Boys, brilliance and science

I polished off Athene Donald’s manifesto, Not Just for the Boys: Why We Need More Women in Science at the weekend. Athene is a friend as well as the Master of my college (Churchill) at Cambridge so I was going to be well-disposed towards the book, and indeed found it both persuasive (not that it would have taken much) and a good read. There is plenty of evidence provided, statistics are cited, but you don’t feel as if you’re being sledge-hammered as a reader. There is too much common sense for it to come across as pure polemic, including the point that extreme gender imbalances in the other direction are not healthy for society or the process of discovery either.

The main point that stands out for me is that the male skew is highest in all the disciplines where ‘brilliance’ or being ‘really, really smart’ is seen as the key attribute. So “in science” is an over-generalisation. What’s needed is more women in physics, computer science, maths, and also philosophy and of course economics. Some of the other natural and human sciences as well as many arts subjects (but not music composition, surprisingly) skew female. ‘Brilliance’ isn’t just ‘clever but more so’; it’s a type of performative intelligence demanding supreme self-confidence, and I’m a bit suspicious of it in general; or, rather, think it leads to other kinds of insight and attributes being inappropriately undervalued.

Anyway, Athene and I and the wonderful Tabitha Goldstaub will be discussing the book and the issues it raises at an in-person event in Cambridge in the autumn.



One thought on “Boys, brilliance and science

  1. I’ve always wondered why the gender imbalance hasn’t been addressed more vigorously. At a very basic level it means that the best talent isn’t being recognised and less able individuals are. Of course I say this as a mediocre elderly male who clearly benefitted from this.

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