Saturday, November 10, 2012

Science Saturday: The Khasi, The Karbi, and Women in STEM

I had read about this study ages ago but had never thought to look it up or bookmark it for reference. Then I broke one of the first rules of the Internet and (unwittingly) fed a troll on a feminist board on Pinterest; fortunately Googling for the study was relatively painless as I remembered enough salient details to ensure its quick retrieval.

Check this shit out, y'all!

Researchers led by Moshe Hoffman, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Diego, studied villagers from both tribes. Genetically, the Khasi and Karbi are highly similar: the groups only became separate a few hundred years ago and some intermarriage continues. Both groups are also subsistence farmers, living mainly on rice in a hilly region that gets world-record levels of rainfall.
Culturally, however, they are quite distinct. The Karbi are patrilineal. Women are only rarely allowed to own land and the eldest son in each family inherits the property. Political and religious leadership is male-dominated and girls leave school nearly four years earlier than boys. 
Among the Khasi, though, women are the landowners, with no exceptions. Inheritance goes to the youngest daughter and men are not supposed to handle money. Even cash earned by men working outside the family farm is typically given to their wives. Both genders are equally educated...
...Hoffman and his colleagues studied 1,279 people, from four Khasi and four Karbi villages, paying them for their time to test their ability to solve block puzzles. Each block was divided into four parts and tests were scored by how fast people could accurately assemble the pictures painted on them. The puzzles were designed to test participants’ spatial abilities, which are linked to math and science aptitude. 
Among the male-dominated Karbi, men were 36% faster at solving the block puzzles than women. But about a third of the overall difference was attributable to the greater education received by the boys among the Karbi, and the rest seemed to be linked to other cultural differences. 
Among the Khasi, the difference between men and women was so small that it was not statistically significant. “This study tells us that culture does matter,” says Hoffman. “What makes [it] unique is that we can control for biology.”
The idea that women simply "don't do" math, or hard science, or whatever, can be traced pretty clearly back to the Enlightenment, where "rational" and "logical" fields of study were decided to be the superior (and therefore, masculine) fields, while "irrational" or "emotional" things were declared women's territory. Educating a woman in a field for men was seen as a waste of time and resources.

Even though we've come a long way, that great schism in the Enlightenment is still with us today, though more subtle and less egregiously offensive: how often do you hear people talk about left brain/right brain dynamics? Unfortunately, the idea that the staggering lack of women in STEM positions is due to "women be different than men" rather than cultural issues is still with us, despite the study cited above.

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