Thursday, January 05, 2012

The politics of gender studies research

A column in yesterday's My Health News Daily referenced the results of a recent medical study. In it, personality traits in both men and women were said to be extensively analyzed. Participants from the ages of 15 to 92, and of both sexes, were asked to participate in a personality test. According to the outlined methodology and findings, the sexes have far less in common, psychologically, than originally thought. The study was the work of a combined team of three researchers, two from Italy, and one from the UK. If taken literally, it could negate efforts to equalize and normalize occupational fields based on sex. Theirs is a controversial assertion, and one that leaves itself open for substantial criticism in a variety of areas.

To summarize in brief, the study makes a basic gender essentialist argument. Men are men and women are women. Substantial overlap does not exist. It can never exist. Thinking otherwise defies the laws of science and nature. In times past, scientific research that has made such resounding claims is often considered cautiously. The same could be said for these new findings.
"Psychologically, men and women are almost a different species," said study researcher Paul Irwing, of the University of Manchester, in the United Kingdom. The new findings may explain why some careers are dominated by men (such as engineering) and others by women (such as psychological sciences), Irwing said.
Certitude aside, there are, however, several significant problems here that the researchers never addressed. For one, they didn't take into account queer identity. If the intention is to state that men and women naturally separate out based on chosen career fields, sexual orientation is also a factor. Gay men are often found in large number within "female" professions like psychological sciences. Could this research then conclude that gay men are their own psychological species? If not, then should they also be considered women?

A second larger aspect of the study that is problematic regards women in male-dominated fields. Women have historically been underrepresented in the STEM careers (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Should women that do wish to pursue vocations like these be considered men? According to the research data, one could say that there was something inherently masculine about a woman who wanted to be a scientist, instead of a social worker.

Feminist discourse has long taken an opposite view, one that might make this entire issue a little more comprehensible. Women are not found in larger quantity in fields like engineering for many reasons. One is because of a historical resistance to female participation within these programs. Another is that women who are drawn to STEM are often strongly pushed by educators and parents into more "suitable" fields for their gender. A third is that without the involvement and existence of a suitable critical mass of other women, many feel unsupported and without advocates. This information is not new, nor is it hard to find. For whatever reason, it simply wasn't utilized during the study.

Fortunately, not all psychologists are in agreement.
For starters, the men and women in the study assessed their own personality traits. People may be inclined to rate themselves in a way that conforms with gender stereotypes, Hyde said. "It's not very manly to say that you're sensitive," she said.
Part of basic scientific advancement is, in the minds of many, to challenge the status quo. Arguably, this study only reinforces traditional gender roles and perceptions of gender. Moreover, the numbers were crunched in a very particular fashion, creating a prominent gap between male and female. Numbers can be manipulated to say anything or support almost any conclusion. The entire study is here. Below is its statement of purpose.
In conclusion, we believe we made it clear that the true extent of sex differences in human personality has been consistently underestimated.
At the end of the report, the scientists who have signed their name state that they hope their discoveries will be a catalyst for future discoveries. Among many who have read and analyzed the study, it is unclear the sort of revelations that might eventually arrive. Some see the work as regressive, others as totally unhelpful, merit aside. Regardless of intent, the information seems ripe for ideological debate. Whether this was deliberately intended or not, these scientists must have been at least partially aware of how it would be perceived.

1 comment:

jbird said...

May I recommend the book "Delusions of Gender" by Cordelia Fine if you have not already come across it. She does an excellent job of revealing the bad science (and lots more!) behind a lot of prominent research on gender differences.