Bernal Lecture 2020: Fifty Shades of Grey Matter

Clare Samson, Senior Associate Lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Biological Sciences reports on the annual Bernal lecture that was given by Cordelia Fine, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science on Monday 4 February, that explored whether there really is an essentially male and female brain.

photo of head bust printed

Professor J.D. Bernal is remembered for work on the social consequences of science as much as for his ground-breaking research, and these lectures have frequently focused on societal issues. The choice of Cordelia Fine, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Melbourne, Australia as the 2020 lecturer echoes Bernal’s passionate advocacy of women in science; Fine’s choice of title, Fifty Shades of Grey Matter, proved an engaging one. Tickets ran out long before the lecture, which took place on Monday, 4 February 2020; the lecture theatre was packed, and Fine held her audience’s attention throughout.

Fine began by explaining how our 19th-century ancestors viewed the difference between the sexes. Less than 150 years ago, the overwhelming majority accepted that men and women were biologically determined for their different roles. In 1876 a Professor Edward Clarke wrote a best-selling book that suggested that ‘if a woman were to engage in the hard-intellectual labour of higher education, it would divert energy from her [clearly far more important] reproductive system’. Even progressive voices supporting women’s education claimed that it would help them become ‘more interesting wives and better mothers’. Scientific justification for these views often focused on one simple variable: brain size. Since an average male brain is significantly larger than a female one, they argued, one would expect women to be intellectually inferior.

It is easy to argue against that viewpoint, since we are not ruled by elephants or whales. This degree of bias seems bizarre to our ears, yet, as Fine explained, we all – even neurologists and psychologists – look, perhaps unconsciously, through biased lenses. Differences between male and female brains do exist, but they are highly complex and subtle ones. She identified three main biases: androcentrism, in which the masculine view of the world is taken as central; gender polarisation, in which the masculine and the feminine are seen as polar opposites; and biological essentialism, in which traits are seen as innate and biologically (often genetically) determined, rather than arising from both nature and nurture.

Much of the lecture focused on the way in which gender polarisation continues to affect both academic and popular science. This bias is seen in the proliferation of ‘pop psychology’ books, arguing that men are from Mars and women from Venus; that men are like waffles and women like spaghetti; or that there is some innate reason why men don’t listen and women can’t read maps. Academic books setting out reasons for this ‘essential difference’ between male and female brains are still being written, and still sell well.

She presented a case study of a paper in a reputable journal that seemed to show innate differences between the connectivity of male and female brains: that is, the way they are ‘wired’.  According to this paper, female brains have stronger connections between the right and left hemispheres of the brain, while male ones have stronger connections between each hemisphere. Fine noted that although the difference was there, it was a tiny one. All the pairs of ‘bell curves’ showing brain characteristics of the women and men in the study overlapped so greatly that any differences would be described as ‘modest’ at most. No differences justified the word ‘striking’ used in the paper’s title, and no correlations were given with behaviour. Press officers, however, see headlines rather than read graphs. Publication of this paper led to headlines such as ‘Men and women wired like different species – expert’ (New Zealand Times); ‘Yes, each sex is really from a different planet’ (Metro, UK); and even ‘Women crap at parking: official’ (The Register).

Gender polarisation is summed up in the idea of a single scale with ‘100% male’ and ‘100% female’ brains at opposite ends, suggesting that they are opposites and, at times, equating the ‘extreme male brain’ with autistic tendencies. It is possible to take a quiz to position your brain at some point between the ‘systemising’ male brain and the ‘empathising’ female one, but the results can be odd: Fine quoted a colleague who found, on taking the test, that he seemed to have ‘no brain at all’. Even popular psychology makes more sense if ‘systemising’ and ‘empathising’ are seen as different characteristics with no relationship to gender. The idea of men as stereotypically problem-solvers and women as collaborators should be consigned to the past. Each community – including the scientific community – will flourish best when it is diverse, open and able to identify and eliminate bias.

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“We need more women to study computer science and build the future.”

Being a woman with a newborn in a male-dominated subject didn’t stop Camilla Graham Wood from achieving a first in Computing. She shares her story in this interview.

Birkbeck: What made you decide to return to university and study computer science?

Camilla: My decision to study computer science was quite a random one. I have no technical background, no science background. In fact, I’m terrible at maths as well. I think my ignorance as to what studying for a degree in computer science would truly involve was a huge benefit. If I knew what was in store, I’m not sure I would have signed up.

At the time I decided to enrol, I was working in legal aid and the then Justice Minister Chris Grayling’s devastating reforms were completely decimating access to justice. I was chatting with a colleague about our backup plans if we lost our jobs because the cuts were so severe. I thought that I might need another skill in addition to law.

