Tag Archives: women

International Women’s Day: Ten Women in Science Who Aren’t Marie Curie

As the world celebrates International Women’s day, it’s important to remember what this date stands for: equal rights between men and women. Women’s day is tightly connected to the Suffragette movement, where women in many parts of the world fought and suffered for their right to vote. It was on March 8, 1917, that women in Russia gained the right to vote, and in 1975 the United Nations also adopted the day. Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go before we can talk about gender equality in the world and, sadly, science is no exception. When it comes to female scientists, one name always dominates the conversation: Marie Curie. Curie’s brilliance and impact are undeniable, but there are many more women who left a strong mark on science. Here, we will celebrate just a few of them, some of the names we should remember for their remarkable contribution.

Hypatia

Hypatia inspired numerous artists, scientists, and scholars. Here: The play Hypatia, performed at the Haymarket Theatre in January 1893, based on the novel by Charles Kingsley.

Any discussion about women in science should start with Hypatia — the head of the Neoplatonic school in ancient Alexandria, where she taught philosophy and astronomy. Hypatia was praised as a universal genius, though, for most of her life, she focused on teaching more than innovating. Also an accomplished mathematician, Hypatia was an advisor to Orestes, the Roman prefect of Alexandria, and is the first female scientist whose life was decently recorded.

Hypatia lived through a period of political turmoil, with Orestes fighting for power with Cyril, the Christian bishop of Alexandria. Although she was a “pagan” herself, Hypatia was tolerant of Christian students and hoped to prove that Neoplatonism and Christianity could coexist peacefully and cooperatively. Sadly, this wasn’t the case. She was brutally murdered by a mob of Christian monks known as the parabalanisomething which many historians today believe was orchestrated by Cyril (or at the very least, Cyril had some involvement in this process). Her murder fueled hatred against Christians and unfortunately, her legacy was completely tarnished and turned against what she had hoped to achieve.

Mary Anning

Portrait of Mary Anning with her dog Tray and the Golden Cap outcrop in the background, Natural History Museum, London.

Moving a bit closer to our age, Mary Anning was one of the most significant figures in paleontology. An English fossil collector, Anning was unable to join the Geological Society of London and did not fully participate in the scientific community of 19th-century Britain, who were mostly Anglican gentlemen. This stressed her tremendously, and she struggled financially for much of her life. Also, despite her significant contributions, it was virtually impossible for her to publish any scientific papers. The only scientific writing of hers published in her lifetime appeared in the Magazine of Natural History in 1839. It was an extract from a letter that Anning had written to the magazine’s editor questioning one of its claims. “The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone,” she wrote in a letter.

However, she was consulted by many of the time’s leading scientists on issues of anatomy and fossil collection. Her observations played a key role in the discovery that coprolites are fossilized faeces, and she was also the first to find a complete ichthyosaur skeleton — one of the most emblematic dinosaur-aged marine creatures — as well as two complete plesiosaur skeletons, the first pterosaur skeleton located outside Germany, and important fish fossils. Her work also paved the way for our understanding of extinction and her most impressive findings are hosted at the London Natural History Museum.

Ichthyosaur and Plesiosaur by Édouard Riou, 1863.

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace was one of the most interesting personalities of the 19th century. The daughter of famous and controversial Lord Byron, Ada inherited her father’s writing gift, but her most important legacy was in a completely different area: mathematics. She is often regarded as the first to recognize the full potential of a “computing machine” and the first computer programmer, chiefly for her work with Charles Babbage, regarded as the father of the computer.

Watercolor portrait of Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (Ada Lovelace).

But Ada Lovelace saw something in computers that Babbage didn’t — way ahead of its time, she glimpsed the true potential that computers can offer. Historian of computing and Babbage specialist Doron Swade explains:

“Ada saw something that Babbage in some sense failed to see. In Babbage’s world his engines were bound by number…What Lovelace saw—what Ada Byron saw—was that number could represent entities other than quantity. So once you had a machine for manipulating numbers, if those numbers represented other things, letters, musical notes, then the machine could manipulate symbols of which number was one instance, according to rules. It is this fundamental transition from a machine which is a number cruncher to a machine for manipulating symbols according to rules that is the fundamental transition from calculation to computation—to general-purpose computation [..]”.

Example of a computing machine developed by Babbage and Lovelace. Image credits: Jitze Couperus from Los Altos Hills, California, USA.

Unfortunately, the life of Ada Lovelace was cut short, at 36, by uterine cancer, with more than a century passing before her vision could be accomplished.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt

If you like astronomy, the odds are that you’ve heard the name Hubble — but the same can’t be said for Henrietta Swan Leavitt, even though it should. Her scientific work identified 1777 variable stars and discovered that the brighter ones had the larger period, a discovery known as the “period–luminosity relationship” or “Leavitt’s law.” Her published work paved the way for the discoveries of Edwin Hubble, renowned American astronomer, whose findings changed our understanding of the universe forever. Although Henrietta received little recognition in her lifetime, Hubble often said that Leavitt deserved the Nobel for her work.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt working in her office. Image from the American Institute of Physics, Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

In 1892, she graduated from Harvard University’s Radcliffe College, taking only one course in astronomy. She gathered credits toward a graduate degree in astronomy for work completed at the Harvard College Observatory, though she never finished the degree. However, she began working as one of the women human “computers,” working on measuring and cataloguing the brightness of stars. It was her work that first allowed astronomers to measure the distance between the Earth and faraway galaxies, ultimately allowing Hubble to figure out that the universe is expanding. The Swedish Academy of Sciences tried to nominate her for the Nobel prize in 1924, only to learn that she had died of cancer three years earlier.

Inge Lehmann

Image courtesy The Royal Library, National Library of Denmark, and University of Copenhagen University Library.

Before Lehmann, researchers believed the Earth’s core to be a single molten sphere. However, observations of seismic waves from earthquakes were inconsistent with this idea, and it was Lehmann who first solved this conundrum in a 1936 paper. She showed that the Earth has a solid inner core inside a molten outer core. Within a few years, most seismologists adopted her view, even though the theory wasn’t proven correct by computer calculations until 1971.

Unlike most of her predecessors, Lehmann was allowed to join scientific organizations, serving as Chair of the Danish Geophysical Society in 1940 and 1944 respectively. However, she was significantly hampered in her work and in maintaining international contacts during the German occupation of Denmark in World War II. She continued to work on seismological studies, moving on to discover another seismic discontinuity, which lies at depths between 190 and 250 km and was named for her, the Lehmann discontinuity. In praise of her work, renowned geophysicist Francis Birch noted that the “Lehmann discontinuity was discovered through exacting scrutiny of seismic records by a master of a black art for which no amount of computerization is likely to be a complete substitute.”

Rosalind Franklin

Image credits: Robin Stott.

Rosalind Franklin was an English chemist and X-ray crystallographer who made contributions to the understanding of the molecular structures of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), RNA (ribonucleic acid), viruses, coal, and graphite. While her work on the latter was largely appreciated during her lifetime, her work on DNA was extremely controversial, only being truly recognized after her lifetime.

In 1953, the work she did on DNA allowed Watson and Crick to conceive their model of the structure of DNA. Essentially, her work was the backbone of the study, but the two didn’t grant her any recognition, in an academic context largely dominated by sexism. Franklin had first presented important contributions two years earlier, but due to  Watson’s lack of chemistry understanding, he failed to comprehend the crucial information. However, Franklin also published a more thorough report on her work, which made its way to the hands of Watson and Crick, even though it was “not expected to reach outside eyes“.

