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Pink or blue brains: challenging stereotyping in STEM

Pink or blue brains: challenging stereotyping in STEM


When employers consider the qualities they might look for in their ideal candidates these are likely to include problem-solving skills, paying attention to detail, reliability, loyalty, creativity and innovative thinking.

Some of these characteristics might, erroneously, be thought of as either masculine or feminine, and affect the way in which an employer weighs up a candidate. But what, though, would an employer think if a candidate threw the fact that he or she was autistic into the mix?

A seminar (“Is your brain pink or blue?”) sponsored by Prospect and National Union of Teachers set out to explain some of the research into the brain and its interaction with gender and neurodiverse conditions such as autism and how these can affect the outcomes of men and women.

Prospect has done a lot of work in raising awareness of neurodiversity, including providing practical guidance on tackling bias in employment and advice for overcoming the stigma associated with autism, and this was highlighted at the seminar.

Speakers included Professor Sophie Scott, who is a Wellcome Trust Senior Fellow at University College London, Catherine Leggett from the National Autistic Society and Professor Gabrielle Ivinson from the Education and Social Research Institute at Manchester Metropolitan University.

In her opening speech National Union Of Teachers president Max Hyde said that the UK was falling behind other countries in recognising that the world is not binary. Such stereotyping ignores both the complexity and the diversity found empirically when one examines actual people.

For example, women make up half the UK’s workforce, but only 13% of STEM employees and 1% of skilled tradespeople. And fewer than 7% of engineering professionals are women, despite an annual shortfall of 55,000 engineering staff.

Professor Sophie Scott, who is also a stand-up comic, poked fun at outdated and unfounded views still held by her male peers that “it is not in the nature of women to like science”.

To further highlight discrimination against women in STEM, she told the story of British astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who detected the first radio pulsar, a kind of neutron star, in the late 1960s as part of a postgraduate research project.

Her supervisor had initially dismissed her discovery but went on to share the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1974 with another researcher for it, while Bell Burnell was excluded, despite being named as the second of the winning paper’s five authors.

Scott followed this by asking about perceived differences between men and women. Who talks more? Who gossips more? Who plays more computer games? Who is more aroused by erotic stimuli? Who overestimates their intelligence more? The answers given can be very revealing of unfounded stereotypes.

While Scott’s brother possessed two Sinclair ZX Spectrum computers in childhood, it was she that went on to become a research scientist. So to her the least interesting aspect of a brain is whether it is male or female.

The National Autistic Society’s Catherine Leggett revealed that she had been diagnosed autistic only three years ago. Neurosexism is under-researched, she reasoned, saying that there appears to be differences in diagnosis between men and women.

She argued that diagnostic criteria are based on the behavioural characteristics of men, resulting in women being under-diagnosed. In addition, women are better at masking their autism, interact socially more, have more active imaginations and are more likely to have similar interests to other women.

Professor Gabrielle Ivinson widened the argument to include gender politics and sociological and feminist theories about how gender differences are perpetuated in society.

She described three ideological eras: bone-child, 1900-1940, with its theories based on phrenology; gene-child, 1940-1980, when theories about gender differences were based on genetics; and neuro-child, 1980-2020, which is characterised by a fragmented or individualised approach.

Ivinson argued that we need to move beyond the prevalent binary view of gender, which is so strongly influenced by the argument that goes back to Freud that culture, ideas and biology shape it. We must recognise the difference between gender and sex.

To end off, I’ll share a remark I recently came across from Gloria Steinem, the American feminist, journalist, and social and political activist: “The more polarised the gender roles, the more violent the society. The less polarised the gender roles, the more peaceful the society. We are each unique and individual human beings. We are linked, we are not ranked.”

Click here to view Prospect’s information on neurodiversity.

Graham Stewart

Graham Stewart


  • "In her opening speech National Union Of Teachers president Max Hyde said that the UK was falling behind other countries in recognising that the world is not binary."

    The irony of this statement seems to be lost - yes, the world is not binary, and neither is gender.  Not everyone identifies as male or female, masculine or feminine etc.

    The very idea of "pink or blue" is stereotying in itself and offensive to some.  This blog (and the previously blog by Eleanor Wade) should have a trigger warning:  Non-binary erasure.

    Sandra Elizabeth Owsnett

    03 February 2017 13:05

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