Could genetics explain the gender gap between men and women in tech?

Q:

Could genetics explain the gender gap between men and women in tech? Is there any biological explanation for the difference in number between men and women in tech roles, or is it nothing but sexism?

A:

Men and women are biologically different, and that’s a fact. Our brains are wired (somewhat) differently, and although we have a lot in common, there also a lot of physical differences that separate men from women. Are those physical and biological differences substantial enough to determine whether a woman may be more or less successful than a man in a tech job? Well, in a nutshell, the answer is no. However, sexual determinism is deeply rooted in our society, and we have shaped our world around a series of real or perceived stereotypes — including the idea that women are less technologically inclined than men. That doesn’t mean we can’t change this perception, of course, but let’s try to find out why this is happening.

First things first — although it is generally accepted that male and female brains work differently, there’s an immense variance between individuals. Sexual dimorphism does not account for all the differences in brain anatomy, since there are a lot of different types of brains rather than just two of them (the male vs. the female ones). Some people can, for example, possess an aptitude toward arts and crafts rather than mathematics, but this happens in any subgroup or population. The “male” and “female” groups are too broad and large (we’re talking about billions of individuals) to make any claim about the general predispositions toward a certain career or skill.

Recent studies provided convincing evidence that the human brain keeps growing and evolving across one’s entire life. Thanks to a phenomenon known as “brain plasticity,” what we learn and experience determines our cognitive features across the entire life rather than just childhood. Many of the differences between individual brain functions are modulated by environment, culture and practice rather than just genetics or hormones. Cultural gender stereotypes obviously account for the different evolution of many people’s brains, and might be one of the reasons why a larger number of men are attracted by tech careers.

For example, reaching a leadership position may require sacrificing one’s personal life and family, something that is seen as “culturally inappropriate” for women, even today. A widespread social stereotype makes a lot of people think that spending a large amount of time during adolescence and early adulthood working on electric circuits and assembling PCs rather than chasing personal relationships and human contact is a more “appropriate” behavior for men. On the other hand, anything that is perceived as “emotional” is identified as a feminine behavior, while crafts and technical skills are “for men.” As a consequence, more women’s brains will evolve around this bias, and we will have a larger number of female individuals that develop empathy and social skills to a greater degree than technical abilities. Following this example, if we analyze a large number of brain scans of fully formed adults later on, we are going to find that there are more tech-centric brains among male individuals, with a lot of women focused on empathy and social skills. However, this phenomenon is ultimately originated by social and cultural stereotypes rather than genetics or physiology.

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Written by Claudio Buttice
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Dr. Claudio Butticè, Pharm.D., is a former clinical and hospital pharmacist who worked for several public hospitals in Italy, as well as for the humanitarian NGO Emergency.

He is now an accomplished book author who has written on topics such as medicine, technology, world poverty, and science. A freelance journalist as well, many of his articles have been published in magazines such as Cracked, The Elephant, Digital Journal, The Ring of Fire, and Business Insider.

Dr. Butticè also published pharmacology and psychology papers on several clinical journals, and works as a medical consultant and advisor for many companies across the globe.

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