Edinburgh International Science Festival 2018 / Edinburgh Medal Address: Prof. Cordelia Fine

Credit: Edinburgh International Science Festival

Since 1989, the Edinburgh Medal is awarded to scientists during the International Science Festival. The award recognises their contributions to science and technology, and to the better understanding and well-being of humanity. This year, Prof. Cordelia Fine joined the long list of awarded scientists for her work on gender equality and her contribution to close the gender gap.

As Prof. Sophie Scott (Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London) quipped in her oration, ‘’men still think that it’s not in the nature of women to do science; but if you try typing ‘where are all the women..?’ in a search engine, you will find out that there are a lot of things that women cannot do!’’. And she wondered, ‘’where are all these differences coming from?’’. Fortunately, Prof. Fine’s work is taking steps towards giving us the right answers.

Cordelia Fine is a Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Melbourne and an award-winning author. At her ceremonial lecture, she told us that she decided to write a ‘’readable and non-rubbish book’’ which is recognised by the scientific world, when she found herself shocked by the disconnection of some popular books and articles which misinterpreted scientific evidence to justify gender differences. It all started when ‘’old-fashioned sexism dressed up in neurosexism’’, as she described those who claim that boys and girls are fundamentally different just because of neurobiology and brain wiring.

Then, the research on gender behavioural differences moved from neuroscience to testosterone and another book was born, Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of Our Gendered Minds. She acknowledged that understanding the hormonal differences between men and women are important to explain gender differences and stereotypes, but stressed that we have to take into account other factors as well. She explained that often the use of problematic research methods, the biases of the researchers and perpetuation of gender stereotypes produce non-significant data for human sex differences and lead to ‘’snapshots of sexism in different context, background and time’’. An interesting example that she shared was research which suggested that CEOs with high testosterone are more aggressive, when the results were based only on observation and the age of the subjects, and not actual testosterone measurements. ‘’Psychologists believe that gender equality is feasible, when scientists stop blaming hormones’’, she added.

One of the most important and powerful messages that Prof. Fine passed on was that we need evidence that displays that women are not good at things that men exclusively do; only then we can agree that men are better and the right ones for those positions. We need to stop wondering and theorising how it would be if women were in men’s positions in the world. ‘’Put aside the science, and let women be equally represented’’, she concluded.

The ceremony closed with the vote of thanks by Prof. Lynn Abrams (Head of School of Humanities, the University of Glasgow), who summarised on how politics and economics are influenced by gender equality research, mentioning the current gender pay gap issue, and how Prof Fine ‘’crosses the line of science and humanities’’ to make gender matter and provide us with an optimistic argument.

This article was written by Athina Frantzana and edited by James Hitchen.

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