I was listening to various podcasts and in one Sheryl Sandberg said that more women should study computer science, so I thought ok, I’ll give that a go. I looked up evening classes in London and came across Birkbeck. I signed up, got through the entry test, and who would have expected that five years later I’d graduate with a first?

How did you find your course, coming from a Law background?

The course was a shock in many ways. I was one of two or three women in a sea of men. I had no idea what the lecturers were talking about, particularly at the start of each course, so I furiously took detailed notes and then went back over them trying to understand what the hell binary digits were, for example. I remember being totally flummoxed even by the basics. I think that nowadays, with technology so pervasive in our lives, most people have a better base understanding than I did when I commenced my studies.

My legal background meant that I found the more theoretical side of the subject much easier. The practical side, such as Java and PHP were challenging and required a lot of practice. That’s one of the harder things when you’re working full time and have other commitments, is to find the time to go over and over something until you can’t work out why you found it so difficult at the start.

What was it like juggling a career with family life?

My partner has been amazingly supportive: he encouraged me to apply, which was good because it meant he couldn’t complain when for the next five years I spent three nights a week at Birkbeck and most of April to June revising. I think he was more excited when I finished than I was.

I didn’t get pregnant until the end of my course, and with working full-time and studying I was already used to having a limited social life. My baby was born in August, so I was quite heavily pregnant during summer exams. My sister said it was a benefit, as it meant I had two brains. That’s one way of looking at it.

The more amusing time was when I had a newborn and still had lectures to go to. I used to drive to Euston with my newborn in the back, meet my partner there who came from work, he’d drive her home and I’d try and stay awake in the lecture. It was pretty chaotic, but we all made it through. I’m sure a lot of those studying in the evening are balancing multiple things and just trying to keep everything moving forwards.

In that same lecture there was another woman who came with her young daughter. I thought that was far more impressive than what I was doing. What incredible drive to attend lectures and convince your daughter to come along too.

What would you say to women considering studying computer science?

We need more women to study computer science and build the future. It will be to the detriment of society if technologies continue to be developed and built predominantly by white men in California. We need diversity in computer science to ensure that discrimination and exclusion is not exacerbated in the future. We need women from all types of backgrounds to shape the face of technology tomorrow. I saw a lot of women going through the doors of Birkbeck, I hope that in the future more of them go into the Computer Science lectures.

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BEI Breakfast Seminar: work life balance and career penalties in the performing arts

Professor Almuth McDowall led a lively and thought-provoking discussion at the first School of Business, Economics and Informatics Breakfast Seminar of the academic year.

On a crisp, autumnal Monday morning, academics from Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology, were joined by students, colleagues and professionals working in or with an interest in the performing arts for the first BEI Breakfast Seminar of the academic year. Rebecca Whiting hosted the seminar as this links to the department’s wider interest of working with culture, arts and the creative industries.

Professor Almuth McDowall, who was leading the discussion, began by explaining why the performing arts had become a special interest for her department. The performing arts are the largest employer in the arts and culture industry, yet there are many elements of the sector that need to be better understood. Curiously, the sector is notably absent from UK wide employment surveys and statistics such as the Work Employment Relations Survey, especially when it comes to improving work life balance. Work in the performing arts is often cyclical in nature, unpredictable and subsidised by another job to make ends meet. This is a sector where job sharing makes headline news.

Career penalties in the performing arts

Professor McDowall shared the key findings of Balancing Act, a survey carried out by academics from the Department of Organizational Psychology in collaboration with Parents and Carers in the Performing Arts (PiPA). While performing arts professionals are highly engaged at work, there is a toxic mix of high levels of job insecurity with low levels of employability. Of those who were surveyed, 54% didn’t have full time contracts, in contrast to 15% of the general population, and those with caring responsibilities were much less likely to be in full-time, secure roles.

Women were found to be disproportionately affected by precarious working practices than men due to the ‘second shift’: cooking dinner, making sure birthday cards are bought and continuing to ‘work’ in many ways once their paid working day has finished.

Women also suffer a pay penalty in an already low-paid industry; the median part-time earnings of women surveyed were £5,000 less than men, suggesting that they have to rely on social and financial capital outside of work in order to pursue a career in the performing arts.

When it comes to caring responsibilities, 44% of women and 36% of men have had to change their work roles for this reason, for example, by not touring, or choosing not to work in the West End in order to spend more time with the family.

Furthermore, respondents who had left the performing arts industry did so almost unanimously to become a parent, with those able to continue their career relying on their social capital (partners, friends or family) for support.

In an environment that is practically hostile to working parents, 12% of respondents reported facing discrimination and bullying at work, with one survey respondent warning that “[t]he industry will not care for you”.