There is no doubt that Franklin’s experimental data were used by Crick and Watson to build their model of DNA, even though they failed to cite her even once (in fact, Watson’s reviews of Franklin were often negative). Ironically, Watson and Crick cited no experimental data at all in support of their model. In a separate publication in the same issue of Nature, they showed a DNA X-ray image which, in fact, served as the principal evidence.

Anne McLaren

Image via Wikipedia.

Zoologist Anne McLaren is one of the pioneers of modern genetics, her work being instrumental to the development of in vitro fertilization. She experimented with culturing mouse eggs and was the first person to successfully grow mouse embryos outside of the womb. McLaren was also involved in the many moral discussions about embryo research, leading her to help construct the UK’s Human Fertilization and Embryology Act of 1990. This work is still greatly important for policy regarding abortion, and also offers guidelines for the process. She authored over 300 papers over the course of her career.

She received many honours for her contributions to science, being widely regarded as one of the most prolific biologists in modern times. She also became the first female officer of the Royal Society in 331 years.

Vera Rubin

Vera Rubin with John Glenn. Image credits: Jeremy Keith.

Vera Rubin was a pioneering astronomer who first uncovered the discrepancy between the predicted angular motion of galaxies and the observed motion — the so-called Galaxy rotation problem. Although her work was received with great skepticism, it was confirmed time and time again, becoming one of the key pieces of evidence for the existence of dark matter.

Ironically, Rubin wanted to avoid controversial areas of astronomy such as quasars, and focused on the rotation of galaxies. She showed that spiral galaxies rotate quickly enough that they should fly apart if the gravity of their constituent stars was all that was holding them together. So, she inferred the presence of something else — something which today, we call dark matter. Rubin’s calculations showed that galaxies must contain at least five to ten times as much dark matter as ordinary matter. Rubin spent her life advocating for women in science and was a mentor for aspiring female astronomers.

Sally Ride

Image credits: U.S. Information Agency.

Sally Ride was the third woman in outer space, after USSR cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova (1963) and Svetlana Savitskaya (1982). However, her main focus was astrophysics, primarily researching nonlinear optics and Thomson scattering. She had two bachelor’s degrees: literature, because Shakespeare intrigued her, and physics, because lasers fascinated her. She was also in excellent physical shape, being a nationally ranked tennis player who flirted with turning pro, and was essentially tailored to be an astronaut — and yet, the subject of the media attention was always her gender, and not her accomplishments. At press conferences, she would get questions like “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?” and “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?” to which she would laconically and patiently answer.

After flying twice on the Orbiter Challenger, she left NASA in 1987, after spending 343 hours in space. She wrote and co-wrote several science books aimed at children and encouraging them to pursue science. She also participated in the Gravity Probe B (GP-B) project, which provided solid evidence to support Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Jane Goodall

Image credits: U.S. Department of State.

Most biologists consider Jane Goodall to be the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees, and for good reason. Goodall has dedicated her life towards studying chimps, having spent over 55 years studying the social and family interactions of wild chimpanzees.

Since she was a child, Goodall was fascinated by chimps, and dedicated a lot of her early days towards studying them. She first went to Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania in 1960, after becoming one of the very few people who were allowed to study for a PhD without first having obtained a BA or BSc. Without any supervisors directing her research, Goodall observed things that strict scientific doctrines may have overlooked, and which led to stunning discoveries. She observed behaviors such as hugs, kisses, pats on the back, and even tickling — which we would consider strictly “human” actions. She was the first to ever show non-human tool-making and overall, showed that many attributes we considered to be human were shared by chimps. She has also worked extensively on conservation and animal wildlife welfare.

This article doesn’t intend to be a thorough history of women in science, nor does it claim to mention all the noteworthy ones and the unsung heroes. It is meant to be an appreciation of the invaluable contributions women have made to science and the hardships they had — and still have — to overcome to do so.

Men could significantly outnumber women within decades — and this is a problem

Cultural preferences for boys and prenatal sex selection are causing uneven ratios of men and women around the world, a group of researchers found in a new study. If this continues, there will be a deficit of at least 4.7 million female births by 2030 under a conservative scenario. By 2100, that number could even escalate to 22 million. 

Image credit: Flickr / Mulan

Over the last 40 years, prenatal gender-biased sex selection has become the most visible consequence of “son preference”. Simply put, with prenatal screening allowing parents to tell the sex of the child, many aren’t settling with a girl. Along with child marriage and female genital mutilation, sex selection is one of the key harmful practices defined by the United Nations (UN) and targeted under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

Sex-selective abortions, the main mechanism behind sex selection, have been observed across various countries from Southeast Europe to South Asia. They lead to a hike in the sex ratio at birth above its natural level and to the emergence of a surplus of males, contributing to a population with fewer females than men.

This is not a new phenomenon. Previous studies showed there were 45 million “missing” female births between 1970 and 2017 due to prenatal sex selection – 95% in China and India. Now, in a new modeling study, the same group of scientists predicted that in 12 countries known to have skewed sex ratios at birth, there will be an extra 4.7 million missing female births by 2030. 

This would continue even more in the longer term, the researchers said, with a shortfall in female births of 5.7 million expected by 2100. The higher ratio of males to females will eventually decline in populous countries such as India and China, but could inflate in other countries such as Pakistan and Nigeria, Fengqing Chao, who co-authored the study, said in a statement. 

A global problem

Chao developed the predictive models with researchers from the UN, the National University of Singapore, the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the Centre de Sciences Humaines in India. They based their projections on a database that incorporated over three billion birth records from more than 200 countries. 

The researchers warned the trends they identified would lead to a preponderance of men in more than a third of the world’s population, which could bring unknown social and economic consequences. They anticipate a set of demographic problems, such as large numbers of young men being unable to find wives in the coming decades, as well as violence against women becoming an even greater problem.  

“Prenatal sex selection accounts for about half of the recent deficit of females in the world during the previous decades. Fewer-than-expected females in a population could also result in elevated levels of antisocial behaviour and violence, and may ultimately affect long-term stability and social sustainable development,” the researchers wrote.

The main challenge now, the authors argued, is to understand whether birth masculinity will stay indefinitely skewed in countries affected by sex-selective abortions and whether new countries may be affected in the future. They described this as “essential” to anticipate and plan for changing sex structures around the world.

In addition, policies based on monitoring, advocacy campaigns, as well as direct and indirect measures to combat gender bias are required to slow down the rise of sex ratio at birth or to accelerate its decline. A broader objective is related to the need to influence gender norms that lie at the core of prenatal sex selection, they wrote.

The study was published in the journal BMJ Global Health. 

Risk of death from COVID-19 is 2.4 times higher in men

For many infectious diseases, women are at higher risk and experience a more severe course of illness than men. In some southern African countries, for example, young women are up to eight times more likely to have HIV than men of the same age, which is thought to be due, in part, to gender inequity, gender-based violence, age-disparate relationships, and not simply because of biological differences.

But in the case of COVID-19, that’s not the case — in this case, it’s men that seem to bear the brunt of the damage.

Men are more likely than women to die of the coronavirus. This is particularly pronounced in Italy, where men represent nearly 70% of the country’s deceased patients. Scientists suspect unhealthy habits like smoking and underlying health issues among men could be influencing this trend. 

According to a study in Frontiers in Public Health, men are 2.4 times as likely to die from COVID-19 than women, regardless of age. Moreover, older men with underlying medical conditions are much more likely than their female counterparts to have poor outcomes from COVID-19 infection, according to a small retrospective study published in PLOS Pathogens.

