We often think of gender as something based on nature. But the truth is, gender can color our very idea of what's natural. As we begin to challenge societal notions about gender, more and more "scientific" theories that are actually based on gender norms have been exposed for what they are: pseudoscience. It's easy for preconceived notions about people to slip into the way scientific research is conducted and interpreted, so it's important for scientists, as well as the media and the public interpreting science, to be careful not to encourage gender norms.
Science has a long history of being used to justify cultural oppression. The nineteenth-century "science" of phrenology, for example, claimed that slavery was the natural order of things because black people's brains were predisposed to submissiveness, which clearly was not based on scientific fact. While this doesn't mean we should discount the scientific method entirely, we should also be aware that it doesn't eliminate our cultural biases.
While science done poorly can have harmful effects, science done right can be used to debunk ill-informed science. So, there are a few old pseudoscientific theories about gender that we're now learning aren't scientifically sound. Here are a few of them.
1. That Women Lose Their Fertility At Age 35
You've probably heard someone worry on their own behalf or someone else's that a woman's biological clock starts ticking in her late 20s or early 30s, and by 35, she'll have trouble conceiving. Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, told Quartz that these numbers come from eighteenth-century French birth records that are no longer relevant. In fact, there is no sharp decline in fertility that occurs in a woman's thirties. Changes in fertility can vary from person to person throughout the lifespan regardless of gender — in fact, men's age can affect the health of their babies as well, and it's telling that this is rarely discussed.
2. That Men Are Better At Math And Science
It was believed for a while that the gender gap between men and women in STEM professions and the performance gap in math and science in some (but not all) situations was due to innate biological differences. But studies keep coming out suggesting otherwise. One study in Science found that the gender gap in math test scores was proportionately related to a country's gender equality. Another study in Sex Roles found that when people are instructed to picture themselves as stereotypical men, the gender gap in spatial reasoning completely goes away. Another analysis in PeerJ found that Github users actually consider women's code superior — until they know it was written by women. Rather than innate differences, it's more likely sexism and stereotypes keeping women behind in STEM.
3. That Traditional Gender Roles Improve Relationships
In 2014, a New York Times Magazine cover story called "Does a More Equal Marriage Mean Less Sex?" came out. Using several studies and anecdotes from couples, it presented the possibility that heterosexual couples in which the woman cooks and cleans and the man works have more sex— or, essentially, that gender roles are hot. However, a recent study presented to the Council on Contemporary Families debunks this theory. While couples with traditional gender roles used to have better sex lives, times have changed, and now it's the opposite: men and women who split chores evenly have more sex. The authors speculate that, since men used to do more work outside the home, relationships felt more equal when women worked more in the home. It's not that unequal division of labor was sexually arousing, though. And now that men and women have more similar work lives, it makes sense for them to have more similar home responsibilities, too. When scientific data changes over time, it's a good reminder that what we may have thought of as innate is actually quite culturally specific.