development. It has been suggested that estrogen promotes mental skills while testosterone promotes better spatial skills. Still, studies on the brain show that there is a "use it or lose it" notion. Babies are born with twice the synapses needed in the brain. As the brain develops, neurons and synapses hook together to develop specific skills and abilities in humans. How these connections are made is still unknown, but due to this overdevelopment of synapses, there is synaptic pruning that takes place until the age of two. This pruning leaves only the fittest synapses in place. By the age of three, boys and girls can identify persons of the other gender, and by age 5 they have a very strong idea of what activities are for boys and which are for girls. Do boys play with trucks because they have a stronger spatial ability and are therefore attracted to trucks? Or do boys play with trucks because mom and dad give them trucks which leads to improved spatial ability? I think what I said before still stands. Men and women are different. We don't know exactly why. I'll admit, given my perspective as a female scientist, that I am more willing to believe that men and women are not wired differently, because I stand here as living proof that women can do men's work.

Something that many of the women in science fields talk about is the "Charlatan Effect" or feeling "like a fraud." They say things like,

Any minute now, they are going to figure out I don't belong here.


I wonder when they'll figure out that I'm a complete idiot and don't belong here.

In part, we feel that we don't belong in science because we are women, but as my friend H. has recently pointed out, "we aren't real women either." We code, we test specimens, we integrate, we derive, we induct, we recurse, we prove, we analyze. We don't own purses, we don't wear heels, we don't wear makeup, we don't like shopping, we don't scrapbook, we don't mother.

Which begs the question, what is a real woman? I was trying to gather up an image of a "real woman" today and could think of only Reese Witherspoon. She's beautiful. She's graceful. She has a successful career. She is a mother. She is blonde. But because I'm not Reese Witherspoon (or behave in any way that exhibits Reese Witherspooness), does that mean I am not a real woman? Like most women, I loathe my body, but unlike most women, I don't wear makeup. Like most women, I cry irrationally during my period, but unlike most women, I haven't worn a skirt in months. These are silly juxtapositions, but it asks an important question. How many women identify themselves as "real women?"

We've been taught that gender is binary. A person is a girl or a boy. There is nothing in between. But like Kinsey introduced with his measure of sexuality, my friend H. suggests that there is also a gradient of gender. A person can have elements of male or female, despite their ovaries or scrotum. A person can be more male or more female than his or her peers. While, my perspective is much different from that of L. Wu, together we are two women who challenge a huge
majority of the stereotypes of women. I am a woman in a "man's field." L. Wu identifies as a woman. In a way, I think that L. Wu and I are making the same point. Neither of us are "real women," (whatever the hell that even means) but we are women all the same.


L. Wu said...

I think people focus on trucks vs. barbies too much, but my understanding is that when people try to give their children supposedly gender neutral toys to pick from, the children tend to make choices that fall neatly into the socially expected clumps anyway, for the most part.

Of course, there's a whole world of socialization, implicit and explicit, beyond the gender normative and judgmental exploits of a certain Santa, and so it's hard to tease apart these strands of influence.

I don't think that all men are wired one way and all women are wired another way -- there's just too much diversity for that -- but for most people, a first order approximation is good enough, and this tends to marginalize anyone that doesn't classify easily into the gender binary wrt social role, physicality, or identity.

This does make me think, is there a word for people who challenge the social role aspect of the gender binary? People who identify as genderqueer or trans may also challenge this other aspect, but when I think about it now, I'm not really sure there is a word that describes only this.

People tend to conflate social role with sexuality, so those words and former slurs are not of much help. But if there were a word or phrase, maybe we wouldn't mind describing ourselves as such.

As for "Reese Witherspoon", is she a real woman or an ideal woman in the Western world? Most women in the world are not blonde. Most women in the world are poor and perhaps live in Asia or Africa...

DC said...

I always feel weird when you use a quote like "Any minute now, they are going to figure out I don't belong here." as a woman-in-a-man's-world quote. These are things that I also hear from men in the exact same world. I don't think you're doing this, but it comes across like you're marginalizing the fact that men feel this exact same way in order to make your point. In other words, you're putting up an exact quote of what I've said many times or that I've heard other males say many times in the exact context you're describing and using it as evidence for some gender difference.

Don't get me wrong, I don't claim to know what it's like to be a woman (any more than you claim to know what it's like to be a man), but I do sometimes speculate that the problems that I hear about aren't as gender-specific as they're made out to be. For example, we've heard statistics in our department about the extremely low number of women - but we've also heard of extremely high dropout rates - and those are (necessarily due to the previous statistic) men.

Anyway, I think this is getting further and further from the point of what I'm commenting on so I'll end. Keep up the thought-inspiring (and controversy-inspiring?) posts.

emwc said...

Well, from my perspective, that first order approximation is what gets me each time. In places where anyone who is there is generally challenging the gender roles (such as women in a CS department), I feel as though I am constantly having difficulties. Maybe this is the reason I tend to think we should be more careful about drawing those distinctions at all. It's just frustrating when you constantly are fighting against it, which is why I'd prefer the generalizations not be there. But I can see what you are saying - those approximations do work for most people. I guess my question is - is that good enough, or do we need to be more careful and specific with our generalizations at all?

As far as guy grad students, it's true - I do hear guys in graduate school say they don't feel as though they fit in. But in the sciences, I seem to hear it from all the women, and only from some of the men. The only people I'd classify as confident in their right to be there are men, so it stands out more. Maybe this is just because there more of them - I don't really know.

As far as CS departments, yes, more men drop out than women. But (at least in most departments, from the statistics I have read) the ratio of women dropping out is higher. In my undergrad CS department, I think the dropout rate amoung undergrads was 40% with the men and closer to 60% with the women. So the women come in fewer numbers, and then don't stay. Ironically, they also dropped out with higher GPAs. Seems like there is definitely a disparity there.

L. Wu said...

emwc, you ask if we should be more careful with our generalizations, and I'm not sure how to think about that. First-order approximations are how most people seem to think, and it seems rarely effective to ask people to be more "careful" as people are great learners but terrible un-learners.

emwc also points out that women in CS sometimes leave the major in spite of their high grades, and my understanding from reading various CMU reports -- see -- is that it's reasonable to guess that male and female students do tend to interpret and self-assess their experiences and ability differently, given similar quantitative test scores.