Investigators in the Frontiers study extracted data from a case series of 43 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Wuhan, China; a public data set from the first 37 patients who died of the virus and 1,019 survivors in China; and information from 524 SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) patients, including 139 who died, in 29 Beijing hospitals in early 2003 to compare the two diseases.

In the case series, 37.2% of patients had one or more underlying conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and chronic lung disorders. Male COVID-19 patients had elevated levels of serum creatinine (indicating kidney damage), white blood cells (indicating immune response), and neutrophils (indicating inflammation). Of the 43 patients in the case series, 13 (30.2%) had mild or moderate pneumonia, while 14 (32.6%) had severe pneumonia, 16 (37.2%) had critical pneumonia. Chi-square (χ2) test for trend showed that men tended to have more serious illnesses than women (P = 0.035).

Advanced age and a high number of underlying diseases were linked to more severe disease and death in patients who had either COVID-19 or SARS. In the case series, men tended to have more serious disease than women (P = 0.035), while the public data set revealed that men were 2.4 times more likely than women to die of COVID-19 (70.3% versus 29.7%; P = 0.016).

Of the 37 non-survivors in the public data set, 70.3% were men, 29.7% were women, and 64.9% had one or more underlying conditions. These patients were significantly older, at 65 to 81 years, with 83.8% of them age 65 and older, versus survivors, who were 35 to 57 years old, with 13.2% 65 and older.

In patients with SARS, the proportion of males in the group who died was higher than that of the surviving group (P = 0.015). In this group, 57.0% of patients had one or more underlying conditions. Median age of non-survivors was much higher than that of survivors (57 versus 32; P < 0.001), and non-survivors were also more likely than survivors to have underlying disease (57.0% versus 17.9%; P < 0.001). The percentage of men was higher in the non-surviving group (53.2%) than in the surviving group (42.3%) (χ2 test; P = 0.027). Men were also significantly more likely to die than women (31.2% vs 22.6%; hazard ratio, 1.47; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.05 to 2.06; P = 0.026).

In the PLOS Pathogens case series, researchers studied the data of 168 patients with the novel coronavirus admitted consecutively to Tongji Hospital in Wuhan, China, from Jan 16 to Feb 4. Overall, 17 patients (8.9%) died, while 136 (81%) were released from the hospital. Eleven (12.8%) of the 86 male patients died, while 65 (75.6%) were released from the hospital. Six (7.3%) of the 82 female patients died, while 71 (86.6%) were released. Fifty-seven patients had underlying conditions (33.7%). Median time from illness onset to hospital admission was 9 days for males and 7 days for females.

Of male patients, 36.0% had a chronic underlying illness, especially diabetes and cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases. After adjusted logistic regression analysis, males with underlying illnesses were more vulnerable to critical illness than those without comorbidities.

This was not the case for females. After adjustment for confounding factors, males 80 years and older were more likely to become critically ill than those younger than 59. But this wasn’t true for females.

Men and women differ in both innate and adaptive immune responses. These disparities may be attributed to steroids and X-linked gene activity, which both regulate the immune response to viruses. The authors said that future studies are needed to identify the different pathways and cellular responses between the two sexes.

Is AI in danger of becoming too male?

Credit: Pixabay.

Juan Mateos-Garcia, Nesta and Joysy John, NestaArtificial Intelligence (AI) systems are becoming smarter every day, beating world champions in games like Go, identifying tumours in medical scans better than human radiologists, and increasing the efficiency of electricity-hungry data centres. Some economists are comparing the transformative potential of AI with other “general purpose technologies” such as the steam engine, electricity or the transistor.

But current AI systems are far from perfect. They tend to reflect the biases of the data used to train them and to break down when they face unexpected situations. They can be gamed, as we have seen with the controversies surrounding misinformation on social media, violent content posted on YouTube, or the famous case of Tay, the Microsoft chatbot, which was manipulated into making racist and sexist statements within hours.

So do we really want to turn these bias-prone, brittle technologies into the foundation stones of tomorrow’s economy?

Minimising risk

One way to minimise AI risks is to increase the diversity of the teams involved in their development. As research on collective decision-making and creativity suggests, groups that are more cognitively diverse tend to make better decisions. Unfortunately, this is a far cry from the situation in the community currently developing AI systems. And a lack of gender diversity is one important (although not the only) dimension of this.

A review published by the AI Now Institute earlier this year, showed that less than 20% of the researchers applying to prestigious AI conferences are women, and that only a quarter of undergraduates studying AI at Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley are female.




Read more:
AI could be our radiologists of the future, amid a healthcare staff crisis


The authors argued that this lack of gender diversity results in AI failures that uniquely affect women, such as an Amazon recruitment system that was shown to discriminate against job applicants with female names.

Our recent report, Gender Diversity in AI research, involved a “big data” analysis of 1.5m papers in arXiv, a pre-prints website widely used by the AI community to disseminate its work.

We analysed the text of abstracts to determine which apply AI techniques, inferred the gender of the authors from their names and studied the levels of gender diversity in AI and its evolution over time. We also compared the situation in different research fields and countries, and differences in language between papers with female co-authors and all-male papers.

Our analysis confirms the idea that there is a gender diversity crisis in AI research. Only 13.8% of AI authors in arXiv are women and, in relative terms, the proportion of AI papers co-authored by at least one woman has not improved since the 1990s.

There are significant differences between countries and research fields. We found a stronger representation of women in AI research in the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark, and a lower representation in Japan and Singapore. We also found that women working in physics, education, biology and social aspects of computing are more likely to publish work on AI compared with those working in computer science or mathematics.

In addition to measuring gender diversity in the AI research workforce, we also explored semantic differences between research papers with and without female participation. We tested the hypothesis that research teams with more gender diversity tend to increase the variety of issues and topics that are considered in AI research, potentially making their outputs more inclusive.

To do this, we measured the “semantic signature” of each paper using a machine learning technique called word embeddings, and compared these signatures between papers with at least one female author and papers without any women authors.

This analysis, which focuses on the Machine Learning and Social Aspects of Computing field in the UK, showed significant differences between the groups. In particular, we found that papers with at least one female co-author tend to be more applied and socially aware, with terms such as “fairness”, “human mobility”, “mental”, “health”, “gender” and “personality” playing a key role. The difference between the two groups is consistent with the idea that cognitive diversity has an impact on the research produced, and suggests that it leads to increased engagement with social issues.

How to fix it

So what explains this persistent gender gap in AI research, and what can we do about it?

Research shows that the lack of gender diversity in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce is not caused by a single factor: gender stereotypes and discrimination, a lack of role models and mentors, insufficient attention to work-life balance, and “toxic” work environments in the technology industry come together to create a perfect storm against gender inclusion.

There is no easy fix to close the gender gap in AI research. System-wide changes aimed at creating safe and inclusive spaces that support and promote researchers from underrepresented groups, a shift in attitudes and cultures in research and industry, and better communication of the transformative potential of AI in many areas could all play a part.

Policy interventions, such as the £13.5m investment from government to boost diversity in AI roles through new conversion degree courses, will go some way towards improving the situation, but broader scale interventions are needed to create better links between arts, humanities and AI, changing the image of who can work in AI.

While there is no single reason why girls disproportionately stop taking STEM subjects as they progress through education, there is evidence that factors including pervasive stereotypes around gender and a teaching environment that impacts the confidence of girls more than boys play a part in the problem. We must also showcase those role models who are using AI to make a positive difference.

