On the alleged disparity between men’s and women’s skills in mathematics, medicine and other studies and professions

Questions about gender gap are overloaded of prejudice and are really tricky. Why are there more men or women in certain professions? Are men and women equally gifted in mathematics or medicine practice? Is there a biological predisposition? The debate can be very entertaining in a relaxed conversation, but also very virulent when work-related issues come into play or scientific arguments are invoked. Where are the neutrality and objectivity on these issues? The so-called gender studies are booming, but their conclusions have always an aura of tentativeness faced with the rapid social changes and the increasing feminization of nearly all studies and professions, including those typically masculine such as high finance or the army.

The supposed inferiority of women to men in math is not valid any more. The facts are denying all kinds of assumptions about male’s best aptitude for numbers and mathematical abstractions, according to a study (Debunking Myths About Gender and Mathematics Performance) to be published in the January 2012 issue of the journal Notices of the American Mathematical Society. The study’s authors, oncologist Janet Mertz and mathematician Jonathan Kane, both from the University of Wisconsin (USA), have tested with new data from 86 countries that historical inequalities are blurring rapidly.

In the U.S., for example, the relationship between students who excel in math tests in last four decades has gone from 13 to 1 to only 3 to 1 in favor of males. And the percentage of women with a doctorate in mathematics increased from 5% to 30% in the last half century. These changes would not have been so fast if there really was some biological basis in favor of men or what could be caricatured as the absence of «math gene» in women.

International data handled by Mertz and Kane, including those of many developed countries that had not previously participated in studies on math skills, have provided new transcultural information. And none of their findings suggest that there are innate differences between men and women in math performance at any level. In many countries there are significant gender gaps, but they seem to be due to sociocultural factors and, therefore, changeable.

The feminization of medicine is another good example of sociocultural influences. The shortage of medical women barely half a century ago has suffered such a change in many countries that the percentage of women studying medicine is now much higher than men’s. Some specialties such as pediatrics or general medicine are now predominantly feminine, and in some countries there will be soon more women than men in medicine.

So much so that now an «overfeminisation» of the medical profession is brought up in some forums (Medicine: Sexist or over-feminised? Was the title of a recent debate at the Royal Society of Medicine). As an article published on November 29 in Student BMJ (Is medicine a woman’s world?) remembered, the feminization of medicine is not yet complete because women still earn less and have less responsible positions than men.

In percentage, there are more and more women and fewer men in medicine. But trying to explain this phenomenon with the hypothesis that medicine is a profession that encourages feminine values ​​would be, in the first place, a historical mistake. Many young men now seem to rule out medical profession in favor of more lucrative and more prestigious options, but this is clearly due to cyclical factors.

Biodeterministic explanations of gender gap as a result of human brain evolution seem unconvincing, given the weight of culture and the complexity of human societies. Data about the different skills of men and women in a particular human group do not demonstrate any biological basis. For that it would be necessary to clear all the cultural variables, which would be really complicated. What seems to reveal the growing presence of women in areas before considered only masculine is that there are not innate male or female occupations.

Imagr: stelashan / Flickr