Gender Science of Children Appears to be Contradictory

It’s been ages since I’ve written anything on here, I’ve been so busy I just haven’t had the time. So here’s something to get the brain cells working again…
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I’m not a scientist in the true sense of the word, although as an engineer there’s a large overlap. While engineering largely deals with non-living things (and that includes dealing with accountants), we do have to design things that are used by humans, so having an insight into human behaviour and physiology is important. The science behind human behaviour is understandably complex and difficult to garner definitive conclusions from as the human brain is the most complex single organism we know and there’s such a variety of different people. So it is not surprise that studies of aspects of behaviour can reveal contradictory results.

I’d written in another one of my blog posts (Women in Engineering) about the lack of women in engineering and what we can do about it, so the differences in gender behaviour interests me, but seems filled with conflicting views and evidence. As a father to two young children, a boy and a girl, I also observe differences close up, but obviously with a smaller sample size.

Examples of Contradictory Views

A few months ago the BBC ran a short series called ‘No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?’ which tried to dispel myths and assumptions about the differences between girls and boys of primary school age. It found that a lot of behaviour is based around parents, carers and teachers pigeon-holing children based on their gender in terms of expectation of their behaviour. For example, giving dolls to girls and toy cars to boys. The general conclusion was that the differences in behaviour between boys and girls was purely down to external influences (i.e. nurture) and that if adults treated boys and girls identically, then they’ll behave the same.

To demonstrate a different viewpoint, I recently came across this article in the Guardian: “A child’s gender can be detected in their speech from age five, research says”. Not only does it mention gender differences, but throws in some questions about sexuality too. Of course, these are favourite topics for the Guardian, although this article goes largely against the typical Guardian viewpoint I feel. In this article the development of speech is indicated as a differentiator of gender and sexuality.

Surely both positions can’t be correct? It is worth saying they are looking at slightly different areas of behaviour. The BBC programme is looking at higher level activities such as playing with toys, physical and mental tasks, and basically the sort of things you’ll do at school. The Guardian article is looking at lower level behaviour such as clothing preferences, approaches to play and social behaviour. But there is a big overlap, so they both can’t be right. How much of it really is nurture and how much is nature?

My Experiences

They say an anecdote isn’t data, and of course one example doesn’t prove a rule. However, being a parent of two school children, I do observe their friends, talk to other parents and teachers. So there is quite a lot of information about variety of children to tap into.

The Guardian article discusses the differences in speech development as an indicator, and it is something I have noticed myself. My son’s speech is quite a long way behind my daughter’s, possible a couple of years in terms of development. I’ve also noticed it with their friends, most of the girls are far more articulate than the boys at the same age. Naturally there’s quite a spread within each group, so there is always going to be an overlap.

The teachers I meet are aware of these differences too. When I remark about my son’s development, they say that’s typical for boys and they progress at a different rate from girls, and there’s nothing to worry about. These teachers would have observed hundreds of children in their careers, so I’m not going to argue with their observations. However, the BBC programme suggests that teachers often unconsciously stereotype girls and boys and treat them differently, leading to these differences. I’m not so sure as I’ve observed children before school age, and the differences in speech development have been quite clear then.

As for other types of behaviour, I also see clear difference between the genders, but not for everything. My kids have been to plenty of birthday parties, and while I tend to steer clear of the party itself (there’s only so many times I can put up with Gangnam Style blearing out of a kids’ disco), I can see how they play when I need to collect them. From the age of about 6, girls and boys tend to separate out into two groups. The boys will be running around for more raucously, being far more physical. Whereas the girls might be dancing, chatting amongst themselves, or playing less physical games. The noise levels of both groups can vary a lot though, and that really does seem to down to individuals. Nobody it telling them how to play, and they can’t pick this up from watching adults, as they aren’t going to see us old farts partying, so it is largely self-determined action.

For higher level activity, such as playing with toys and games, and others interests, I see less of a difference. Both my children love playing with Lego (to American readers: Lego never has an ‘s’ on the end!), even though the sets a often gender-steered these days. They are both keen to help me cooking in the kitchen, and take an interest in how things work. There are slight differences, my daughter does sometimes play with her doll’s house, but that isn’t so different from my son playing with action figures. However, the action figures are often doing aggressive heroic things, whereas the dolls are doing more homely tasks; so there’s some clear differences there.

I certainly avoid pigeon-holing their play and interests along gender lines, and try to expose both of them to the same things. But I’ll never force them into something they aren’t interested in, and I do see some differences, but not as many as you may expect. For example, my daughter is keen on computers, whereas my son enjoys baking (although I think it is just an excuse to eat lots of cakes); so they don’t sit in the stereotypes too much. But their style of play is quite different, and distinctively genderised. If they are both playing with Lego, she’ll make a house with realistic features with the figures doing domestic things; whereas my son will be making some mad fantasy android monster thing with weapons and special powers. I’ve certainly never steering them myself towards these styles of play, but how much of that is down to their basic nature, and how much from influences such as TV and friends?