One tangible intervention looking to tackle these issues is the Longitude Explorer Prize, which encourages secondary school students to use AI to solve social challenges and work with role models in AI. We want young people, particularly girls, to realise AI’s potential for good and their role in driving change.

By building skills and confidence in young women, we can change the ratio of people who study and work in AI – and help to address AI’s potential biases.

Juan Mateos-Garcia, Director of Innovation Mapping, Nesta and Joysy John, Director of Education, Nesta

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation

Women’s brains look years younger than those of men

A new study found that women’s brains may convert sugar into energy at a higher rate than men’s. Consequently, women’s brains look younger than men’s from a metabolic standpoint.

Credit: Flickr, _DJ_

Glucose, a form of sugar, is the primary source of energy for cells in the human body. About half of all the sugar energy we ingest on a daily basis goes to the brain, the most energy-demanding organ in the body. Without glucose, critical brain functions such as thinking, memory, and learning would be disrupted. For instance, it’s common for people with hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) to have poor attention and cognitive function.

The brain is most demanding for sugar when we are children, since it’s a critical development period when new neurons grow and synaptic connections are established. The brain then tends to use less and less sugar as we progress from adolescence into adulthood and old age.

Intriguingly, researchers at Washington University found that adult women’s brains appear to produce more energy than men, whether it’s a young adult aged 20 or an elderly adult aged 80. The findings were made after researchers performed PET scans on 205 healthy individuals, which measured oxygen, glucose, and blood flow in the brain.

Male brain scans were fed into a machine-learning algorithm as input. When the machine was instructed to guess the metabolic activity of women’s brains, it tagged them an average of 3.8 years younger than they actually were. When women’s brain scans were used to train the machine, the algorithm predicted that men’s brains were 2.4 years metabolically older than they actually were.

Does this mean that women’s brains age slower than men’s? Not necessarily: these differences held across all age groups. Instead, the researchers claim that men’s brains always convert less sugar to energy from early adulthood. It’s not clear yet what mechanism might be involved but one hunch is that estrogen may help the brain form more synapses at a young age, which would explain why women require more energy later on.

“It’s not that men’s brains age faster,” said senior author Manu Goyal, assistant professor of radiology at Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis. “They start adulthood about three years older than women, and that persists throughout life,” said Goyal.

Although this was a small study, the findings may explain why women tend to live longer and stay more mentally sharp at old age than men.

It “could mean that the reason women don’t experience as much cognitive decline in later years is because their brains are effectively younger,” Goyal told AFP.

The findings appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

When it comes to influenza — Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus

Flu vaccine seems more effective in women; men recover faster from the flu.

Influenza (also known as the flu) is the smartest virus on the planet. Every year, seasonal influenza kills up to 650,000 people in the world, but when the flu season is over, people usually forget about the hundreds (or even thousands) who died and how bad the past flu season was. Until scientists create something more effective, the flu shot is still the best way to protect yourself and your family from flu and any associated illness. But no matter how often people are reminded to get the vaccine, and how often healthcare professionals tell patients compelling reasons to get vaccinated, flu shots are always a hard sell.

Scientists conduct studies each year to determine how well the influenza (flu) vaccine protects against flu illness. While vaccine effectiveness can vary, studies show that flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40% and 60% during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are well-matched to the flu vaccine. The vaccine’s effectiveness can also vary depending on the characteristics of the person being vaccinated (such as their age and health), and the similarity or “match” between the flu strains included in the vaccine and the flu viruses spreading in the community. However, gender appears to have a significant impact on the efficacy of the influenza vaccine as well according to a study entitled “Should sex be considered as an effect modifier in the evaluation of influenza vaccine effectiveness?” published in Open Forum Infectious Diseases.

It has long been known that gender can correlate with health with influenza. For example, women have increased exposure to influenza due to historical gender norms under which more women serve as primary caregivers than men. Nevertheless, men, although exposed less to the flu, tend to have higher rates of mortality and morbidity from the flu. Women are also more likely to be vaccinated than men, and they tend to seek health care more quickly when they are sick.

Colorized transmission electron micrograph showing H1N1 influenza virus particles. Surface proteins on the virus particles are shown in black. Credit: NIAID, Flickr.

Colorized transmission electron micrograph showing H1N1 influenza virus particles. Surface proteins on the virus particles are shown in black. Credit: NIAID, Flickr.

Investigators in this study wanted to ascertain the extent to which gender itself—not just cultural and behavioral norms around gender— could affect the effectiveness of the flu vaccine. To study the question, the investigators looked at a database of patients over seven flu seasons, from 2010-2011 to 2016-2017. Patients were included if they were at least 1-year-old and had seen a doctor within seven days of the onset of flu-like symptoms. Vaccination status was recorded based on patient self-reports and only those who had been given the flu shot at least two weeks before the diagnosis of flu were included in the study.

Results showed that women were less likely than men (43% versus 40%) to end up with a positive flu test and were more likely (29% versus 23%) to have received the flu shot. The overall vaccine effectiveness for women was considerably higher (49% versus only 38% for men). The difference in effectiveness varied by strain with the greatest dissimilarity in the A (H3N2) and B (Victoria) strains. Among patients not given the flu vaccine, there was no gender-based difference in influenza infection rates.

The authors wrote that “…these findings suggest that biological gender differences in response to the vaccine, rather than gender differences in health care seeking or vaccination status reporting, likely explains the observed differences in influenza VE between males and females.” In addition, the authors noted that previous research has suggested women have “stronger innate and adaptive immune responses, including more pronounced antibody response to influenza vaccine, in association with higher rates of local and systemic adverse events following immunization.”

Credit: Air Force District of Washington.

Credit: Air Force District of Washington.

Another possible biological cause for the difference in vaccine effectiveness is that testosterone can be immunosuppressive at high levels. The gender-based difference in vaccine effectiveness gap was most obvious among older adults (potentially because of age-related immune system changes or immunosenescence) and prepubescent children. According to corresponding author Danuta Skowronski MD, FRCPC, of the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control, if the findings are confirmed, one day physicians and vaccine developers might consider gender when developing newer influenza vaccines and flu prevention strategies.

This comes after the publication by scientists at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in the journal Biology of Sex Differences showing that a protein called amphiregulin (AREG) could be the reason why men recover from influenza more quickly than women. AREG is an Epidermal Growth Factor (EGF)-like molecule that plays a critical role in wound and tissue healing following infection or injury.

Certainly, more evidence is needed before public health experts can say whether influenza prevention strategies should vary by gender or whether a gender-specific influenza prevention strategy is warranted. But for now we know that flu vaccine effectiveness seems to be higher in women but men seem to recover faster from the influenza infection.

Income inequality, not gender inequality, leads to female sexualization on social media

A new study found that, contrary to popular belief, sexualized images of women on social media aren’t associated with gender inequality and female oppression — but they are associated with environments in which incomes are unequal and people are preoccupied with relative social standing.

Although we’ve taken important steps to reduce gender inequality, society is still a long way from placing men and women on equal footing. The over-sexualization of women is often regarded as an important aspect and, ironically, this has been exacerbated by social media. In a new study, Khandis Blake of the University of South Wales analyzes what makes some women more willing to share sexualized images of themselves on social media.

In other words, Blake and colleagues analyzed why women post sexy selfies.

The researchers focused on Instagram — a social media network focused exclusively on photos, and which greatly emphasizes body image. Previous research has already shown that Instagram can be associated with greater body image concerns and negatively influence women’s appearance-related concerns — and it doesn’t take a peer-reviewed study to see that Instagram is riddled with sexy selfies.

