The Myths Behind Gender in Science with Professor Marlene Zuk

Marlene Zuk, prominent evolutionary biologist and behavioral ecologist, has been trying to encourage more fact-based discussions about gender in the scientific community

This interview was first published in late 2018 on the predecessor to Ecology for the Masses under the title “Marlene Zuk: Gender in Science”. Image Credit: Marlene Zuk, University of Minnesota, CC BY 2.0

Co-authored by Kate Layton-Matthews

As part of a two-day gender equality workshop for the Department of Biology at NTNU, Kate Layton-Matthews and I had the chance to interview Professor Marlene Zuk. Marlene is a prominent evolutionary biologist and behavioral ecologist, and a well-known advocate of improved gender equality in academia.

Her emphasis on bringing about more fact-based discussions on gender and how to attract women to typically male-dominated professions is unfortunately still necessary. People are still maintaining the view that women are ‘naturally less inclined’ to what are considered as ‘masculine’ disciplines, but as Marlene explains, it is impossible to disentangle culture from genetics. Her work is fundamental in the face of such dangerous over-simplification, for instance in the light of the firing of a disgraced professor at Cern, the European nuclear research centre in Geneva, where a male professor commented that ‘Physics was built by men’, which was unsurprisingly met with immediate backlash. In the words of another gender equality-advocate and professor in Physics, Jessica Wade, we need to fight against the ‘toxic and incorrect messages’ that such people are propagating.

Kate Layton-Matthews (KLM): Do you think there has been an increased awareness surrounding gender equality in science?

Marlene Zuk, Associate Dean of Faculty, College of Biological Sciences, University of Minnesota (MZ): I would say there have absolutely been improvements in gender equality in science as a whole, you can look at statistics on proportions of women in different fields and you can absolutely demonstrate that.

But more to the point, I think that there has always been an interest in who is doing science as well as in what people in science are doing. More recently it’s been possible to be more open about it rather than feeling like it was just something that you were just whispering about to your colleagues or being in little groups to talk about at conferences. Having workshops like the one we’re doing now, is a good sign that people actually want to bring it out the open and have people at all levels talking about it. Not just something where, for example, “I’m going to complain because I think that my supervisor treats the male students differently than the female students but I don’t really know if that’s true or maybe it’s just me.” It’s being formalised.

KLM: I wanted to ask you about something you wrote about recently. In more egalitarian societies, women tend to gravitate more towards humanities rather than science topics. Is that correct?

MZ: This was really interesting, there was a recent paper that found that if women can choose what fields they go into, the more egalitarian a society is, the more likely they are to choose fields like the humanities. Whereas in less egalitarian societies they’re choosing more kind of ‘male’ topics like engineering or math. I got really irritated because it seemed to me that it was being interpreted as, “see, men and women are biologically inherently different and they are just expressing those inherent differences and so we should stop with all of these efforts to make men and women do all this stuff.” So in a more ‘egalitarian’ society, perhaps it’s the women that are allowed to choose. Maybe they are not going in to something that’s viewed as more prestigious, because they’re being shut out by it. The thought that women are choosing to go into the humanities because they are naturally more inclined to it was fascinating, and not in a good way.

People also ignore the fact that in different countries, math/science-centric careers versus humanities-centric careers have different levels of relative prestige. I was at a conference in Mexico a number of years ago and in Mexico there’s lots of women at higher ranks in sciences, particularly in biomedicine, and they have far less of a disparity than northern Europe. A colleague explained that in Mexico, high status academic positions are in the humanities – the public intellectuals are in philosophy or in literature. They don’t have this ‘ooh a scientist’ kind of thing.

Even people who completely understand the level of nuance in ecology will then develop very simplistic ideas… You hear things like “males are just naturally better at math.” What does that even mean?

Lara Veylit (LV): Could you expand on the relationship between gender, society, and biology?

