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Science and Women's History Month

Women's History Month, celebrated in March in the United States, is an annual celebration of women and their contributions to society. While women's accomplishments make the news all year long, these recent stories about women in science and the science of gender are worth a read:

A recent report has blown the conversation on the academic achievement gap wide open. Published in AAAS' Science magazine in January, the research examined attitudes toward gender, race, and ability in different fields in the sciences and humanities. As the Washington Post's Rachel Feltman wrote:

...the fields that favor men—in both the sciences and the humanities—have one cultural bias in common. They value perceived innate brilliance over hard work and dedication. Unfortunately, that spark of brilliance is a trait that's stereotypically assigned to white men above all others.

The study was based on a survey of almost 2000 academic researchers from 30 fields, and found that "presumed brilliance" was "a better predictor for under-representation of women in that field than any other hypothesis tested." Fields like philosophy, physics, and mathematics were found to favor this innate genius and be male-dominated. On the other hand, fields that instead valued hard work, like psychology, neuroscience, and molecular biology, had stronger female representation. These differences were also found to persist in attitudes about African-American scientists.

Another story on some fascinating new research into the science of sex and gender shows how much we have left to learn in this field. While conventional wisdom divides humans into male and female categories, scientists say that this approach is too simplistic. As Claire Ainsworth explains in Sex redefined in Nature:

Sex can be much more complicated than it at first seems. According to the simple scenario, the presence or absence of a Y chromosome is what counts: with it, you are male, and without it, you are female. But doctors have long known that some people straddle the boundary — their sex chromosomes say one thing, but their gonads (ovaries or testes) or sexual anatomy say another.

In short, there are a whole host of conditions in which the old scientific understanding of male and female breaks down, including abnormalities in sex chromosomes and a phenomenon called chimerism. The science of gender is not as simple as we once thought.

What are your favorite recent stories about women or gender in science?

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