“Publicly displayed, sexualized depictions of women have proliferated, enabled by new communication technologies, including the internet and mobile devices,” researchers write. “These depictions are often claimed to be outcomes of a culture of gender inequality and female oppression, but, paradoxically, recent rises in sexualization are most notable in societies that have made strong progress toward gender parity.”

What they found is that gender inequality wasn’t a good predictor of sexualized selfies. Rather, researchers noted another trend: women who posted more sexy selfies were more likely to live in areas where income inequality is high, and to be of low income themselves.

“We found no association with gender oppression,” the researchers continue. “We find that female sexualization and physical appearance enhancement are positively associated with income inequality and generally are unassociated with gender inequality. The relationship between income inequality and female sexualization is particularly strong and robust in more developed countries and across US cities and counties.”

It’s important to note that the study established a correlation and not a causation. There are many parameters for which the study authors could not control. For instance, social inequality is often associated with big, industrialized cities — which also tend to have more social media activity and are more libertine. Still, the correlation is very robust and could pave the way for a better understanding of a common phenomenon that has been largely ignored by the scientific community.

The study has been published in PNAS.

Women ask for raises just as much as men do — but they just don’t get them

The fact that, on average, women are paid less than men for the same job should surprise no one. The gender pay gap has been thoroughly documented for years, with many economists estimating it at around 10-20%. There is no satisfying explanation for this phenomenon, but one of the more common theories is that women don’t ask for raises as much as men do. A new study thoroughly disproves that theory, showing that women “ask” just as much as men — they just don’t “get”.

“Even we were surprised by the results. We had expected to find less asking by the females. Instead, we found that, holding background factors constant, women ask for a raise just as often as men, but men are more likely to be successful. Women who asked obtained a raise 15% of the time, while men obtained a pay increase 20% of the time. While that may sound like a modest difference, over a lifetime it really adds up,” researchers write in a descriptive article.

For the study, 4,600 randomly selected employees across 800 workplaces across Australia were sampled. Although a relatively small country, Australia has the advantage of being very culturally diverse, thus limiting any potential cultural influence. Researchers analyzed several ideas about gender differences. For instance, they tested to see if women act less assertively in negotiations for fear of upsetting the relationship with their boss or colleagues, which has been suggested in previous studies.

They found no evidence supporting this theory.

Furthermore, while some employees don’t ask for a raise for fear that it will disrupt workplace relationships, that is equally true for both men and women (14% for both).

Regarding the “asking,” there were several factors affecting how likely people were to ask for a raise. As expected, older workers do it more often, as do long-tenured employees. Unsurprisingly, part-time workers, both men and women, are less likely to ask and to receive a raise.

Researchers also wanted to see if education plays a part — and again, researchers didn’t find any evidence of highly-educated women asking for raises less than men, and the same could be said for less-educated employees.

“At referees’ request, after the further analysis, we were able to demonstrate to them that our main finding — women do ask — holds in both large and small companies, and holds for women with and without advanced levels of education. We also demonstrated that the finding is not because female workers have shorter lengths of job tenure or behave differently than men when they have dependent children,” researchers concluded.

The bottom line, we still don’t really know exactly why this gender pay gap exists, but it seems that women can’t be faulted for not asking. If anything, they ask as much as men, but they just don’t get as many raises. As to why this happens, it’s currently anyone’s guess.

The study has been published in the journal Industrial Relations.

It’s official: College men think they’re smarter than they really are

If you think women in science don’t have it hard — then you’re probably not a woman in science.

We all know that overconfident personality, the type who thinks they’re so much better than they really are. We also know that one person who’s really good, but doesn’t have enough confidence. Well, as a new study has shown, the odds are that that first person is a man, and the second one is a woman.

Katelyn Cooper, a PhD student at Arizona State University School of Life Sciences and her adviser, assistant professor Sara Brownell, wanted to study this effect on biology undergrads.

The average grade of the class was 3.3. But when they asked students if they thought they were smarter than the average, male students thought they were smarter than 66 percent of the class, whereas female students thought they were smarter than 54 percent of the class.

Of course, most people tend to slightly overestimate their results, but the difference between the male and female students was quite significant. Men were also three times more likely than women to say they were smarter than the classmate they worked with most closely. This isn’t necessarily a new find.

“This echoes what has been previously shown in the literature; a review of nearly 20 published papers on self-estimated intelligence concluded that men rate themselves higher than women on self-estimated intelligence,” Cooper and Brownell wrote in their report, published in Advances in Physiology Education.

“More and more of these studies are painting similar pictures,” Brownell said.

It’s no secret that STEM is being dominated by men, and women still struggle to establish a solid position in many fields of science and industry. The antiquated, long-held beliefs that men are somehow better than women at subjects like math or physics have long been disproved but unfortunately, unhealthy attitudes still persist.

In terms of Cooper and Brownell’s study, they already identified immediate consequences of this issue:

“Females are not participating as much in science class. They are not raising their hands and answering questions.”

It’s not just a self-attitude — it spills into interpersonal relationships as well. It’s common for women to feel the disdain of their colleagues or to face disproportionate challenges in their careers. These may seem like inconsequential factors, but they do add up and consolidate an unhealthy attitude for all people involved.

It’s important to note however that the findings didn’t apply only to women: non-native English people were also exposed to similar doubts.

“We found that men and native English speakers had significantly higher academic self-concept relative to the whole class compared with women and non-native English speakers, respectively,” the study concludes.

Journal Reference: Katelyn M. Cooper, Anna Krieg, and Sara E. Brownell. Who perceives they are smarter? Exploring the influence of student characteristics on student academic self-concept in physiology. https://doi.org/10.1152/advan.00085.2017

Women who regularly use cleaning supplies risk lung damage, study shows

Researchers discovered that women who cleaned on a regular basis using cleaning supplies are more likely to experience a greater decline in lung function than the ones who didn’t clean.

Via Pixabay/klimkin

According to the study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, the participants enrolled at the average age of 34 and were followed for more than 20 years.The lung damage recorded by the scientists is compared to smoking 20 cigarettes a day over the same period. Researchers at the University of Bergen in Norway analyzed data from 6,235 participants in the European Community Respiratory Health Survey and discovered the that the women who cleaned had the following results, as compared to women who did not clean:

  • Forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1), or the amount of air a person can forcibly exhale in one second, declined 3.6 millilitres (ml)/year faster in women who cleaned at home and 3.9 ml/year faster in women who worked as cleaners.
  • Forced vital capacity (FVC), or the total amount of air a person can forcibly exhale, declined 4.3 ml/year faster in women who cleaned at home and 7.1 ml/year faster in women who worked as cleaners.

When asked about the reason for the research, senior study author Cecile Svanes, MD, PhD, a professor at the university’s Centre for International Health answered:

“While the short-term effects of cleaning chemicals on asthma are becoming increasingly well documented, we lack knowledge of the long-term impact,” she said.

“We feared that such chemicals, by steadily causing a little damage to the airways day after day, year after year, might accelerate the rate of lung function decline that occurs with age.”

The results, even if surprising at first because of the high lung impairment, are justified, believes Svanes — for example, inhaling particles of cleaning agents meant for the household, and not for the lungs is, basically, bad for one’s health. No surprise in that.

Doctors suggest that repeatedly inhaling particles of cleaning products affects the airways by causing the mucous membranes lining the airways to become irritated, which over time results in persistent changes in the airways and airway remodelling.

