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Current affairs: not inevitable

An easy mistake for everyone, including researchers and journalists, to make is to think that the current state (of society, nature, or anything, really) is the destined result of a natural process and is, therefore, somehow morally or naturally correct. This can be seen clearly in thinking about the process of evolution and natural selection, where people tend to think that humans are the end point of a process that has led directly and inevitably to where we are.

This kind of thinking comes out in hundreds of small examples in reporting on science and gender. For example, last winter, the Times Online published an editorial by Anjana Ahuja suggesting that little girls' preference for "pink fluff" is a biologically determined feature of girlhood.

Perhaps Ahuja is not aware that this premise is not universally supported:

There has been a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger color is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.

[Ladies Home Journal, June, 1918]

The mere fact that some feature of gender difference exists now is not proof that it is biologically determined or some neutrally-valued "natural" state.

The same point can be made with regards to more serious suggestion of gender difference, like that of Larry Summers two winters ago. The fact that there is a measurable gender difference in, for example, high-end scientific achievement tells us nothing about the inevitability of that difference, much less its source.

It is important for science journalists and gender researchers to keep this in mind when addressing or reporting on the current understanding of gender difference and similarity. The current state is not necessarily meant to be; it simply is the way things are right now. Next year, they may be different.


Ms. Carson, I am the editor of the IEEE's Women in Engineering Newsletter, and I would love to include this post (credited to you, of course) in our next issue. Please email me at rivoire@gmail.com if that would be ok with you. Thanks very much!

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