Freeing the Mind:
Eradicating Gender Inequity in Higher Education with Experiential Learning and insights from Neuroscience
By Naomi Ducat QC ‘16
“I want to be a ballerina,” said Samantha, the seven-year-old girl for whom I babysit on Thursday evenings. When I asked her younger brother what he thought about this idea, he enthusiastically contended, “Ballerinas are stupid; I want to be a fire fighter!” This moment resonates with me because it illustrates the gender patterns that we have grown to accept, beginning in childhood. These patterns have been examined in many fields of study since the beginning of our reflection of ourselves, particularly in our quest to understand “Nature versus nurture”. More recently, this was addressed by the past president of Harvard University Lawrence H. Summers, who was scandalized for suggesting there are innate cognitive differences between genders that may account for the gender imbalance in some fields (Dillon, S. 2005). Evidently, this topic is still one of heated debate.
Science is often used to shed light on whether gender roles are a result of social construction or biological differences, the brain being the perceived root in the biological explanation of gender inequity. There is no question such inequities exist. Today, women represent less than one third of all science, engineering and physics degrees, each at about twenty percent even though we are approximately half the United States population and fifty-seven percent of United States college graduates (Hughes, 2013). This statistic is unfortunate as gender diversity is not just a way to empower women, but a way to empower our nation and compete in the global economy.
One would think our approach to education, which is intended to maximize all aptitudes, would correct such inequities. However, it may be the case that our current educational system is contributing to these inequalities and may even be accentuating the effects of gender related differences in the brain. Let’s discuss alternative educational options that might reduce such inequities then examine the brain structures that require consideration when proposing these changes.
Implementing Experiential Learning:
Implementing an experiential approach in our current higher learning practices may help to correct the discussed inequities by minimizing gender as a factor. To start with a definition of experiential learning, let us take the definition offered by the Association for Experiential Education as a “philosophy that informs many methodologies in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills, clarify values, and develop people’s capacity to contribute to their communities” (Association for Experiential Education, 2014).
This interactive approach to learning, which includes requisite internships and other activities outside of the classroom, group participation and mentorship within the classroom, and even athletic involvement under Title IX, gives female students the opportunity to take control of their own intellectual development in a way that suits them best. The hope is that this system may lessen the effect of gender biases in education by allowing students of either gender the opportunity to experience a field of learning more in tune with their unique potential, without having to face social dissuasion. This is pertinent as social dissuasion can dictates skill development even when aptitudes are equal.
Like Samantha, the girl mentioned earlier, we often base our interests on social constructs, which frequently involve gender roles, as opposed to what best suits our abilities. This gender overtone is contingent since the general process of developing a skill, which usually leads to interest, is the same among all. We are motivated to do something, we try to do it and often fail, then we try again until we succeed. As the old adage goes, “practice makes perfect.” Here is where the brain and neural implications come in according to Daniel Coyle in his book Talent Code.
As Coyle points out, when we do any task, nerve fibers carrying electrical impulses travel through our brain. These fibers are insulated by myelin, a dense fat made of phospholipid membrane, also known as white matter. The hypothesis is that changes in this insulation allows the neural signal to become faster and connections between brain areas become stronger (Coyle D., P5) by preventing the electrical impulses from dissipating (Coyle D., P38). His point is that as we practice and repeat, myelin gets thicker, insulates better, and our skill develops (Coyle D., P5). One might recall experiencing this during activities such as studying for an exam by reviewing notes, or when repeatedly attempting to ride a bike without falling. So, while there may be some variation in how skills are honed, it seems the average person, male or female, has high potential to learn and develop a skill. Modern neuroscience considers this potential to be much higher today than it did even a few years ago. If this is so, why do we still employ constructed notions that distinguish abilities between genders? To answer this, lets examine behavioral gender differences.
Where Genders Differ:
While the general process of skill acquisition is similar between genders, it is important to recognize that learning distinctions between genders do exist. We have conditioned gender roles that influence our abilities, or at least our perception of them. These roles were likely augmented by social constructs but fabricated as a result of sexual dimorphism, the “clear and consistent physical differences between females and males of the same species” (Purves D., Et Al, P761).