Gender Dysphoria

Gender Dysphoria or Gender Identity Disorder (GID) is where a person feels as if their gender does not match their biological sex. So you might be born a boy, but feel like you are really a girl. Eventually people who have GID can opt to have some transitional surgery and treatment to change sex. The most famous example is former Olympic Decathlete Bruce Jenner turning into reality TV celebrity Caitlin Jenner. Turning from a respected Olympian surround by talented athletes into a reality TV star surround by talentless fame-seekers must have been psychologically difficult to deal with.

If we watched the BBC programme, we could draw the conclusion that boys and girls are the same, and their behaviour is purely down to nurture and how society expects them to behave. If this is the case, then surely GID can’t exist? How can a boy feel like he’s really a girl, when there’s no such thing as ‘female behaviour’? So even with the most gender-neutral upbringing possible would GID exist? The Guardian’s article clearly suggests GID is a thing, and when boys exhibit speech characteristics of girls, then they may have a higher chance of having GID. So where does the truth lie?

My View

Given the evidence I’ve seen from these articles and from my own observations, boys and girls do develop at different rates with different behaviour and broad interests. However, these characteristics have a wide spread for each gender, and there is plenty of scope for movement within those spreads. It is only at the extremes do we notice unusual patterns, and this is probably where GID children fall into. Where society plays a role is in polarising those slight differences and making them large. Whereas naturally there would be a large overlap between boys and girls, the outside world forces the two apart. To get a fairer society where boys and girls can be comfortable being themselves, and not feeling they have to conform to stereotypes, we have to remove this gap and allow the overlap to occur. This will also make it easier for those who are confused over their gender identity and sexuality and allow them to have self-confidence and encourage tolerance from others.

I also think there’s a long way to go in the science of gender and how it relates to behaviour and mental attributes. There’s too many contradictory conclusions out there, and politics often pollutes the research. The media also needs to improve in terms of reporting, and not let subjective views of journalists get in the way of objective reporting. It would be good to have science reporters with an actual background in the subject too.

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Women in Engineering

I’ve been in engineering for a quarter of a century now, and have worked in a number of places, both large and small. I’ve also spent time attending conferences, meetings and workshops; and, of course my career started after attending University. Over all that time there has been a distinct lack of women in the field. Without having exact figures to hand, I would say it has varied between 20% at best and zero at worst in all those different situations.
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Can We Blame Engineers?

Clearly there’s a problem somewhere if there’s such a lack of women in engineering. I’ve never met a single male engineer who doesn’t want more women working with them. OK, there’s a lot of engineers who don’t want anyone else working with them, but they don’t discriminate when it comes to being anti-social. Even amongst my most lewd and politically-incorrect colleagues I’ve never met one who thinks women aren’t capable of doing the job. So I’ve seen very little evidence that the workplace and engineers themselves are off-putting to women. However, perceptions may differ from reality when looking from the outside. The media often portrays engineers as socially inept, introverted, either huddled over a computer, or getting themselves dirty on machinery. While there might be some elements of truth in any stereotype, engineers do come from a range of backgrounds with a wide variety of personalities and interests outside of their jobs. Some of them even shower more than once a week. But the media does have a lot to answer for when it comes to portrayal of engineers.

Who Gets Recruited?

So what about recruitment? To be honest, I haven’t been too involved with recruitment in my career, but have spoken to plenty of colleagues who have. While it depends very much on the position being advertised for, it isn’t unusual to receive 500 applications for one vacancy with only 5 women applying. So all things being equal, there’s a 1% chance a woman would get recruited. So either the problem lies in the process of job advertising or goes further back than that. Given that most job adverts aren’t placed in Loaded and Playboy magazine, we can probably discount any significant discrimination on that front. So we must step back further. My engineering course at university (a top-10 Russell group one, so a semi-humble brag) was around 95% male. Other engineering disciplines varied a bit, but still very much male dominated. So what’s holding back women from applying to university engineering courses?

Is It A School Problem?

In the UK, the traditional path into university is after taking A-levels at 18 years old, either at school or a 6th form college. Most people take 3 or 4 A-levels (it was only ever 3 in my day when they were a lot harder – but that’s another hot topic!), which are chosen at 16 years old. So at 16, you’re narrowing down your subjects to specialisms you’ll most likely be using to start your career. If you want to be an engineer one of those A-levels will be at least maths (yes, with an ‘s’!), and a science (physics being a good choice for many engineering disciplines). This doesn’t leave much space for a breadth of choices, so if you want to become an engineer you’re probably committed to that path at 16. If you want to leave your options open for other career paths, you might not be able to choose the A-levels required for an engineering career. Maybe at 16 boys tend to have a clearer idea of what career they want than girls do? It’ll be interesting to hear you views on this.