The case for change

So, Professor McDowall asked the room, is the ‘deal’ in the arts to accept job insecurity? As a woman, should you try to marry rich, since that’s strategically your best career move? Since performing arts workers are ‘lucky’ to be doing a job they love, should they just keep quiet about the downsides?

As an alternative to accepting the status quo, PiPA has developed a best practice charter for the performing arts industry, starting with recruitment. Professor McDowall stressed that practical solutions do not have to be expensive or call for extra resource, they can be as simple as giving performers and backstage workers more notice of future scheduling.

She also called for more research in order to understand the role that social capital plays in the workforce, and how to equip people working in the arts to craft their careers and negotiate a better deal.

The talk was followed by a passionate discussion from industry professionals both seeking support and sharing best practice. In response to a question about the biggest barrier to change, Professor McDowall suggested that organizational culture remains a barrier, and that more work needed to be done to “research into the active ingredients that will promote culture change in the performing arts, as it’s not an industry where there is a lot of time to reflect and take stock.” The demands of the arts simply require that often getting the next production on stage will take priority over more people focused activities.

Far from just accepting the status quo then, the morning ended with positivity that change can be made in the performing arts industry, since, as Professor McDowall put it, “surely there is an onus on the performing arts to better reflect society?”

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STEMing the flow – How can we keep women in STEM subjects?

This post was contributed by Lucy Tallentire, from Birkbeck’s School of Business, Economics and Informatics

stemming-the-flowMuch has been done in recent years to foster girls’ confidence in their abilities in Mathematics and Science, and go for a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). While 33% of the undergraduate course intake across these subjects in the UK is now female, the statistics on retention of female academics in STEM subjects are still far from indicating an even playing field. So does a career in STEM pose specific challenges for women? And what are the challenges when building a STEM career in the university sector?

These questions were among those discussed by guest speaker Professor Ursula Martin, CBE, who joined the Birkbeck TRIGGER team last week to discuss how female academics in STEM can navigate the challenges of a male-dominated sector. The event took the form of a conversation between Professor Martin, of the University of Oxford, and Dr Maitrei Kohli, who recently completed her PhD in the Departments of Computer Science & Information Systems and Psychological Sciences at Birkbeck.

Unconscious Biases

It was quickly agreed that, while a recent surge in opportunities for girls to engage with coding and science is certainly influential, a major responsibility to get more girls into STEM starts at home. Parents and early age role models are more likely to have a restrictive influence on aspiration if they impose social gender stereotypes on toys and activities – Lego and sport versus dolls and dancing. A key thing to consider is the parallels between these stereotypes and the STEM industries; there is an inherent need to first recognise unconscious biases in order to try to avoid them, and that needs to start at an early age.

Both Professor Ursula Martin and Dr Matrei Kohli had parents who encouraged them to develop their own interests. Dr Kohli, originally from India, went to a school which offered computing alongside other extra-curricular options such as music and dance. With parental support, she learned about computer science through basic exercises and play, and never saw herself as different to her male classmates. By contrast, Professor Martin had no access to science outside of her prescribed schooling:

“I went to a school where maths and physics were taught poorly. But before we took our GCSE equivalent exams, we got a new, much younger teacher who was an inspiration to many of us. There is certainly something to be said for motivating the next generation from a young age – you can’t re-educate girls of 13 to like a subject they have been put off from age three!”

The need for change

The low number of female professors of Computer Science in the UK begins with the low numbers of women studying the subject at university – less than 20%. However, while more and more girls are starting degrees in STEM subjects, women are still under-represented at professorial levels in all STEM disciplines, typically at 17%. This varies between disciplines and in computer science the current average is just 10%. This demonstrates a need for changes in universities so as to encourage more women to embark on and progress with a career in academia:

“There are a lot of different incentives for women to work in higher education, but more changes need to be made. For example, if a university board requires a female professorial representative, that woman is chosen from a much smaller pool of professors and adds an extra burden to their workload. This bias is also present at conferences and events, where women are not as well represented – but surely we should be encouraging careful work on a few very good papers rather than working frantically to present something new.”

After an insightful conversation, Professor Martin was asked what advice she would offer to the female researchers and PhD students in STEM, hoping to progress in their academic careers. Her answer: passion, hard work and confidence.

“There are challenges to every work-life balance and the important thing is to adjust, and make room for your passion and curiosity. There could not be a more interesting field – try to think of an area of work devoid of computers. Do not be put off by gloomy statistics; research in STEM is to be cherished as an interesting endeavour, and we must do more to promote it as an equal opportunity wherever and to whomever we can.”

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