Additionally, the researchers did find that asthma was more prevalent in women who cleaned at home (12.3 percent) or at work (13.7 percent) compared to those who did not clean (9.6 percent).

I know, I know, until now, the study seems pretty sexist.

The researchers did study a group of men who worked in the cleaning business and compared their results to non-cleaning men and found out that there are no significant differences in the decline of FEV1 or FVC between the two groups.

The study has some limitations: the study population included very few women who did not clean at home or work. The authors believe this group of women “constitute a selected socioeconomic group”. Also, the number of participating men working in the cleaning business was small, and doctors think that their exposure to cleaning agents was likely different from that of women who worked as cleaning professionals.

“The take home message of this study is that in the long run cleaning chemicals very likely cause rather substantial damage to your lungs,” Øistein Svanes, a co-author of the study, said. “These chemicals are usually unnecessary; microfiber cloths and water are more than enough for most purposes.”

So, girls, if you are tired of cleaning all the time, showing this study to your masculine other halves might get you out of a bunch of chores. Just sit back, relax, and let science work in your favour!

 

Women in STEM.

More gender equal countries have fewer women in STEM, paradoxically

Puzzlingly, women in countries with greater gender equality are less likely to take degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). New research delves into this ‘gender equality paradox’.

Women in STEM.

Image credits Eryk Salvaggio.

You’d expect countries which make it harder for women to carve their own path in life to have fewer women involved in STEM fields — however, that is not the case. It’s actually quite the opposite: countries like Algeria or Albania enjoy a greater percentage of women (and of their total female population) amongst their STEM graduates than Finland, Norway, or Sweden.

The STEM of the issue

Researchers from the Leeds Beckett University in the UK and the University of Missouri in the USA wondered what’s up and set out to investigate. Their working hypothesis was that this divide stems from the poorer quality of life in countries with lower equality, which often have little welfare support, making STEM careers (which are generally better-paid jobs) more attractive to women who live there. The teams also looked at what factors motivate boys and girls to choose STEM subjects, including overall ability, whether or not science subjects were a personal academic strength, as well as personal interest or sheer enjoyment of the topic.

The data used in the study was drawn from 475,000 teenagers across 67 countries and regions. Boys and girls had overall similar achievement levels in STEM fields, however, science was more likely to be the best subject for boys. Girls, even in cases where their ability and achievements in science were comparable to or greater than that of boys, were more likely to be better overall in reading comprehension, which is more closely tied to non-STEM subjects. Girls, overall, also tended not to be as interested in science subjects as boys. The authors note that these differences were near-universal across all the countries and regions in their analysis.

So on the one hand, girls generally tend not to care about science as much as boys, and they’re also, generally speaking, likely to be better than boys at non-STEM-related skills. According to first author Gijsbert Stoet from LBU, this already explains some of the gender disparity we see in STEM fields participation.

“The further you get in secondary and then higher education, the more subjects you need to drop until you end with just one. We are inclined to choose what we are best at and also enjoy. This makes sense and matches common school advice.”

“So, even though girls can match boys in terms of how well they do at science and mathematics in school, if those aren’t their best subjects and they are less interested in them, then they’re likely to choose to study something else.”

And it makes sense; with limited resources to invest (both financial and time-wise) in education, we all want to go for something we both like and are good at. According to these findings, girls by-and-large seem to be naturally better at non-STEM-related tasks. I’m not saying they’re not good at STEM-related skills, and the authors aren’t either — it’s just that they’re even better at doing something else.

Where gender equality comes in

Bathroom sign.

Image via provera250.

That explanation, however, only tells part of the story. STEM fields, after all, tend to be the better-paying ones, and that’s certainly a powerful motivator when deciding on a career path. So, based on the criteria I’ve listed above, the team looked at how many girls could be expected to study in STEM fields. They took the number of girls in each country that had the necessary ability in STEM and for whom it was also their best subject and compared to the number of women actually graduating in STEM.

All things considered, they report that every country had a disparity between those two figures, however, more gender equal countries had the widest gaps. In the UK for example, 29% of STEM graduates are female, whereas 48% of girls might be expected to take those subjects based on science ability alone, and 39% could be expected to do so once both ability and interest were factored in.

“Although countries with greater gender equality tend to be those where women are actively encouraged to participate in STEM, they lose more girls from an academic STEM track who might otherwise choose it, based on their personal academic strengths,” says co-author Professor David Geary, UoM.

“Broader economic factors appear to contribute to the higher participation of women in STEM in countries with low gender equality and the lower participation in gender-equal countries.”

Using the UNESCO overall life satisfaction (OLS) figures as a stand-in for economic opportunity and hardship, the researchers found that in more gender equal countries, overall life satisfaction was higher. The team reports that STEM careers are generally more secure and well-paid than their competition. However, in countries where any choice of career feels relatively safe (i.e. richer countries, which tend to be more gender equal) women may put more emphasis on non-economic factors, such as personal preference, over economic factors, such as pay. Sex differences in academic strength and interests would thus factor in much more in women’s college and career choices in a more gender-equal country, Geary adds.

The findings could help guide efforts of getting more women into STEM, where their presence has remained broadly stable for decades despite efforts to increase participation.

“It’s important to take into account that girls are choosing not to study STEM for what they feel are valid reasons, so campaigns that target all girls may be a waste of energy and resources,” adds Professor Stoet.

“If governments want to increase women’s participation in STEM, a more effective strategy might be to target the girls who are clearly being ‘lost’ from the STEM pathway: those for whom science and maths are their best subjects and who enjoy it but still don’t choose it. If we can understand their motivations, then interventions can be designed to help them change their minds.”

The paper “The Gender-Equality Paradox in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education” has been published in the journal Psychological Science.

Women's Education.

Empowering women around the world could help usher in a sustainable society, paper argues

Our best bet to feed the populations of the future without sacrificing the planet’s biodiversity, a team of authors reported this week in the journal Science, lies with the ladies. Specifically, by improving women’s access to education, reproductive health services, and contraceptive technologies, an unsustainable population boom might be nipped in the bud.

Women's Education.

Female education in India.
Image credits Tony.saji / Wikimedia.

The paper starts by looking at the interplay between rising human populations and the dramatic decrease in other species or their total populations. Between 1970 and 2010 (less than two human generations) the world lost more than half its wild animals, according to a World Wildlife Fund report — totaling an estimated 39 percent of terrestrial wildlife, 39 percent of marine wildlife, and 76 percent of freshwater wildlife. So what does it all come down to?

“It’s the food. Follow the food and then you’ll know why the planet’s diversity of life is in trouble,” said Eileen Crist, an associate professor of science and technology in society in Virginia Tech’s College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and the lead author of the review paper.

“We’re causing a mass extinction, and agriculture is arguably the primary driver of those losses.”

And with populations set to boom around the world, the strain on the environment is only going to get worse. High-income countries, which account for a disproportionate use of resources, are more likely to have stable or even declining populations. But low-income countries have growing populations. The UN claims that we’ll go from today’s 7.5 billion to more than 9 billion by mid-century and 11 billion by the end of the century. Couple with economic growth, the most numerous generation of humans in history will consume more meat and other resources; inevitably, they will put immense pressure on the planet’s already dwindling biosphere. All things considered, we’ll need to double of even triple our agricultural output by the end of the century to feed everyone, the authors point out.

“But we’ve already taken up the most lush, arable land for cultivation, and we’ve squeezed wild nature into increasingly narrow pockets around the world,” Crist adds.