Before A-levels, there are of course the GCSEs, which are taken at 16 years old. Usually pupils take between 8-12 of them, and if I remember correctly I took 10. So there’s plenty more scope for a diversity of subjects there. I remember doing art, French, a science and geography amongst mine, so a good mix even if most of that knowledge as long since evaporated. At GCSE level there are a variety of subjects which help in the background to learning about engineering, such as maths, physics, chemistry, computer science and design & technology (I going by the names they were called when I was at school a long time ago!). From my memory, the male to female ratio did vary a lot in these. Maths was compulsory, but girls dominated the top set, so clearly not a lack of ability there. However, computer science and design & technology was pretty much entirely male. So the polarisation of the genders had already set in at that stages. I don’t remember any girls being discouraged by teachers from taking these subjects, so what put them off? Was it peer pressure, lack of interest, parental influence, or the general stereotype of gendered subjects?

Hobbies

When I was a lad, many many years ago, I was constant tinkerer. Whether making Airfix models, building machines with technical Lego, constructing electronics circuits or writing BASIC programs on my early 80s home computer; they was rarely a time where I wasn’t building or designing something. I learnt so much from this play, that it made much of my formal education much easier as I had gathered the basics at home at a younger age. In those pre-internet days, much of the information was gathered from magazines and from my dad who was also very practical. Some of my school friends also had similar hobbies, and we often swapped ideas and proudly showed off our creations to each other. However, I don’t remember any female friends or sisters really having any similar hobbies, with even Lego being considered a boys toy back then (despite it being very non-gendered in those days). They simply didn’t seem interested in such pastimes and would rather do more ‘girlie’ things.

I certainly wasn’t forced into the hobbies I did, and much of it was really from taking an interest in what my dad was doing. Having said that, I also enjoyed helping my mum with baking and she encouraged my more artistic side (which I’ve long since lost). My sisters were simply not interested in what my dad was up to, but he never said they shouldn’t take an interest in those things.

So I think if you want girls to consider engineering and STEM in general, they really need to be exposed to interesting hobbies when young. Looking at my own children I would say they really start to specialise in interests around the age of 6 to 8. Both my children (one of each) love their Lego, but do play in rather different ways. The girl is very much into building houses where her figures have distinct personalities and do quite real-world things. Whereas the boy is very much into goodies and baddies, and building things that fly or drive. However, both are actively building and designing their models, so they are both engineering. I try to ensure there’s plenty of practical things around for them to play with, but try not to force anything on them, and certainly don’t tell them they should play with something as it’s only for boys/girls. So if you have a girl, make sure there’s plenty of opportunities for her to access practical toys and technology that allows creativity and logical thinking. Also, make sure you as a parent (or friend, or relative) are seen doing practical and creative things and be ready to get them to join in with you, or at least talk to them about it.

Encouragement

There’s a fine line between encouragement, where a child is doing something willingly and enjoying it, and hot-housing a child into something a parent wants them to excel at. Children can quite easily dive into something with massive enthusiasm for a few weeks or days and then lose interest and never come back to it again. Occasionally some activities will stick and they’ll persist with them for much longer. I’m sure we’ve seen toys that are always out and others which get used once and collect dust in the back of the cupboard. It’s important to spot which activities an child takes an interest in and encourage them along, particularly if it is something which is enhancing their development. However, if you get too forceful with this encouragement, it can put them off and they’ll end up never wanting to do it again. Sometimes its difficult to tell how forceful you are if it’s something you’ve got an enthusiasm for yourself. But, never try and put children off from doing things, particularly if they start to feel it is something they shouldn’t be doing through peer pressure.

So to start to get more girls into engineering, they need encouragement at a very young age to take up hobbies and in their play. But you should never force them into things if they show no interest in them. I’d much rather see a girl who is a passionate fashion designer than a reluctant engineer. But if she does show interest in engineering and science, make sure it isn’t only in school where she gets to learn about it, give her all the encouragement you can. It becomes particularly important through the adolescent years when peer pressure and hormones can pull them away.

Will We Ever Reach 50%?

To be brutally honest, I don’t think we’ll ever see engineering being 50% female. My main reasons for this do come from observing how children play, and despite many people’s efforts to not restrict play along gender lines, generally speaking girls and boys do play differently. However, that doesn’t mean we should just give up, as there are plenty of girls how there who would take to engineering brilliantly and they should be encouraged. So we need parents and teachers to really show the way and ensure girls are given the opportunities to learn and enjoy engineering-related activities, and that they retain this while growing up. So I think we can increase the number of female engineers, but it’ll take a long time and the focus should be on the young and not on employers’ recruitment methods.