There is no such thing as the ‘male brain’ or ‘female brain’, yet there is still a gender disparity in take up of STEM subjects, writes Michelle Murphy

It’s the widely held view that’s helped launch thousands of relationship advice books — the popular notion that male and female brains are wired differently. For years, self -help gurus have been telling us that the reason Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps is down to the simple fact that Men Are from Mars and Women Are from Venus.

Popular discourse has reasoned that while we can’t change this fact, we can learn coping strategies to help us better understand the opposite sex. Now science has turned this idea on its head. New evidence suggests that, in essence, there is neither a “male brain” nor “female brain” but simply a human brain. I must admit, it’s something I’m deeply sceptical about and it’s the first question I put to Professor Mark Ferguson, director general of Science Foundation Ireland and chief scientific adviser to the Government.

“There aren’t any anatomical differences or what you might call structural differences between the brains of men and women,” says Mark. “Hundreds of years ago people used to think women had smaller brains and that they weren’t as intelligent — there is no evidence for that whatsoever, it’s absolutely incorrect”

In what reminds me of the recent ‘Ban Bossy’ campaign spearheaded by Beyoncé and Michelle Obama to name but a few, which discouraged the use of the word bossy to describe young girls who showed leadership potential, Prof Ferguson explains that much of the difference between men and women succeeding in their chosen field is to do with confidence and social conditioning.

“There is very good evidence that women don’t push themselves forward as much as men — there are quite a lot of studies that demonstrate that if a man is thinking of applying for a high-ranking job the typical response from him will be ‘Yeah, I can do that!’ and the typical response from a woman will be ‘Well, am I ready for this yet? Do I have all the appropriate qualifications? Maybe I should wait another year or two?”

Rebecca Fagan, fourth-class student at Guardian Angels NS, Blackrock, Co Dublin, with Prof Mark Ferguson, director general of Science Foundation Ireland and chief scientific adviser to the Government, who announced the recipients of the organisation’s Discover Science and Maths Award.
Rebecca Fagan, fourth-class student at Guardian Angels NS, Blackrock, Co Dublin, with Prof Mark Ferguson, director general of Science Foundation Ireland and chief scientific adviser to the Government, who announced the recipients of the organisation’s Discover Science and Maths Award.

Tasked with encouraging more women to pursue careers in science, engineering, technology, and maths (the Stem subjects), Science Foundation Ireland has found that while at university level there are pretty much equal numbers of females and males studying Stem, albeit a difference in which subjects they choose — women tend to study life sciences such as biology, medicine, and dentistry while men favour engineering and IT — post graduation there is a marked under-representation of females occupying senior roles within Stem sectors.

To counteract this, Science Foundation Ireland has introduced initiatives to encourage women to either remain working in Stem or at the very least return to their career post-baby.

Prof Ferguson says: “If a female scientist goes on maternity leave we not only pay them maternity leave benefits, etc, but we also allow the research project they were working on to hire a replacement staff member so that whatever project they were working on can continue. We also have return fellowships for women who have left science and who want to come back whereby we will fund them to come in as part of a team and they can catch up on the developments that have been taking place while they have been out.”

Prof Ferguson feels the solution to persuading more females to consider engineering and IT as a long-term career is to broach the idea early on by doing outreach work in schools and to have role models to whom young women can relate: “ One of the really important things for schoolchildren, particularly girls, is to show them the variety of careers available to them in science and also to show them female role models in areas that they might not consider — for instance engineering or IT.

“So, for example, we bring in women working in Google or Facebook where there are quite a lot of women in very good careers in the IT sector — really just to show young girls that these opportunities are equally available to women as they are to men.”

Prof Ferguson feels having more equal numbers of men and women occupying senior roles in the Stem sector can only be a positive development. His assertions are backed up by research: “Obviously as a scientist I am very interested in evidence and the data shows that companies that have more equal numbers of men and women in senior positions are more profitable, more innovative, and are better companies than those that are predominantly run by men.”

Girls can find career in science so rewarding

Joveria Biag
Joveria Biag

Originally from Pakistan and now living in Cork, Joveria Biag is a PhD student at Tyndall National Institute, University College Cork.

“My mum is a medical doctor and my dad is a mechanical engineer so they have both been role models for me when I was growing up. In High School I studied maths, physics, chemistry and biology. When I finished High School I went on to do an undergraduate in Electrical Engineering. There were very few women on my course — there were maybe 10 girls to 80 boys. When it came to textbook knowledge I was comfortable with that but as soon as the experimentation modules started, for example building circuits or making models, I felt like the boys were better at it than I was. I went to my course tutor to talk about it because I used to be one of the better students when I was in High School. She sat down with me and said ‘you know, it’s not something girls are bad at in comparison to boys’ and that moment I realised that I had been playing with dolls when I was young whereas little boys were playing with Lego and building stuff and playing with toy machinery. I just had to give it more time and so I spent extra time building circuits and I think that’s when I developed spatial skills.

“Once I finished my undergraduate I had to decide what I would do and I was really excited about working with light. In two years I got two different Masters — one in Applied Physics and one in Laser Optics and Matter. Once I finished my Masters degree I decided to do a PhD in Photonics. Photonics is basically the study of light.

“It’s hard as a woman to relate to your co-workers if most of them are male, it’s very hard to find Research Leaders who are female. I think it’s a vicious circle — because there are not many female mentors most women do not want to come into this field and then obviously there are not more female mentors at a later stage, in my PhD group I am the only one who is a female researcher.

I am currently pregnant and my advisors are very supportive, there are lots of ways when I go on maternity leave that I can still do some work at home, they are very comfortable with changing the nature of my role.

“What I would say to young girls thinking of studying STEM in university is to give it a chance. I do a lot of outreach work in secondary schools and the thing I have noticed amongst Transitions Year students, especially girls, is that many of them have this false perception that STEM is about memorising facts and regurgitating them for exams but that isn’t true at all, I’ve learned scientific skills, experimental skills and problem solving skills. It’s not just doing research.”


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