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SFI NEWSScience shows the “Men are from Mars and women are from Venus” idea is false; male and female brains are not so different after all!

Posted on about 3 years ago by Laurentina Kennedy



30th June - Science Foundation Ireland is pleased to support on-going efforts to increase female participation at all levels of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).  Director General of Science Foundation Ireland, Prof Mark Ferguson’s, recent visit to India for the Global Research Council meeting provided an important platform for over 60 research funding agencies to discuss best practice and funding policy issues, including gender diversity. Prof Ferguson will also be speaking at Inspirefest today about “Building an Inclusive Education System in STEM”. Science Foundation Ireland’s own objectives aim to increase the proportion of women as research leaders, the proportion of women contributing to Science Foundation Ireland’s peer-review process and the uptake of STEM subjects by female students at second and third level.

In the last number of years, there have been various studies into gender diversity in the workplace - a number of these have shown that increasing the number of women employed in senior management roles increases the profitability of the organisation. In fact, over half a dozen such studies have demonstrated that companies employing women in large numbers out-perform their competitors on every measure of profitability. The same is true of STEM research, with a 2013 study from the Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha in Spain linking gender diversity to radical innovation.

“Equal female participation in research will deliver greater innovation and I welcome all opportunities that will positively influence the science community to bring about change,”said Prof Mark Ferguson, Director General of Science Foundation Ireland and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of Ireland. “Science Foundation Ireland aims to encourage female participation and career progression in Irish scientific research - at postgraduate level there has been significant progress, with women making up almost half of the new graduating PhD students. Science Foundation Ireland has also introduced an Advance Award for those who have had career breaks, has implemented a maternity allowance on all awards, and has produced criteria to recognise career breaks when assessing award candidates. In addition, we have put a gender quota on the number of candidates Higher Education Institutes must propose for the Science Foundation Ireland Starting Investigator Awards and we have invested in unconscious bias training for all our staff. While we are achieving some success, there are still challenges such as too few women in senior or leadership roles and subject specific deficits.

In a Science Foundation Ireland survey of over 2,000 first year students in Irish universities, over 60% of them stated the number one reason behind their choice of course was the desire to ‘fit in’. With the current engineering and computing workforce in Ireland still employing fewer than 11% female candidates, it is perhaps unsurprising that few women select these courses. This highlights the importance of having female role models who are seen and heard, known and celebrated, in order to help young women identify with all the various and fulfilling STEM career pathways available to them.

 Five Differences between male and female brains:

  1. In physical size, male brains (3lbs) tend to be bigger than female brains (2.5lbs). However, men also tend to be larger than women and no correlation has been made between the difference in the size of the brain and intelligence level of the individual. Einstein’s brain was 2.71lbs at the time of his death.
  2. Female brains often contain more grey matter (the nerve cell bodies in the brain) while male brains have a higher proportion of white matter (the axons that transmit information around the brain).
  3. The hippocampus - an area responsible for memory formation - tends to be bigger in male brains. However, the brain is dynamic and can be trained. For example, a study of London taxi-drivers revealed they have a larger hippocampus than bus-drivers who follow a pre-determined route. This correlates with taxi-drivers learning greater complex spatial information.
  4. The human brain cannot be divided into “male-brain” or “female-brain” dominant traits. MRI scans of over 1400 brains showed there is a huge overlap in the size of functional areas within both the white and grey matter of males and females.
  5. Mathematical ability is not gender biased. A study of nearly 500,000 boys and girls from 69 countries indicated “no overall gap in mathematical ability”.

Inspirefest is a two-day international festival of technology, science, design and the arts. The event will feature national and international guest speakers, panel discussions and a masterclass on ‘The Science of Happiness’. Inspirefest will take place in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin's Silicon Docks.