South Africa


Engineering CEO’s views reveal half-baked assumptions about male and female difference

Engineering CEO’s views reveal half-baked assumptions about male and female difference
Photo by Silvia Brazzoduro on Unsplash

The CEO of the South African Institution of Civil Engineering has been slammed for an article in which he states that women are “predisposed” towards choosing “caring” professions rather than entering technical fields as men do. Manglin Pillay misrepresents the research on which his argument is based – but the whole debate also reveals an ongoing confusion between nature and nurture when it comes to the supposed differences between men and women.

Should we be investing so heavily in attracting women into STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] careers?”

That’s the question that Manglin Pillay, CEO of the South African Institution of Civil Engineering, poses in a recent column written in his professional capacity.

The root of his scepticism is research published in Psychological Science earlier in 2018, which Pillay says that women in “gender equal societies prefer to choose care or people orientated careers while men tend to choose careers that orient them to things and mechanics”.

This presents what Pillay describes as a “conundrum”: why spend time and money trying to lure women towards STEM, when the evidence is “pointing to women being predisposed to caring and people careers”?

The backlash has been swift. In an interview with 702 on Monday, Pillay did himself few favours, falling back on the old politicians’ chestnut about being “taken out of context” while simultaneously doubling down on his views.

Women bring a unique set of talents and diversity into STEM careers,” Pillay acknowledged, while repeating his new favourite fact: when given all the options in the world, “more women choose, of their own volition, care professions”.

There are aspects of Pillay’s original Op-Ed which are simply too silly to engage with – such as his claim that women in STEM know him as a faithful ally because he “gave [them] poetry and even sang [them] songs”.

But other features of his thinking on the topic of women on STEM are worth taking seriously, partly because of his leadership role in the engineering industry and partly because they reflect myths about gender difference which are still taken as fact.

Pillay is not wrong to feel that, on the face of it, the research he cites is perplexing. If we are constantly told that it is sexist attitudes and general gender inequality which prevent many women from entering STEM fields, why would it be the case that in societies with higher levels of gender equality, there are lower levels of female STEM graduates?

But Pillay also does a bad and incomplete job of summarising the research. It is interesting that he doesn’t mention that the study – undertaken across 67 countries or regions – found no significant difference in girls’ and boys’ innate ability or achievement in STEM subjects.

The study also found that boys are more confident than girls about their abilities in science – even when this confidence is unjustified. The researchers found only a weak correlation between boys having high test scores and boys rating their scientific skills highly.

This factor alone could impact on whether schoolkids opt for careers in STEM, since it suggests that boys are more likely to believe that they have what it takes to hack it in technical fields.

Another crucial finding was that the girls who performed highly at science were likely to perform well in other educational areas too, whereas the same did not hold true for boys. In other words, they had lots of options for potential careers.

One possible interpretation of the data, then, is as follows. Gender-equal countries tend to be more affluent, with higher levels of employment and social support. Women in those countries thus have more freedom to choose career paths based on personal interest and aptitude rather than the necessity of bringing home a large pay cheque, as is the case in poorer (less gender-equal) countries.

This is the interpretation that Pillay seems to have leapt on: that when everything is equalised, women just aren’t as innately interested as men in doing technical stuff.

But this is a highly questionable conclusion, because it again fails to take into account a multitude of social factors. One is the measurement of different countries’ levels of gender equality, which may over-emphasise empirical metrics like legislation or pay and fail to take into account more covert or embedded manifestations of social attitudes.

To give one example, Sweden is consistently rated within the top five spots in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index – but in a 2016 Op-Ed, Swedish chemical biology professor Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede listed numerous forms of gender-based discrimination still faced by female scientists in that country.

Because a country is “gender equal” on paper also does not mean that girls are not still bombarded with environmental messages from a young age that technical stuff is more appropriate for boys and soft stuff more appropriate for girls. Consider the case of highly conservative parents raising a girl in one of the so-called “gender equal” countries: in that instance, it’s far from inevitable that the girl in question will adopt the progressive values of her wider society and reject the norms of her parents.

So while Pillay’s analysis of the research he cites is dodgy, the research itself is also open to scrutiny.

The really alarming aspect of Pillay’s conclusions, however, is the language in which he frames them – and, in particular, the notion that women are “predisposed” to preferring people-oriented, nurturing careers.

That word is a giveaway. It reveals Pillay as someone who endorses outdated notions of biological essentialism – that women are just hardwired a certain way, and men just hardwired a different way.

This is confirmed by Pillay’s recounting of his observations of parenting, where he writes, “I have witnessed first-hand how completely dependent babies are on their mothers in the first 2 years of development so life choice responding to maternal instinct makes sense.”

In psychologist Cordelia Fine’s 2017 book Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of our Gendered Minds, Fine comprehensively dismantles this kind of argument through exhaustive research and razor-sharp analysis.

Fine’s book – which won the 2017 Royal Society Science Book Prize – reveals just how fallacious the thinking around “male nature” and “female nature” is, and just how deceptively previous research around male-female difference has been packaged.

There are no essential male or female characteristics,” Fine writes; “not even when it comes to risk-taking and competitiveness, the traits so often called on to explain why men are more likely to rise to the top.”

The aspects of male or female behaviour that the likes of Pillay are so keen to ascribe to biological determinism are almost always attributable to social and environmental factors – which is why they tend to vary greatly across cultures. This isn’t just true for humans; it’s the case across the animal kingdom too, where biological sex doesn’t always “determine arrangements for mating or parental care”.

On the topic of “maternal instinct”, Fine points out that when male rats have been placed in cages with offspring – but with no female rats – the male rats do not simply allow the pups to die because they lack the instinctive mothering drive of their female counterparts.

Before long you will see the male ‘mothering’ the infant in much the same way that females do,” Fine writes.

It no doubt suits Pillay’s narrative to see babies as uniquely dependent on female caregivers, and women as uniquely equipped to care for children, but this set of affairs is by no means inevitable or essential.

Here’s another interesting piece of research cited by Fine, on the toys that infants naturally gravitate towards before they have begun to absorb the social cues around what is appropriate for boys and girls. A 2015 study compared how long boys and girls played with a train and a doll, first when they were 20 to 40 months old and then six months later. At both ages, girls played longer with the train than with the doll.

Writes Fine drily: “Draw whatever conclusions you will regarding the implications for the ‘naturalness’ of child care as an occupation for women, compared with the much better remunerated occupation of mechanical engineer.”

Pillay’s half-baked assumptions about female nature are a convenient way of defending the status quo. Why bother changing the patriarchal system if women are biologically programmed to serve it?

But even in the kindest analysis, Pillay’s views also demonstrate a disturbing impulse shared by many other men, and even some women: a willingness to give up on the project of real gender equality at the least provocation. If one study suggests that women don’t really want to be engineers, the CEO of South Africa’s leading industry body questions the whole notion of funding women in STEM.

By way of putting things into perspective, a 2014 study examined boys’ and girls’ school performance over a century and found that on average, girls have outperformed boys in all academic subjects for 100 years.

Nobody would dare suggest that this is empirical evidence that girls are just innately better suited to education than boys, and that consequently boys should be encouraged to stop trying to learn things and focus on the manual labour they are good at.

Yet as Pillay’s misguided Op-Ed shows, there is a striking appetite for leaping on research purportedly showing that women don’t want to do something as justification for stopping female support. Instead, the data should persuade the likes of Pillay to redouble efforts; to ask the difficult questions about social conditions and how they can be changed.

But that is, of course, hard work – and maybe men just aren’t built for that? DM


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