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The Real Root Of Google’s Gender Problem Starts At Birth, But It Isn’t Biology

The fired Google engineer presumes that biological differences are to blame for gender disparities in tech jobs. But the bias actually start at birth.

The Real Root Of Google’s Gender Problem Starts At Birth, But It Isn’t Biology
[Photo: Flickr user simpleinsomnia]

When the disgruntled Google engineer decided to pen his manifesto against his employer’s diversity policies, he believed he was relying on scientific evidence to support his premise. He argued that supposed biological differences between men’s and women’s personalities and abilities drive the gender disparities in tech fields, rather than sexism or gender bias.

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It’s a fatally flawed premise.

He, like many others, presume that there are only two explanations for gender disparities in tech jobs: It must be either biological differences or workplace sexism (the manager who hires or promotes more men than women, or the company who pays women less another criticism recently leveled against Google).

His premise is that, if bias in the workplace doesn’t exist or is eliminated, then biological differences must be to blame for women’s underrepresentation in tech jobs. But it’s not that simple. Workplace sexism is definitely  an issue (and Google has recently dealt with claims of a gender pay gap), but the impacts of sexism and bias start long before men and women apply for jobs. They start at birth.

The unhappy engineer is correct. According to the 2013 report from the U.S. Department of Education, women are seeking fewer tech jobs than men. Of all the bachelors’ degrees awarded in the U.S., women only earn about 20% of physics degrees, 16% of computer degrees, and 18% of engineering degrees.

A clear picture of why so few women pursue these degrees emerges from research with children. It shows that girls, rather than lacking innate STEM abilities and interests, face gender bias from the very beginning, bias that teaches them in overt and covert ways that the STEM path is primarily for boys. A sexist boss is easier to blame, but it is loving and well-meaning parents who are actually more culpable.

“Are You Sure About Your Answer?”

Research has repeatedly shown that parents routinely assume that their sons are more interested in math and science than their daughters. They also assume that math and science come more easily to their sons, whereas their daughters have to work harder for the same grades.

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So a boy who earns an A in a STEM class is assumed to be naturally talented, but a girl who earns that same A is presumed to have worked really hard for it. Stubbornly, parents make these assumptions regardless of how their kids are actually doing.

Researcher Harriet Tenenbaum and colleagues at UC Santa Cruz recorded parents and their kids talking about science, both in homes and at a science museum. They found that parents of sons had more objectively interesting conversations about science than did parents of daughters.

At the science museum, even though boys and girls were equally likely to be engaged by the interactive exhibits, parents were three times more likely to explain the science to their sons as they were their daughters. This included discussions with one-year olds, highlighting that these differences are driven more by parents’ assumptions than children’s interests.

Similar gender biases emerge when talking about math. In my research at the University of Kentucky, I found that mothers of toddlers talked about numbers three times more often in everyday conversation with sons than with daughters, tripling the times sons heard things like, “There are five raisins!” or “Look at those two beds!” These types of early number conversations lay the foundation for math learning, helping boys gain greater comfort and confidence with basic math concepts.

No doubt, very few parents tell their daughters, “Girls are not good at math.” What they do instead is more insidious. They intrude more on their daughters’ math homework than their sons.’ They ask more often, “Are you sure about your answer?” and “Do you need help with that?” Understandably, their daughters feel less competent in math later on. Wouldn’t you if someone was always trying to “help”? Girls internalize these messages and begin to wonder if they actually understand what they are doing in math.

It pays off–for boys. By elementary school, regardless of their actual grades and experiences, boys are more confident in their math abilities and have less anxiety about math than girls. Both boys and girls associate boys with math, physics, and computer science. Before they leave their elementary school, girls who believe that boys are better at math distance themselves from STEM classes. This is self-preservation, but the death knell for gender equality.

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Girls navigate elementary school excelling and interested in math and science, but their interest and motivation wanes during middle school. A major predictor of that declining interest: their parents’ own expectations, not their actual abilities. By the time girls enter college, they are often great at school, but opt out of tech-heavy degrees and jobs.

So, the former Google employee was correct in one way–a few workshops and workplace bias trainings aren’t going to solve the problem of gender inequality. But he, and those who agree with his missive, are wrong to dismiss gender bias as the cause of the disparity. The gender disparity must be addressed from birth. A spring break science camp for girls isn’t enough, either. It must be addressed in the tiny nooks and crannies of childhood, in the car rides to the grocery store, conversations over the dinner table, counting bubbles at bath time, and on family trips to the museum. Relying on false assumptions about girls’ and boys’ innate abilities, whether those assumptions are held by managers or parents, only perpetuates the inequalities.

Christia Spears Brown, is a developmental and social psychologist at the University of Kentucky who studies the maintenance and impact of gender stereotypes. She is the author of Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue: How to Raise Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes.