Women, Men, Science, and Communication

Karen Allendoerfer ravena at cco.caltech.edu
Fri Mar 29 01:48:29 EST 1996

In article <315994A0.59B2 at trail.com>,
Eric Fairfield  <fairfiel at trail.com> wrote:
>This question will either generate a lot of agreement or a lot of controversy.

I'm on the "agreement" side :)
>My daughter, seventh grade and 11 years old, is very good at science.  Like a number of talented 
>kids, she is actually very good at many things.

I don't have kids, but thinking back to when I was in school, that certainly
seemed to be true, both of myself and of other kids I knew in my "advanced"
classes.  Usually those of us who took AP Biology also took AP English,
AP Calculus, and AP American History (for those not familiar with US high
schools, "AP" stands for "advanced placement" and students in these classes
take standardized exams that can lead to college credit at some schools).  
>I have tried to analyze the many men and women that I have had as mentors, colleagues, and 
>workers.  I find, to my surprise, that while there are some differences between men and women the 
>majority of the variation seems to be between individuals (different people are interested in 
>different things) and in the mentors that these individuals have had.

This has been true for me in my experience as well.  I've worked for and
with both men and women, and the personality of the person makes more
difference in how I will get along with him/her than the gender.  
I also haven't seen huge differences between the way individual men and
individual women do science, based on gender.  I've seen both men and women
be creative, be inspired, be arrogant, be competitive, be "nurturing," be
enthusiastic, be confident, be insecure, be good speakers and bad speakers,
good writers and bad writers, good managers and bad managers.

All that being said concerning individuals, where I notice a difference is
when people get together in groups of 3 or more.  Groups of boys/men 
seem to behave differently than groups of girls/women, who behave differently
from mixed groups, even in science.  Sometimes I find that
individual men and women who behave in non-stereotypical ways when they are
alone or with just me change when they are in groups.  I notice it most
with men who I consider good friends when I interact with them one on one
who then, when they get in groups of other men, start to take on some
characteristics that I associate with competitive one-upmanship.  For
example, I find it much easier to discuss a paper or a controversial 
theory with a man one-on-one, than with the same man in a group of other

I'm not saying that there might not be a corresponding change in behavior
for women; I think I'm just sensitized to noticing it in men, because I've
been in the situation of 1. having good male friends, and 2. being the only
woman in a group of men.

>I used to assume that men and women were very different but my experience says that the 
>differences between sexes are smaller than I expected while the differences between individuals 
>are larger than I expected.

What do you think about the differences between groups of 3 or more men vs.
3 or more women vs. mixed groups? 

>I am trying to do as well as I can with my daughter.  I often feel that I am making it up as we 
>go along and that the most important and hardest part of this is to maintain clear, understood 
>communication between us.  Clear communication between people is surprisingly difficult.
>I would appreciate any comments or suggestions.

I think it's great that you are being supportive of your daughter and 
keeping communication open.  I also think it's great that you treat her as
an individual first who happens to have particular talents that belong to
her, and not as a member of the female gender first.  She probably get
enough pressure to behave in female-stereotyped ways from the rest of 
the culture.


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