Pondering the “Gender Gap”

A few weeks ago a coworker and fellow Blogger, Michele, passed an article to me that discussed if differences in gender-science stereotypes could predict gender-based differences in achievement in science and math (1). When I read the title, I have to admit that a part of me cringed. You see, for the longest time I didn’t know there was a gender gap. I didn’t know that as a girl I wasn’t supposed to do well in science or math, and I hate feeling like I have missed something, even a potentially career-altering gender stereotype.

Nosek et. al found that national indicators of implicit stereotypes about gender and science were related to that nation’s gender differences in achievement in math and science. I think I was lucky. Never once do I remember getting the message from teachers, peers or my family that I shouldn’t be interested in science. If anything I was probably influenced toward science. My maternal grandmother wanted to be an architect, but at that time they didn’t allow women in the school of architecture. So she majored in Botany. All of her daughters (including my mother) went to college. My father is a retired high school science teacher. My sister and I were brought up to be just ourselves, not “girls”. As a result my sister and I both had the self confidence to pursue things that interested us: geology and genetics, respectively.

When I started thinking about this, I recognized that, as a geneticist, the psychology of gender-bias is a bit far a field for me. So I turned to my friend Laura, an Associate Professor of Psychology at New Mexico State University. I emailed her about the study, and her response was fascinating. The results of the study didn’t surprise her. I had asked her to share her opinion, so she shared the following antidote about another professor who gave a guest lecture in one of her Psychology of Women classes several years ago. The professor had started a program to try to “funnel” very talented kids (scoring in the top 1% in math on the SAT test) into careers that they would find personally fulfilling with the theory that this would also increase the number of girls in science and math. Instead, what she learned was that many of the girls didn’t have the personality traits and interests to find a career in, say, engineering, to be enjoyable. It wasn’t that they weren’t smart; they just wanted careers that involved people as much as equations.

Ok, so what determines personality traits and interests? Genetics? Society? I can feel the sand under my feet sinking fast. I am sure that there are just as many papers written about what influences personality development as there are about gender biases. Frankly, I was afraid to look. Still, I wonder; couldn’t men echo the same complaint as women? After all, hasn’t society discouraged boys who showed interest in fields not considered masculine? Nursing leaps to mind. I have a friend who is pursuing his nursing degree, and I think he will make a phenomenal nurse because he has a genuine passion for it. It won’t be easy though, I know many of my parents’ friends who won’t let a male nurse touch them and yet have no qualms about a male doctor touching them. Likewise, how many female doctors have been mistaken for the nurse upon entering a patient’s room?

Perhaps I am naïve, and I have no doubt I am oversimplifying things. But what if we let kids learn about things that interest them? What if we didn’t pay attention to who is a boy and who is a girl? Why do we think little plastic building blocks need to be pastel for girls and primary colors for boys? Do we have to divide our kids’ world into pink or blue? What if we painted the toy aisles in all the stores green?

My daughter likes a certain book series that centers on two girls and their fairy friends. She gets annoyed with how much time is spent describing what everyone is wearing though. She wants the story to move on to the inevitable fight with the goblins. My son likes the books as well (of course he is hoping the goblins win). I want them to feel free to read what ever interests them, not what they are told they should be interested in. I want them to be who they want to be, not who our society says they should be.

My friend Laura summed up her response with a challenging question: Do we want to force smart kids into particular careers that they might hate just so we have a nice 50/50 gender ratio?

I don’t. Do you?


  1. Nosek BA, Smyth FL, Sriram N, Lindner NM, Devos T, Ayala A, Bar-Anan Y, Bergh R, Cai H, Gonsalkorale K, Kesebir S, Maliszewski N, Neto F, Olli E, Park J, Schnabel K, Shiomura K, Tulbure BT, Wiers RW, Somogyi M, Akrami N, Ekehammar B, Vianello M, Banaji MR, Greenwald AG. (2009) National differences in gender-science stereotypes predict national sex differences in science and math achievement.  Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 106, 10593-7
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Kelly Grooms

Scientific Communications Specialist at Promega Corporation
Kelly earned her B.S. in Genetics from Iowa State University in Ames, IA. Prior to coming to Promega, she worked for biotech companies in San Diego and Madison. Kelly lives just outside Madison with her husband, son and daughter. Kelly collects hobbies including jewelry artistry, reading, writing and knitting. A black belt, she enjoys practicing karate with her daughter as well as hiking, biking and camping.


  1. Hi Kelly,

    When I was pregnant, I searched high and low for an outfit that had an airplane (I’m a pilot) on it for my new little girl. The only things I could find with airplanes all said something like “Daddy’s boy” or “all boy”–I couldn’t find ANYTHING that had an airplane and didn’t also have the word “boy” on it.

    This year when I needed a dark green turtle neck for my daughter’s Halloween costume I had to resort to go to the boy’s clothing section. Apparently clothing manufacturers think girls don’t wear dark green.

    So on one hand there is a group of people screaming for “equality” and no gender bias, but on the other society doesn’t seem to be interested in actually creating an environment in which a girl or a boy is free to follow the path or paths that actually interest her or him.

    And yes, I much prefer to think that my child will be doing the thing that truly sparks her intellect, creativity and spirit rather than the thing that satisfies some meaningless statistical/political quota.


  2. Great article. Yes, I agree that we shouldn’t PUSH girls or boys into careers where their gender is underrepresented just to get a nice 50:50 ratio. But if a kid shows interest in a nontraditional field, they* could probably use a little extra encouragement to counteract the peer pressure/negative stereotyping that they will encounter. In my home country, veterinary medicine was a man’s profession for a long time, and a teacher made fun of me in front of the entire class when I said I wanted to be a vet.

    Later in life, graduate student and young professional women definitely need more help with stuff like child care – like it or not, our biology kind of locks us into being the primary parent at least at the infant stage.

    *Malay is my second language and Chinese is my third, and it annoys me no end that English has no gender-neutral third person singular pronoun, so I’m pushing for the evolution of “they”. =)

    1. Hi Xenobiologist,
      Thank you so much for your comment. I agree completely that woman need all the suport and encouragement that they can get to pursue the career they want. I hope you didn’t let your teacher discourage your for even a second from your dream to become a vet!

      I have a son and a daughter, so I see gender bias from both sides. My daughter wants to wear pretty dresses and then go play catch or dig in the mud (she gets to sometimes). My son loves music, art and submarines, and we try to indulge all those interests.

      All working parents need support from their employer and coworkers. I am lucky, my employer is very family oriented. I know some people who can’t use sick time to care for a sick child or spouse. This is hard for mothers or fathers, as it puts the majority of the burden for caring for a sick child on the other parent.

      I hope that our kids will have more freedom and support in following their dreams than my generation. And I hope they never have a teacher who mocks them for those dreams.

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