MZ: I am the last person who will tell you that men and women or that males and females of any other species are absolutely biologically the same and all differences come from culture, but that’s because there’s this weird dichotomy that people make, namely acting like you have got two little cups and you fill one with culture and you fill one with genes and then we’re left with a non-interacting set of cups. Even people who completely understand the level of nuance in ecology will then develop very simplistic ideas like this. You hear things like “males are just naturally better at math.” What does that even mean?

You can’t ever do that experiment. You can’t ever raise boys and girls in an environment where you treat them exactly the same and then you see what emerges.

There is this famous sex difference between men and women and how good they are at spatial reasoning and the ability to imagine what a 3-D object looks like rotated in space. It is true that boys and girls do differ on it and there is an equivalent in other animals. This can be demonstrated to be testosterone-dependent in rodents for instance, where males can find their way through a maze better than females can. I had always assumed that it was a result of a brain difference that resulted from a hormonal difference. Now I am sure there is some degree of interaction between your genes and your hormones and your performance, but it turns out you can alter people’s scores on the tests by how you tell them the result is relevant.

So you have your subject, and you say tell them the test has to do with traditionally male-oriented things like being a fighter pilot or undersea navigation, and then men do a lot better than women. But if you say actually this has to do with a lot of artistic and creative expression and if you are good at this then it means you are good at like sewing, needlework and flower arranging, you really change the difference in performance. It is not like you just gave people a testosterone injection. I’m not arguing that every single difference is culturally imposed, but you have so much interaction between the social influence and biology, that they’re impossible to disentangle So I have gotten really interested in how that is all working. But people love assuming these differences are inherent, because that is easier.


CERN in Geneva, where a male professor made a barrage of sexist comments during a talk earlier this year. The comments were an example of poor reasoning regarding differing ability between genders (Image Credit: Henry Mühlpfordt, CC BY-SA 2.0)

KLM: Do you have any idea of how gender equality is progressing in other professions outside of academia?

MZ: In academia we like to flatter ourselves, and think we are terribly progressive compared to the corporate world. We used to compare ourselves to the tech industry, but I think the corporate world has recognized that they actually need to have equity as a way to acquire the talent needed for better profit margins. They know that if they hire someone and accommodate their spouse as well, they’ll have workers who stay there longer and it is going to be better for their bottom line. Because they’re not constantly re-hiring and re-training people. It is a very pragmatic approach. Maybe it’s not being done for the right reasons, but it’s getting done.

I think a lot of times academia has been quite a bit slower than other industries or corporate environments here. And it is not like everywhere else is a paradise. But we like to think we are quite progressive, but a lot of these policies were figured out a long time ago in other industries.

One of the greatest things about being a biologist is recognizing a lot of things you thought were the way things had to work simply aren’t.

LV: Hanna Kokko has posed the question of whether males matter when studying population dynamics. Why do you think there are two sexes?

MZ: Theoreticians have labored about this question for ages. What I really like about it – and to me this is one of the keys about how great it is to study evolutionary biology is – it makes you question these assumptions that you have made forever and ever about the world. In this case, that there has to be two sexes because that’s the way it is.

I don’t have an answer to that, but I really like that you can say well wait a minute you don’t need to do things this way. Think about the rest of the world – fungi have lots of mating types and they’re still around. People immediately fall back the idea that this is just the way the world is. One of the greatest things about being a biologist is recognizing a lot of things you thought were the way things had to work simply aren’t.

KLM: You just have to have another way of thinking about it.

MZ: Exactly. One of the reasons why I think doing modelling is interesting is – and I think Hanna would agree with this – you end up coming up with results that are not intuitive. You would have said ‘oh no it should come out that way.’ Then you go ‘oh actually not really because it turns out that the number of males at stage X really has a stronger influence than I would have thought.’ That is one of the reasons why investigating theory is so important to do alongside empirical work.

Dr. Lara Veylit is a population ecologist hailing from California who recently completed her PhD at the Center for Biodiversity Dynamics (CBD) at NTNU. Her thesis focussed on studying the population dynamics and life history evolution of managed populations of wild boar (Sus scrofa) in Europe. You can read more about Lara at her Ecology for the Masses profile.


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