In Praise of Imperfection

Rita Levi Montalcini on her 100th birthday.

By Roberta Sgariglia (International Trade, Finance, and Development ’18)


Ideally, in the best of possible worlds, we would not need a day when we are reminded of exceptional women in science and statistics on gender quotas in American research departments. However, such is the current state of things, and in this relatively brief article I will report the results of a hectic, imperfect and rather personalized attempt I made to address some of the myths, common ideas and stereotypes regarding the role of women in science. The main insights have been drawn from Halpern, Benbow et al (2007), a reading I highly recommend.  I will also briefly share some highlights from the story of Rita Levi Montalcini, who is a source of great inspiration for me, and whose book In Praise of Imperfection this article is named after. As I hope will become clear, I chose this title because of the complex and troubled relationship women generally have with imperfection as well as, obviously, the great consideration I have of Levi Montalcini’s work.

 

The question of whether women can contribute meaningfully to science, how they compare to men in terms of “ability”, whether or not they are underrepresented in STEM academic environments was of little interest to me until fairly recently. As a matter of fact, I have been raised in a country where the greatest strength of the public educational system lies in humanities, classics and history. This particular feature of the Italian “liceo classico” is incredibly enriching in many respects, and it provides students with a unique, though slightly outdated, understanding of the world. Later in life there is always time to gain hard skills that are more in demand, but what does acquire shape in these crucial years for personality formation is a general tendency to see the world through non-scientific “lenses”. Piero Angela, perhaps Italy’s most famous science journalist (who was awarded 10 degrees ad honorem  in a broad range of disciplines), indeed notes that Italian culture is still heavily humanities-centered, and this significantly hampers Italian productivity and growth prospects. Very few children in general see themselves as scientists, let alone girls. Therefore, part of the reason why we need a “Women in Science” day is the fact that some countries and societies do not invest enough in scientific research, and do not understand its value in modern economies.

 

To start with, we need to address a question that I find rather fascinating: can observed differences in female and male behavior and skills be traced back to structural differences in the brain? If that were the case, perhaps our scope for action would be limited. Contrasting evidence has been found on this matter. Male brain size seems to be higher,  which however tells us little about brain functions, the amygdala seems to be larger for men on average as well, and recent studies find that women tend to have thicker prefrontal cortices, which translates into higher general intelligence and cognitive ability, a result that is obviously sensitive to how such a characteristic is defined, measured and sample size used.

 

However, most researchers point out that there are effectively more similarities than differences, and an interesting study of 1400 individuals by the University of Tel Aviv finds that brains are “patchworks of forms” that do not fit into male or female categories, as defined by an index of “maleness” and “femaleness”. Researchers involved in this project argue that the majority of brains observed could be described as a “mosaic” of female and male structures, and therefore it does not make sense to speak about female or male “nature” ex ante. A significant portion of heterogeneity can be accounted for by environmental factors affecting the biological development of the brain. However, no consensus has been reached on these matters. What is worth mentioning though is an idea that is thoroughly explained in Halpern et al (2000): it is extremely difficult to separate biological and environmental factors in brain development and consequently other outcomes deriving from it. As a matter of fact, prenatal hormones as well as other hormones released later in life can develop differently depending on the experiences of the individual in question, as hormonal secretion is altered by the environment. This statement is reassuring: it tells us that there is no reason why women should, a priori, be less competent scientists.

 

Having spent some time on a somewhat biological excursus, let me address the common perception that women may lack or have less “cognitive abilities”, especially those necessary to thrive in science and mathematics. This statement was also made in 2005 by no less than Lawrence Summers. As explained in Halpern et al (2007), evidence has been found that there are differences in some psychological variables between men and women (see Hyde, 2005). However, these discrepancies are generally measured based on the following broad categories of core cognitive skills: verbal, visuospatial, quantitative skills, general reasoning as well as measures of working memory, perceptual speed and mechanical reasoning. First and foremost, these categories are not unitary constructs, they comprise a wide range of skills and activities, for which men and women may have different predispositions. For instance, the two sexes may naturally excel in different components of language use, or different aspects of image processing in the range of visuospatial abilities. In general, women seem to fare better in verbal, memory and general reasoning, while men in quantitative and visuospatial skills. However, as discussed above, we have reason to be skeptical of these generalizations.

 

This brings me to the most important point I want to make. There is consensus that girls generally receive higher grades in school, and that, even when lacking the initial foundations in a specific subject, they tend to perform better in the long run (see Dwyer, Johnson, 1997). They also fare worse in admission and standardized tests than their counterparts, but it has been proven that the latter underpredict academic performance. Bearing this in mind, we should also note that there are no “science abilities” per se: success in STEM research requires a wide range of skills, capabilities, approaches that complement one another and are used simultaneously. Given the evidence on girls’ and women’s ability to learn, and learn effectively, a strong case can be made for higher female involvement in science, a field where thinking differently and rigorously is an asset rather than a restraint.

 

To conclude, I have provided substantive evidence to back the idea that women can not only contribute to science, but can in fact thrive in all sciences. A complex set of factors is holding them back, and this would be a great subject for another article, but in this one I will mention three in particular, and explain how they are connected: perfectionism, low self-esteem and interiorized societal expectations. As a matter of fact, it is understood that women generally have lower self-esteem than their male counterparts, and take action when they are sure they will succeed, basing perception of their own capabilities (and often also self worth) on exterior feedback and reinforcement mechanisms.  This often results in girls and women setting higher standards for themselves than necessary, and striving for an unattainable perfection which they believe is out of their reach. This was one of the main issues Rita Levi Montalcini strived to address in her book In Praise of Imperfection and in her personal life. A Jewish woman, political refugee and Nobel laureate in neurobiology, Rita argued that just like the human brain, an incredibly sophisticated creation, is inherently flawed, we should not strive too hard for perfection, as it is not the essence of nature nor life . Moreover, she encouraged young people, men and women, to “think of the future”, “think of what you can do and do not fear anything”, to build one’s own path and follow one’s own aspirations. Rita is one of the many exceptional women that set the example and took revolutionary stances on controversial matters.  I look forward to a time when great female minds become the norm rather than the exception.

 

References

Dwyer, C.A., & Johnson, L.M. (1997). Grades, accomplishment, and correlates. In W.W. Willingham & N.S. Cole (Eds.), Gender and fair assessment (pp. 127–156). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum

Halpern, Benbow et al (2007). The Science of Sex Differences in Science and Mathematics, Association for Psychological Science, Volume 8

Halpern, D.F. (2000). Sex differences in cognitive abilities (3rd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Halpern, D.F. (2004). A cognitive taxonomy for sex differences in cognitive abilities. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13, 135–139

Hyde, J.S. (2005). The gender similarities hypothesis. American Psychologist, 60, 581–592.

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