Confirmation bias and the difference between men and women

I just finished reading Inferior by Angela Saini. I started reading it because I thought it would be about whether men are naturally smarter, or better at STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) than women. As a woman who studied electrotechnical engineering and who works in STEM, this is a topic that I’m interested in. I believe that at least part of the problem of the underrepresentation of women in STEM has to do with the lack of (visible) role models for girls. Yet I’m also interested in learning if there are biological differences between men and women that might have an impact on the number of women interested in, or naturally good at STEM subjects.

Most of the book is not about whether men are wired in a way that benefits succeeding in these fields though. It talks about men and women’s position in society, both today and throughout history. There is a lot of focus on who brings home most of the food, who is the most aggressive, who takes care of the offspring and about sex drive and promiscuity.

The book isn’t about new research, but it investigates previous research into the positions of men and women in societies. It becomes obvious that it’s not straightforward. The outcome of most research mentioned is at the very least hotly debated and often even controversial.

One of the main challenges is, that when researching the differences between men and women, everybody is biased in one way or another. I find this a scary thought. If we can’t trust scientists to be objective, who can we trust? Can we even trust ourselves? I don’t think we can, we all have the tendency to gather, interpret and remember information in a way that confirms our existing beliefs. This is “confirmation bias”. The effect of confirmation bias is even stronger for emotionally charged topics.

So how should we deal with this? How do we determine what is fact and what is an opinion? When we read a non-fiction book, or an article in a newspaper, or even worse, on the internet, what is fact and what is opinion? When we read about new research and discoveries, how do we know that the scientists involved were objective? We can’t do our own research on every topic that we read about. Most of us already have a busy life…

One thing that helps a lot is if different scientists, in different parts of the world, are able to repeat the same experiments and get the same results. These days scientists repeating experiments to verify the results is getting rare. This is at least partially driven by another hot topic of this moment: the push for scientists to get published as often as possible. Magazines and journals prefer to publish new results from new research, rather than a confirmation or invalidation of previous research results. It’s also easier to get published if your results are statistically significant. An article about an experiment that didn’t deliver the results that you expected or hoped for is highly unlikely to get published. This means that invalidating or disproving previous research results is hard and often not very visible. Scientists are being pushed to delivery drama and quantity, not quality.

In the book, the author makes sure to discuss research results that support and results that oppose the ideas that she is promoting. In most cases, there is just as much evidence confirming a thesis as there is evidence disproving it. A lot of the results seem to be impacted by preexisting biases and opinions. There is a clear difference in the results of research done by men, versus research done by women.

The book doesn’t mention a lot of research on the topic of men or women being smarter or naturally better at STEM subjects. I do of course have a (biased) opinion though and the book did give me a new insight.

I believe that some typical boy or girl interests are innate in most of us. A lot of the love of dolls, barbies and pink in girls is cultural though. Driven by the type of toys that young kids get and by the behaviour that is (in many cases unconsciously) stimulated and rewarded by parents. Personally, I have never been drawn to dolls or pink. I liked LEGO and reading. I’ve always been good at math and I enjoyed it. Part of this is of course that we all enjoy the things that we are good at a bit more than the things we struggle with.

It has been proven in many different cases that if we ourselves or others around us expect us to fail at something, we are a lot more likely to indeed fail. If girls hear from a young age from their parents, family, babysitters and other boys and girls that math and physics are for boys, they are a lot less likely to be successful when trying their hand at math and physics. My parents have always been very supportive, I was very lucky that I was able to easily absorb what I learned in school. I also had the advantage of my mum being a trailblazer, working in IT. Although this was never emphasized, she was a great role model.

The book made me realize that there was maybe also something else that might have had an impact. I was a bit of a loner as a kid. I usually had one or two close friends, but I didn’t belong to any specific group of boys or girls. I was bullied between the ages of approximately 10 and 14.

This means that on one hand, I wasn’t influenced very much by the other girls and what they felt was “normal”. I also wasn’t worried that I wouldn’t fit in if I would choose a lot of STEM subjects in high school, as I didn’t fit in to begin with. Of course, this is a narrative that I’m constructing in hindsight. I now feel that not being popular and not being part of a close group of girls might have made it easier to pursue an education and a career in STEM.

There are still more questions than answers I’m afraid. The difference between men and women will remain the topic of a lot of research and debate. We’ll also continue to look for ways to get more women STEM until there is equal representation.
Be prepared to investigate your own ideas and opinions and keep an open mind to other people’s ideas. If we are open to learning from each other we are most likely to get valuable new insights.

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