Such differences are recognized throughout the animal kingdom, and have been characterized by phenotype, visible body parts or size; and genotype, the chromosomal sex and are usually associated with reproductive functions (Purves D., Et Al, P 762). Modern research also suggests that these differences subsist beyond the visible and gestational distinctions; they exist within the brain. An example of this is the variation in amygdala size discussed in a later section of this paper titled “Is the Amygdala a Culprit,” and was discussed in the previous paper in this series. Differences such as these are a possible explanation for why men and women often exhibit different interests and behaviors, specifically in social or competitive situations, and often why we perceive these behaviors as abilities. I have personally noticed this in my transition from a single sex high school to a co-ed university, where men tend to exhibit a more competitive desire than female peers, even though we too strive for success.
These virtues are addressed further by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In and in her TED talk “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders,” where she explains that women systematically underestimate their own abilities and if successful, attribute this to external factors. Men, on the other hand, often overestimate their abilities and attribute success to internal factors. These qualities influence how we interact in competitive situations.
In Sandberg’s TED talk, she gives a personal anecdote about a speech she gave on this issue at a Google conference. It was brought to her attention that when concluding her speech, she actually reinforced this competitive distinction. After telling the audience that she would take two more questions, all the women at the conference put their hands down, and many of the men kept their hands up, so of course, their questions got answered. This was revealed to her by one of the members in the audience, and she notes being amazed that she unconsciously took part in this phenomenon by calling on the men. COO Sandberg mentions that this scenario does not solely exist in the corporate sector; it is something that she remembers observing while she was in school as well (Sandberg S., 2010).
Gender Bias and Higher Education:
We have all likely witnessed some variation of Sandberg’s experience. Our educational system may be structured in a way that reinforces these scenarios and perhaps contributes to existing biases. It is inevitable that the interactions and instructions the professors give are influenced by collective perceptions on gender-aptitude since the standard professor-student collaboration is facilitated within societal constructs. The Harvard Implicit Association Test, which can be found in the link at the end of this section, illustrates these biases by providing evidence that men and women both tend to link disciplines with genders, associating science with men, and liberal art studies with women.
The test instructs the taker to sort words, names, concepts or ideas by gender using one side of the keyboard to represent women and one to represent men. Speed is measured. Later, the test gives instruction to switch sides to control for hand preference. Results between 2000 and 2006 indicate that among 299,298 scores, speed was drastically faster when asked to pair male with science words and women with liberal arts words (Project Implicit, 2011). I, a female, took the test and received scores indicating gender biases by subconsciously attributing STEM related activities with men and liberal arts with women.
To take the test, follow the link, accept the terms, and then click “ Gender-Science IAT.” https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html
Is the Amygdala A Culprit?
These gender biases are not arcane. The observed gap in competitiveness that leads to the biases exhibited in the Harvard Implicit Test may be influenced by the amygdala. The amygdala is a complex part of the brain that plays a vital role in the development of fear and anxiety (Davis, M., Aggleton, J). MRI studies indicate that male amygdalae have larger volume than female amygdalae (Purves D., Et Al, P786). The significance of this idea is still subject to query, but recent studies at the Stanford School of Medicine indicate that those with larger amygdala experience more anxiety than those with smaller amygdala (Bergeron L., 2013). Additionally, when recalling fearful events, the right amygdala is more activated in men and the left is more activated in women (Purves D., Et Al, P787). What is interesting about this is that the right hemisphere is associated with negative emotions and the left is associated with positive emotions (Purves D., Et Al, P 751).
These structural differences may influence how we react to stress and in turn influence visible interaction distinctions between genders. Is it possible that the competitiveness COO Sheryl Sandberg and I have observed is a male response to undergoing stress? We may be able to speculate that these observations are a significant cause of behavior modification, as the amygdala is linked to various parts of the brain, including the hypothalamus, the cortical and subcortical brain regions, and the ordinal and medial aspects of frontal lobe, which link information from every sensory part of the brain (Purves D., Et Al, P 743-746).
If women do react to stress less aggressively, conceivably because of these neural differences, it is possible that this is perceived as submissiveness. Unfortunately, people often empower themselves by exploiting those who express compliance. Perhaps this should be examined in determining why the average full-time working woman currently earns 77 cents for every dollar that a man earns (President Obama, 2013). In any case, it may be reasonable to speculate that figures like these originate from the mentioned biases encountered in school. These biases may interfere with the advanced level of self-exploration that prompts interest development. As a result, women often decline high-level opportunities before having the opportunity to acquire sufficient myelin that influence the specific skill development for that expertise. This is problematic.
