Another Mars-Venus myth

Following on Jender’s the Myth of Mars and Venus:

There are more men in science because men intrinsically have better spatial-imagination capacities, which are necessary for the quantitative work.  Right?

 Maybe not.  In Psychological Science, Feng, Spence and Pratt argue that a key difference is spatial ability can be ‘virtually eliminated’ in ten hours of video games. The article can be downloaded.

We demonstrate a previously unknown gender difference in the distribution of spatial attention, a basic capacity that supports higher-level spatial cognition. More remarkably, we found that playing an action video game can virtually eliminate this gender difference in spatial attention and simultaneously decrease the gender disparity in mental rotation ability, a higher-level process in spatial cognition. After only 10 hr of training with an action video game, subjects realized substantial gains in both spatial attention and mental rotation, with women benefiting more than men. Control subjects who played a non-action game showed no improvement. Given that superior spatial skills are important in the mathematical and engineering sciences, these findings have practical implications for attracting men and women to these fields.

Spatial rotation abilities affect one’s score in standard IQ tests and at least US college entrance exams. And no doubt others.

Another downloadable article in the same issue offers an explanation for women’s reduced abilities to perform in math and sciences. There is good evidence an environment with a large gender imbalance saps cognitive resources away from one’s performance.

Signaling Threat: How Situational Cues Affect Women in Math, Science, and Engineering Settings
Mary C. Murphy, Claude M. Steele, James J. Gross

ABSTRACT—This study examined the cues hypothesis, which holds that situational cues, such as a setting’s features and organization, can make potential targets vulnerable to social identity threat. Objective and subjective measures of identity threat were collected from male and female math, science, and engineering (MSE) majors who watched an MSE conference video depicting either an unbalanced ratio of men to women or a balanced ratio. Women who viewed the unbalanced video exhibited more cognitive and physiological vigilance, and reported a lower sense of belonging and less desire to participate in the conference, than did women who viewed the gender-balanced video. Men were unaffected by this situational cue. The implications for understanding vulnerability to social identity threat, particularly among women in MSE settings, are discussed.

You can find an informal discussion of the second story here.

Rape in Congo

There’s an important and horrifying story in the NY Times on systematic rape by militias in the Congo, which seems to be on an even greater scale than such rape elsewhere.

No one — doctors, aid workers, Congolese and Western researchers — can explain exactly why this is happening.“That is the question,” said André Bourque, a Canadian consultant who works with aid groups in eastern Congo. “Sexual violence in Congo reaches a level never reached anywhere else. It is even worse than in Rwanda during the genocide.”    

Some suggest that these rapes have led to wider tolerance for violence against women in Congolese society.

While rape has always been a weapon of war, researchers say they fear that Congo’s problem has metastasized into a wider social phenomenon.“It’s gone beyond the conflict,” said Alexandra Bilak, who has studied various armed groups around Bukavu, on the shores of Lake Kivu. She said that the number of women abused and even killed by their husbands seemed to be going up and that brutality toward women had become “almost normal.”  

But why should Congo have such a horrific epidemic of brutal rape by soldiers?

Impunity may be a contributing factor, Mr. Bourque added, saying that very few of the culprits are punished.Many Congolese aid workers denied that the problem was cultural and insisted that the widespread rapes were not the product of something ingrained in the way men treated women in Congolese society. “If that were the case, this would have showed up long ago,” said Wilhelmine Ntakebuka, who coordinates a sexual violence program in Bukavu.Instead, she said, the epidemic of rapes seems to have started in the mid-1990s. That coincides with the waves of Hutu militiamen who escaped into Congo’s forests after exterminating 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus during Rwanda’s genocide 13 years ago.Mr. Holmes said that while government troops might have raped thousands of women, the most vicious attacks had been carried out by Hutu militias.“These are people who were involved with the genocide and have been psychologically destroyed by it,” he said.    

Thanks, Mr Jender, for the depressing but important link.

The Myth of Mars and Venus

The Guardian has published a wonderful extract from Deborah Cameron’s new book, The Myth of Mars and Venus.  In it, she first takes issue with all those writers who claim to be bucking the trends of political correctness by boldly daring to state that there are huge psychological differences between men and women, pointing out that they are in fact stating something overwhelmingly widely believed.  The book is devoted to making the case that most of these claims are indeed myths– not just in the sense of being false, but also in the sense of being fictions that people tell themselves to make sense of their lives.  It’s a great article, which makes me really want to read the book.  One particularly nice feature is the way that Cameron shows the myths to be damaging to both women and men.  One extract:

Baron-Cohen classifies nursing as a female-brain, empathy-based job (though if a caring and empathetic nurse cannot measure dosages accurately and make systematic clinical observations she or he risks doing serious harm) and law as a male-brain, system-analysing job (though a lawyer, however well versed in the law, will not get far without communication and people-reading skills). These categorisations are not based on a dispassionate analysis of the demands made by the two jobs. They are based on the everyday common-sense knowledge that most nurses are women and most lawyers are men. If you read the two lists in their entirety, it is hard not to be struck by another “essential difference”: the male jobs are more varied, more creative, and better rewarded than their female counterparts.     

 And another:

The literature of Mars and Venus, in both the self-help and popular science genres, is remarkably patronising towards men. They come off as bullies, petulant toddlers; or Neanderthals sulking in their caves. One (male) contributor to this catalogue of stereotypes goes so far as to call his book If Men Could Talk. A book called If Women Could Think would be instantly denounced; why do men put up with books that put them on a par with Lassie or Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (“Hey, wait a minute – I think he’s trying to tell us something!”)?      

Cameron wonders why men put up with this, but I think the first quote explains it. We can handle a little insult while we’re being praised for more important things, and there’s a very real sense in which those abilities associated with women are considered less important. Sure, talking is considered important– but talking the way women talk? Not so much.  Cameron also does a great job on the data, arguing that it really supports what’s been called The Gender Similarities Hypothesis– a truly unfashionable view these days.  More Cameron extracts here and here. Cameron also edited the excellent The Feminist Critique of Language and wrote the excellent Feminism and Linguistic Theory, two books of which I’m a huge fan..