Sunday, July 03, 2005

The state of play

Science is increasingly vindicating conservative politics.

For decades, liberals have asserted that there are no significant differences between men and women and that the dominance of men in certain professions can only be a result of prejudice or bigotry.

Conservatives, in contrast, have held that men and women are different in their natures and that this explains the dominance of men in certain fields (and the preponderance of women in others).

Science has finally swung the debate in favour of the conservative view. It's difficult now to suggest that there are no significant biological differences affecting the dispositions of men and women.

There is an article in today's Herald Sun (not online) which shows how liberals are reacting to the scientific reality. It's by an Australian mathematician, Dr Clio Cresswell. Her liberalism is clear from her confession that "I've always had a lot of trouble with the idea of male and female differences" and that "When people tell me I can't do something because of its male flavour, it becomes a challenge to me to become the best."

So her starting point, just like any liberal, is to want to overcome gender differences as representing a kind of restriction on the self.

However, she's too much of a scientific realist to overlook the evidence that natural differences do exist. For instance, she notes that,

A 1999 study conducted at Virginia Tech in the US found that the areas in boys' brains involved in mechanical and spatial reasoning mature four to eight years earlier. Could that be why I only hooked into mathematics at 18?

So how does she reconcile her liberal dislike for gender difference with her knowledge that men and women are different in their intellectual natures?

She takes a kind of mid-way position. She still wants more women in the sciences, but she admits that women will have a different "take" on their scientific work. She notes that the Australian Mathematics Sciences Institute is trying to attract girls into maths by emphasising "biology, psychology and the environmental sciences" as career paths rather than physics, finance and engineering.

In terms of the medical sciences she relates the views of Dr Fiona Stanley, Australia's only female plastic surgeon, who says that what she loves most about her work is not the "purely technical exercise" of surgery, but "pain management, healing, psychology ...".

She herself admits that "For me, the true beauty of maths lies in its encapsulation of complex inter-relationships, not in its ability to solve problems."

So is this a possible solution for liberals? Can they admit male/female differences but still even up the science professions by making science less technical and problem solving, and more oriented to human relationships?

I doubt it. I still remember at university meeting quite a number of women who had gone into scientific fields, found them unsatisfying and were returning to study for careers like teaching.

Even Dr Clio Cresswell is an illustration of this tendency. She began her career as an actuary, a very dry career choice for a woman. Sure enough, she quit her job to return to uni to do a PhD (more predicatable) and became a Visiting Fellow at the University of NSW.

But she then veered off further into more traditionally feminine employments. She has subsequently written relationships advice for a women's magazine (more on this later) and has dispensed relationships advice on the TV show Beauty and the Beast. She has hosted a breakfast radio show and appeared on the panel of the TV comedy show The Glasshouse. She's done book reviews on radio and become an Australia Day Ambassador.

In other words, she has not found maths by itself a sufficiently fulfilling career choice. Does she really expert large cohorts of women in the future to do so?

Finally, on a different note, it's curious that Dr Cresswell should have ended up in the business of relationships advice. She is now past 30 and has not had success in this field. Nor would you expect her to, given the strategy she set herself to win a man.

She writes that at age 18 she came up with a plan to win over "a man's heart":

My plan was ingenious: I'd become a fully developed package, in both mind and body. Mathematics for the mind, along with other things like reading and travelling and then running, weight training and sweating for the body. Great conversation and a great set of shoulders - I'd be irresistible. Yep, I'd easily compete with the women who'd intimidated me in my early years.

I expect that a lot of the men of my generation will roll their eyes at this kind of strategy. Did she really believe that broad shoulders were the way to attract men? Did her instincts fail so much that she thought men wanted intellectual conversation and muscularity in a woman?

It seems she's partly learned her lesson. She goes on to write,

I'm not much beyond 30 now. And how's the plan going you ask? Not that well, I'm afraid. The trouble seems to pop up early on. Like when I meet a gorgeous man and he'll ask the question: "What do you do?" I reply, "Mathematician" and he'll come back with: "You must have a lot of testosterone" or "What's the square root of 532?" Not exactly the sexy conversation I had in mind ...

"Meanwhile, Melroy [a female astronaut] assures me that it's not at 30 but at 40 that men become increasingly interested in the full package. So my original plan still has hope. But with all those comments about too much testosterone still ringing in my ears, I've eased off on the shoulder exercises as backup.

Intriguing. I know this is written in a semi-serious vein, but the way she's presenting it is that she still hopes her body building and intellect combination, the "full package", will eventually prove attractive, though she's easing off on some of the more mannish self-presentation just in case men might actually prefer ... a more feminine woman.

Conclusion? Dr Cresswell, by the weight of scientific evidence, may be starting to accept natural differences between the sexes, which is something of a breakthrough for a liberal woman, but it'll be more impressive when such women manage to arrive at a heterosexual celebration of gender difference.

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