“How can we make more food without destroying more nature?”

Made with data from the CIA World Factbook.
Image credits Sbw01f / Wikimedia.

One solution is what agricultural experts call “sustainable intensification,” the pursuit of increased food production without breaking new ground for agriculture or otherwise impacting the environment. But the team says this approach isn’t enough on its own — we also need to work on lowering demand. They conclude that reaching a sustainable society which can equitably provide for while protecting the biosphere will require concentrated effort to stabilize and eventually lower the global population — without them, “nature will continue to take the fall,” Crist says.

Break the cycle

Ok, pause for a second. There are probably some who are getting a Malthusian, a la cycle of misery vibe here — I can’t blame you. The paper’s subject does, in many respects, overlap with those penned by Malthus. Which did, admittedly, have horrific repercussions on the world. Basically, in a way they’ve reached the same conclusion as Malthus — we need to be fewer “people” —  but through a very different approach, which is why I decided to write about the findings in the first place.

The authors believe talks on policy directly regarding population levels have been muted in the past few decades in part because of discomfort around global imbalances — but today, they say, excessive consumption is no longer limited to the developed world, so we need to have this talk. The global middle class of 3.2 billion in 2016 is expected to rise to roughly 5 billion by 2030, they write. Some 40% of India’s population is predicted to join the ranks of the middle class by the middle of the 21st century, adding almost half a billion consumers to the global economy — up from 50 million in 2006 — from one nation alone.

“A key solution to unsustainable population growth is the empowerment of women,” Crist said. “By enhancing their human rights, giving them and their partners access to reproductive health services and contraceptive technologies, and improving their educational attainment, we can help address this planetary crisis.”

“Wherever women are empowered educationally, culturally, economically, politically, and legally, fertility rates fall,” the authors write. “Populations tend to move toward states of zero or negative growth when women achieve equal standing with men, as long as family planning services and contraceptives are readily available.”

There are many factors that drive a nation’s natality rate, but one of the strongest is women’s education levels and access to family planning options — which usually lowers this rate as women forgo their traditionally appointed roles and take more control over their lives. Daniel Callahan talked about this link (and the issue of overpopulation at large) in his book The Five Horsemen of the Modern World. I recommend you give it a read if it ever falls into your hand.

And I’m all for that solution. Let’s face it, for the most part of history women have been handed the short end of the stick. Most of you reading this probably come from developed or the better parts of developing countries, so you are (hopefully) aware of how the bits fit together and can decide for yourself if you want to be a mother or not — but for most women on the planet, that’s only a dream. Even if it doesn’t work and we don’t get to become sustainable, I still think it’s a change for the good.

“The human population is not the only variable stressing Earth,” the authors conclude. “But it is a powerful force that is also eminently amenable to change, if the international political will can be mustered.”

The full paper “The interaction of human population, food production, and biodiversity protection” has been published in the journal Science.

Women really are better multi-taskers, study finds

Women really are better multi-taskers than men but only up to menopause, a new study found.

Witchcraft!
Image credits d26b73 / Flickr.

A Swiss team has found that women really do multi-task better, owing to a cocktail of sex-specific hormones. Men and menopausal women performed largely similar (bad) at multitasking tests.

The team asked 83 volunteers aged between 18-80 to walk on a treadmill with no hand supports to record how each one walked. They then asked them to take to the treadmill while performing a variation of the Stroop test — which I’ll admit right now, sounds like hell. The Stroop test is widely employed to investigate cognitive processes and check for brain damage. It basically consists of names of colors written in ink of a different color. The participant has to either read the word or name the color as fast as he or she can.

At the same time, the researchers measured arm swing asymmetry in the participants by tracking their wrist movements in 3D. The Stroop test is mainly handled by the left side of the brain, as is the swinging motion of the right hand. So, by comparing the difference in their control gait to their test-gait, the team measured how well their left hemisphere handled two activities at the same time. In other words, the less able they were to move their right hand, the less ‘brain’ they had available.

“We know that the left hemisphere of the brain is responsible for both the verbal task and the control of arm swing on the opposite side of the body,” said doctoral student and first author Tim Killeen, from the University Hospital Balgrist.

Women under 60 were almost completely free from this effect. Men and menopausal women showed a marked reduction in arm-swinging proficiency, which impacted their balance. The team believes that female sex hormones act on the brain to improve its multi-tasking abilities. As the hormones level drop later in life, women may find multi-tasking as tricky as men, the study suggests.

“In men and older women, the verbal task appears to overwhelm the left brain to the extent that the movement of the arm on the right is reduced. We were surprised to find such a consistent gender difference in how two relatively simple behaviours – cognitive control and arm swing – interact with one another.”

“Others have shown that women are better at switching between tasks than men. We show that women are apparently better, i.e. less susceptible to interference during walking and talking and that this ability apparently fades after 60.”

This settles a long debate, doesn’t it? Well, not really. To me, it seems that these results make perfect sense. I’ve seen my girlfriend texting and dodging heavy traffic without breaking a sweat, while I can’t even handle dialing and talking at the same time. But some papers contravene these findings directly, and there is some evidence that brain age also plays a part in multitasking.

Further research will have to either back-up or deny these results, and determine whether or not they can be generalized to other multi-tasking tasks such as walking and texting. Until then, the debate will have to rage on.

The full paper “Increasing cognitive load attenuates right arm swing in healthy human walking” has been published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

Credit: Anchorman, 2004

Training men how to read women might help curb sexually aggressive behaviour

Credit: Anchorman, 2004

Credit: Anchorman, 2004

For many men, judging whether a woman is flirting or just being polite can be difficult. Some might miss out on romances because they couldn’t take a cue, others might make a fool of themselves. That’s how life is — but it becomes a serious problem when this poor judgement call leads to sexual harassment and even rape.

“You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait,” Donald Trump in 2005.

Studies have attempted to explain this sort of behaviour. High levels of testosterone, alcohol and an overestimation of a woman’s sexual interest play a key role. One new study suggests this poor judgement stems, in part, from disproportionately assessing a woman’s level of attractiveness instead of following her emotions. Men who have a history of sexual aggression were the most likely to behave this way, the study also found.

Some women with a long history of dealing with overzealous men might be already rolling their eyes, but there’s some good news. Even though previous research suggests that information-based programs don’t help sexually aggressive men mend their ways, the new study found evidence to the contrary. Yes, sexual bullies can be helped if they’re taught to read women better.

Now, that looks like a ten!

Teresa Treat, a clinical psychologist at the University of Iowa, recruited 183 heterosexual or bisexual male students, then asked them to ‘study’ hundreds of full-length photos of female students and gauge their level of sexual interest.

Credit: American Psychological Association

Credit: American Psychological Association

The female students were actually professional actresses who are asked to pose different levels of friendliness, sexual interest, sadness, and rejection. The young women involved in the study varied in attractiveness and clothing (i.e. more or less provocative).

The yardstick group was made up of the researchers themselves, which also included nine undergraduate women. Each author rated the women’s levels of sexual interest just like the male students but used two separate systems. First, they rated sexual interest specifically ignoring attractiveness and clothing, and secondly they rated the provocativeness of their clothing while ignoring sexual interest.

A benchmark for sexual attractiveness was made by averaging the ratings offered by a large group of male students separate from the participants. Yes, ZME women, the researchers sort of endorsed giving women marks. This is a study largely made by women, so you’ll be the judge.