Solutions Residing in Higher Education:
There are two potential solutions to this problem. In our current system, women must tackle their natural instincts and confront their passive persona if this applies to them. This solution is possible and should be taken into consideration. It is what Sheryl Sandberg proposes in “Lean In”, but it does not seem very fair to deem this the only answer. The other solution involves fostering a university environment that reduces these biases and rehabilitates our perception of our abilities by assigning mentors and requiring internships. Experiential education practices can do that.
If professors, instructors, or employers take on the position of mentoring individual students, this encouragement may inspire students to try new things and discover their talents despite negative societal perceptions of their abilities. Additionally, if this mentorship takes place via an internship, for example in a lab, law firm, or corporate office, students will have the opportunity to develop and practice the skill (and develop the underlying myelin according to Coyle), regardless of preexisting notions. If we do not encourage or require students to try these things first hand, we will allow preexisting perceptions to block skill development before acquiring the necessary experience to overcome those perceptions.
It might also pay to encourage more group activity participation in the classroom, something else that can be viewed as learning from experience. This alteration would allow men and women to work together by utilizing their intrinsic abilities, if such a concept exists, without being encouraged to dismiss a field of interest or alter an attribute. Imagine a classroom where students are lectured minimally and given the resources to research a subject and present their findings to the class, of course, with professorial-student interaction. In this scenario, the students are governing their own intellectual progress. Each group will allocate tasks to individuals based on skill and interest and every student will have to participate to receive credit, even if they generally seem passive, minimizing gender-motivated input.
To be clear, I am not necessarily suggesting students overcome passivity. The influence of students with this attribute will be of value to the group, as docile related qualities such as caution, meticulousness, and attention to instruction will contribute to understanding assignments and produce valuable products. I am suggesting we enforce participation to administer equal opportunity during competitive activities so women, like those in COO Sandberg’s conference, are more likely to resist self-imposed suppression.
These aggression-related differences and self-preconceptions are not the only mechanisms worth pondering in regard to academic gender disproportion; we must also take external factors into account. This external influence reveals itself in the following data. Aside from women representing less than one third of science and engineering related fields (Hughes, R. 2013), a survey done by Royal Society of Chemistry in London in 2006 found, “70% of first year female [chemistry, doctoral] students said that they planned a career in research; by their third year, only 37% had that goal, compared with 59% of males” (Shen H., 2013). That is, many women in this study planned to go into the field, but decided to change their plans after minimal exposure.
What happened during this time of academic exposure that influenced these females to change their mind?
To answer this question, it is important to reference back to the idea of practice, motivation, and thickening myelin of Coyle as an underlying and enduring structural change in the person as a way of building skills that could re-shape the way we work. It is plausible to assume that environmental discouragement, much like the comment made by the President of Harvard mentioned in the beginning of this essay, decreases motivation.
If the students described in the data were provided with mentors who offered encouragement and influence to succeed long enough to get field experience, the data might have been different. My personal observations support this hypothesis. When transitioning from a mainstream to an honors standing, my self-efficacy improved as a result of the positive support provided by the honors professors. The student-professor relationships, encouraged in the smaller class sizes offered to honors classes, amplified this.
This relationship-linked encouragement motivates effort, and in turn, myelin development. Of course, motivation is not the only factor. Other variables may have influenced the chemistry doctoral the students’ decisions too. The point is that encouragement ignites drive. This is essential. Without persistence and repetition, myelin on the neural fiber being used will not thicken as quickly, and ones aptitude fails to launch. The lesson of myelin is that this skill development takes serious and persistent practice, but it can happen.
In addition to the motivational dichotomy, the imbalance in these fields may be a product of the commonly regarded stereotype that men have better mathematical skills and that women have better verbal skills. A recent study published in SAGE Journals contends that this stereotype exists among men and women, about their own competence and about the competence of the opposite gender. What is more disconcerting is that the subjects in the study were more likely to confirm them after being exposed to the stereotypes, by demonstrating the levels of competence that they hypothesized (Bonnet V., Jost J., 2013). This is important to recognize because it illustrates the threat that women face and often subject themselves to in academia.
These stereotypical categorizations, while postulated, may have come about through observable behaviors. Perhaps some women are more likely than men to excel in areas of verbal communication and men may have a keen eye for science related skills such as spatial relations and mathematics. For those for whom this applies, an example may be the structural differences in the corpus callosum.
