As we walked to the conference today, we again found ourselves divided by gender: John and Derek noticed a flyer on the ground advertising a fight party – a party to watch some fight and commented on how funny it would be to go. Chelsea and I instantly agreed that it would not be funny, fun, or at all enjoyable to attend a cage fighting match, while Derek and John discussed fights (although to be clear, they’re not going to a cage fight). While this conversation was a minute piece of my very stimulating day, I felt that it was relevant when I later attended a talk entitled: The Promise and Peril of Sex Difference Research. Five different researchers spoke, each of whom had their own views based on their own research and experiences. One presenter, Melissa Hines, discussed her research on the influence of developmental hormones on toy play, in both humans and non-human primates. This research was clearly the most relevant to our morning incident. Perhaps Derek and John’s prenatal testosterone exposure led them to their interest in fighting, while Chelsea and I were predisposed to prefer stuffed animals. However, as Hines pointed out, there is a large variability among the toy choice of both humans and non-humans, and although biology is certainly a factor, social factors can influence toy choice as well. Therefore, it’s certainly possible that were a different female student here, she would have loved the idea of a cage fight. Hines also pointed out a danger of sex difference research, which is the extrapolation of information from sex difference studies that can be used to support discrimination among the sexes. For example, she says, people often look at her data on toy play and attempt to explain the lack of female engineers, which is a broad and unsupported generalization.
Along the lines of sex differences and math performance, Maryjane Wraga of Smith College presented some of her research on fMRI studies of stereotype threat in females. Stereotype threat is the phenomenon where if you alert someone of a stereotype (for example, reminded a young woman of the stereotype that men are better at math), and then present her with a situation where she could possibly prove that stereotype (giving her math problems), she will probably perform more poorly on the test, possibly due to anxiety caused by the knowledge of the stereotype. Research by Wraga has shown not only that presentation of stereotype threats activates certain brain regions, but that the effects of this stereotype threat last beyond the situation that is directly relevant to the threat. For example, after activating the stereotype threat, females continue to perform poorly on other cognitive tasks that are not directly related to mathematics. The stereotype of women being bad at math has clearly persisted, even though 48% of bachelor’s degrees in mathematics are presented to women now. This presentation left me wondering: 1) what we can do to change this stereotype threat effect and 2) how does the rest of the sex difference research factor into this type of effect? I believe in the importance of sex difference research, but the dangers of stereotyping people based on scientific research are just that – dangerous. How can we avoid this while continuing to account for differences?