It seems that the most favorite and most commonly used demographic variable in psychological research is gender. From clinical psychology to cognition, it seems that psychologists do not get closure out of their research until and unless they calculate a t-test to find out how males and females differ in a particular variable.
From the breeding period of human history, people have shown considerable interest in understanding the difference between males and females. But gradually the focus has shifted towards finding out who is better between males and females rather than knowing how males and females are similar. There is a little research in psychology that forgets to include gender as a variable in the models. By doing so, they have surely reinforced the existing trend of focusing on ‘deficiency’ rather than on ‘similarity.’
The gender gap is largely overrated when it comes to cognition. And especially, the issue becomes a hot topic and a bit sensitive when it comes to fields like mathematics. For instance, Halpern (2012) in her book asked, “Is it simply too dangerous to even ask about sex differences in cognition?” But the uninvited danger that comes with the research focusing on difference is that it unintentionally promotes an hierarchical structure. And focusing on similarity rather than on difference is more positive an approach and does not have the risk of creating a difference that never existed.
If we take a look at the studies aimed at finding out how males and females are naturally different from each other in terms of mathematics, most studies fail to reach a solved equation that says females are significantly lower in a particular aspect than males or vice versa.
Endorsing Gender Stereotypes?
For example, the work of Keller & Mennon (2010) involved the most advanced functional magnetic resonance imaging technique, but could only find that males and females have different activation areas while solving a mental math. It may simply imply that the strategies males and females use for solving mathematics are different, but there is no significant indication that men are naturally more “talented” in math than women.
Because of overemphasis by psychologists in the gender difference, somehow the gender stereotypes in society are being endorsed.
Back in 1974, Maccoby and Jacklin via their rigorous and exhaustive meta-analysis on as big as 2,000 sample size, discarded the gender difference notion.
Theorists like Hyde and Plant (1995), have proposed a gender similarity hypothesis and they have used meta-analysis as their authentic weapon in this process. Hyde, in 2005, could find difference between males and females only in motor performance such as throwing velocity and throwing distance.
Even psychologists who tend to draw a conclusion from differences in cognitive functioning must consider that cognitive functioning does not reflect uncontaminated core natural differences; rather, it is highly impacted by the environmental input.
For example, a single girl, who is writing a math examination with a group of 60 boys, would certainly be impacted by the stereotype threat and her working memory will be affected by that factor(Schamader & Johns, 2003). Therefore, the identity salience of the girl in the classroom influenced numerical cognition like working memory and it clearly says nothing about the difference in natural talent in mathematics between the girl and the boys.
There is another fallacy. Psychologists compare and assess performance that is a product of biology and environment. For example, if boys and girls are compared to each other in a running competition in terms of their speed, it is not an uncontaminated measure of motor co-ordination and muscular flexibility. It is surely affected by how much support they got from their families in continuing sports, how much appreciation society gives and the specific sports ground where they practice.
Therefore, drawing a conclusion on the basis of performance is faulty since the baseline of boys and girls, because of social expectancies, may differ.
When psychological results reveal difference in a particular psychological variable, generally, readers consider it to be a natural, unchangeable and universal difference between males and females. Therefore, they even don’t consider the importance of practice or environment. This approach clearly forms a stereotype in the human mind. And such stereotypes surely affect the overall self-esteem, self-concept and performance of girls and boys in a particular field.
As Link and Phelan (2001) suggested, stigma requires a power structure to manifest itself. Gender, especially in cultures with less egalitarianism, serves as a basis for the hierarchical system. We, psychologists, understand better than anybody how power and status play an important role in the perception of stereotype (Van Loo & Rydel, 2012). Therefore, women are already at a disadvantageous position because of their unfavorable social position in the power hierarchy. Talking explicitly about the gender gap, psychologists are unnecessarily worsening the existing system when we are supposed to talk about how to move beyond and battle against the barriers between groups, classes and communities.
Sucharita Maji is a research scholar at the Institute of Technology, Kampur.