The Corpus Callosum:
The corpus callosum is the largest pathway that transmits information between the two cerebral hemispheres (Lee A., 2008). Interestingly, it is significantly larger in women than in men, with regard to over all brain size, particularly in young adults (Ardekani B. Et Al, 2013). Therefore, we might infer that female cerebral hemispheres are more interconnected than male cerebral hemispheres. Shape has been previously studied as well. Evidently, females’ corpus callosums are wider and more spherical and males’ are more tubular (Allen S., Et Al. 1991). These features may explain the verbal copiousness that women seem to exhibit. However, data from other studies that used meta-analysis as opposed to the classical small sample MRI assessments, suggest that the correlation between being female and having better verbal skills and being male and having better mechanical skills should be accounted for differences concerning populations and tasks instead of brain structure (Ardekani B. Et Al, 2013), suggesting environmental influence on these skills.
I present both arguments to denote that experiential learning is an asset regardless of which side of the corpus callosum argument we support. Whether we assume that men and women do have intrinsically specialized skills or not, it would be imperative to provide a collaborative-oriented approach to school, where teachers require group tasks and encourage discussion before and after the assignments. Enforcing communication will give students the opportunity to use their proficiencies more effectively, learn from their peers’ skills and mistakes, and provide constructive feedback so that they will all advance. This is a benefit to both genders as students will be taken out of their comfort zone and exposed to new ideas that they would not have otherwise considered. Exposing students to a realm of collaboration may also help reduce the gender biases that have been instilled in us. This application should be implemented and expanded beyond the constructs of the classroom.
Enacting Gender-Balanced Athleticism:
It is important to recognize that while interactions in the classroom and work environment are vital, they are only a segment of the university experience that influences student development. There are many areas of our system that can be tweaked in terms of equalizing gender opportunity. Athletics is one of the many examples that act as a crucial component in experiencing skill development in the university atmosphere. In soccer tournaments, for example, the players’ skills are evaluated to determine the optimal placement for team members to maximize success. And during the time out session in basketball, the coach calls the players to discuss their next move. Unfortunately, this valuable athletic team experience is an endeavor allocated more to men, with women historically heavily excluded until recently.
A survey done by the National Collegiate Athletic Association in 2012 shows that with a total national participation of 453,347 student athletes, male participation exceeds women with a 57:43 percent ratio (Brown G. 2012). Let’s note that this is an improvement from the 66:34 ratio in the 1990’s (Brown G. 2012). This change in ratio indicates that many women have athletic capabilities and aspirations and that their goals of high levels of performance can become more accessible. Accordingly, while some studies debatably suggest that we have stylistic differences when it comes to acquiring a skill aside from a similitude in myelin development, we do not necessarily have different abilities. Encouraging more female athletic participation may ultimately help equalize intellectual opportunities. Here is why.
Athletic participation can increase brain plasticity, specifically, in executive domains (Erickson K. Et Al). The Neuroscience, fourth edition defines plasticity as “the structural or functional changes in the nervous system or the ability to make such changes” (Purves D., Et Al, P G11). Its importance is invaluable as it is a source of our ability to learn and develop. Additionally, a study done in the at the Biomedical Research Center in MD, found induced exercise is correlated with enhanced hippocampal neurogenesis (the birth of new neurons) in the adult brain and increased synaptic plasticity (Erickson K. Et Al). Therefore, the hippocampus, which is concerned with short-term declarative memory (Purves D., Et Al, P 808), is affected by athletic involvement. Moreover, exercise increases the number of synapses in the hippocampus, enhancing long-term memory (Erickson K. Et Al).
These findings provide evidence that those who engage in regular physical activities could well be at a long-term intellectual advantage in learning in college. Perhaps encouraging further female athletic participation will have results that extend past the gym. This example indicates we need to change our current social habits with Title IX Legislation so that women have equal intellectual encouragement and opportunity.
The suggested academic alterations, which include increasing experiential education activities like internships, having more mentoring, building more within-classroom collaboration, and even promoting extra curricular activities such as sports, may produce greater academic gender equity. While men and women may learn differently, the belief is that our aptitudes are equal. These alterations in academic programming would allow us to utilize our differences more productively and creatively to provide more equal intellectual opportunity. Moreover, such activities will bridge the current gap that exists by influencing us to foster perceptions of our abilities in a field based on successful experience rather than cultural bias. Noting that experiential education is not the only answer, it can bring us closer to a world of equal gender opportunity. Why not maximize our potential and revolutionize the world as we know it? Imagine what Samantha, the girl I began with, might accomplish if gender bias was not an inhibiting factor in her intellectual development.
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