At the end of the study, finding suggest that the male participants relied more on the women’s actual emotional display than attractiveness and clothing to gauge interest. That doesn’t mean they didn’t take attractiveness and clothing into account, though. For instance, the most attractive women, as well as those dressed sexy, were assumed to show more sexual interest, although their emotions didn’t necessarily reflect this.

Those men who self-reported a history of sexual aggression based their judgement to a greater degree on attractiveness when compared to the low-risk men.

After the first round of tests was done, however, these alpha males were shown the light. The researchers gave them crucial feedback instructing them what the ‘correct’ answer ought to be for a series of photos they judged earlier.

The men who received feedback became better at using women’s emotions more, and their dress and attractiveness less, when gauging sexual interest. The results were confirmed by a new task in which the male students were asked to categorize photos of women based on how sexually interested they were. The effect was strongest among low-risk men, but was there in those with a history of sexual aggression as well, albeit to a weaker degree.

Critically, these findings should be taken lightly as there are many limitations to this type of study. The sample size is too small and the benchmark the researchers used might have been inadequate. Working only with testosterone-packed male students who rate women on a daily basis anyway might not be the best focus group either. It remains to be seen if these results can be translated into real-world applications.

“Perhaps the current work can point the way to improved prevention efforts that include both informational and active learning components,” Treat said.

This is Isis Wenger, a computer scientist whose photo was used for a recruitment campaign by the engineering company she works for. A lot of people went nuts on facebook calling BS because they couldn't believe Isis was a real computer scientist. Credit: U-C Boulder.

Women scientists with feminine traits less likely to be judged as scientists

This is Isis Wenger, a computer scientist whose photo was used for a recruitment campaign by the engineering company she works for. A lot of people went nuts on facebook calling BS because they couldn't believe Isis was a real computer scientist. Credit: U-C Boulder.

This is Isis Wenger, a computer scientist whose photo was used for a recruitment campaign by the engineering company she works for. A lot of people went nuts on facebook calling BS because they couldn’t believe Isis was a real computer scientist. Credit: U-C Boulder.

Researchers at University of Colorado Boulder showed volunteers pictures of men and women, then asked them to judge each person how masculine or feminine they looked. Unbeknownst to the participants, all of the men and women featured in the photos were working scientists, but those women who were rated high for “feminine” traits like long hair or fine skin were generally assumed to be non-scientists.

“What we find is that for photos of men, there is no impact of gendered appearance,” said Sarah Banchefsky, a postdoctoral researcher in social psychology and lead author of the paper.

Can a woman without a lab coat still be a scientist?

Depending on how you look at the findings, these can be either surprising or obvious. Anyone who has taken a university course in engineering or hard physical sciences knows there’s a disproportionate amount of men attending classes. Since there are few women looking for a career in STEM, let alone attractive ones, it’s no wonder that participants were inclined to judge the women scientists with feminine traits featured in the photos as more likely to work as early childhood educators — a field 80 percent occupied by women.

“There are some accounts of women in STEM fields who not only feel like they can’t wear makeup or a dress, but also can’t talk about wanting to have kids,” Banchefsky said

The main conclusion of the study is that “people use variation in women’s feminine appearance as a cue to her career,” something that doesn’t necessarily happen for men. But is this a cultural bias or sexism? The authors of the study conclude “this work empirically validates claims made by some women in STEM that their belonging or aptitude in their career has been doubted simply due to their feminine appearance, and it contributes to research suggesting that appearance is more valued, scrutinized, and consequential for women than men.” They call this a new form of gender bias, but personally I feel this is just classical stereotype enforcement — one that starts at a very fragile age, as I’ll explain later.

The study does, however, start a very interesting discussion that’s worth debating. Feminity and women come together like a hand in a glove, just like masculinity and men for that matter. That’s common sense. But we have a problem when people almost unanimously agree that women have to be unfeminine to have a career in STEM. It does nothing but further exacerbate the gender gap because most woman will turn their back on a field where their can’t express their femininity.

A study from 2013 followed the science aspirations and career choice of 10–14-year-old children. After surveying 9,000 children and interviewing 92 children and 78 parents, the researchers conclude that a career in science is “largely ‘unthinkable’ for these girls because they do not fit with either their constructions of desirable/intelligible femininity nor with their sense of themselves as learners/students.”

“We argue that an underpinning construction of science careers as ‘clever’/‘brainy’, ‘not nurturing’ and ‘geeky’ sits in opposition to the girls’ self-identifications as ‘normal’, ‘girly’, ‘caring’ and ‘active’. Moreover, we suggest that this lack of fit is exacerbated by social inequalities, which render science aspirations potentially less thinkable for working-class girls in particular,” the researchers of 2013 study wrote.

The following quote from one of the participants is most telling.

“I [a mother] said so how do you feel about science? And she [a daughter] said it’s really interesting, I love it, but don’t only geeks do it? [Int: Oh did she?] I now and this is why I wanted to get away a bit from her thinking that science is only for people I don’t know who…because she’s got this impression that only people who don’t have a life do science, which is terrible.”

Bernadette Park, professor of social psychology and neuroscience, says the recent U-C Boulder study highlights a troubling implications for the future of science in America.

“These feminine-looking women have ‘heard’ verbally or nonverbally that they don’t look like scientists, that they don’t belong in these male-dominated, highly prestigious fields,” Park said. “The message that your appearance matters and that it is relevant to your career choice likely leads other women — as undergraduates, as high-school students and even as young girls — to conclude they just don’t fit with science.”

I also feel this is a big problem, one with no obvious solution in sight. I also think, however, that society as a whole is coming to terms with the fact that there’s nothing stopping women from going into STEM if this is something they really want to do. If in the 1970s, men were 1.6 to 1.7 times as likely as women to later earn a STEM Ph.D., by the 1990s the gender gap had closed and both sexes are as likely to complete their education, according to a study featured previously on ZME Science.

But there’s still so much work ahead before we can eliminate sexism and racial bias from the academia.

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Women who feel vulnerable prefer physically dominant men

In neighborhoods with high crime rates, past research showed that women who perceive they are at risk will generally be attracted to physically formidable and dominant mates (PPFDM). Yes, I know, it’s a hilarious classification. But while this finding isn’t all that surprising, there’s a new research by a team at University of Leicester, UK which suggests this is true even when there isn’t much or any risk of physical confrontation at all. In other words, women who feel vulnerable or victimized no matter the circumstances will find comfort in dating PPFDM (now you have a new shorthand to call your meatier friends; enjoy!).

hulk

Image: Pixabay

 

Two studies were conducted in the lab and in the field  in which women volunteers were asked to look at some images or observe real life situations that described various risks of crime happening like hotspots or safespots. Then, the participants were asked to assess their perceived risk of victimization (fear of crime) of various crimes like male (and female) perpetrated physical assault, robbery or rape. Participants also completed a survey designed to measure PPFDM attractiveness.

Women’s fear of crime significantly differed in response to crime cues – for example location and time of day – and, overall, fear of crime was related to PPFDM.

However, the relationship between PPFDM and fear did not vary by risk, perpetrator gender, or crime type. This suggests there’s a relation between vulnerable women who feel at risk of crime no matter what and PPFDM, the researchers conclude in a paper published in Evolution and Human Behavior.

“PPFDM appears to be associated with women’s self-assessed vulnerability. Women with strong PPFDM feel relatively more at risk, fearful, and vulnerable to criminal victimisation compared to their counterparts, regardless of whether there are situational risk factors present,” says PhD researcher Hannah Ryder from the University of Leicester’s Department of Neuroscience, Psychology and Behaviour.

“Our research suggests that the relationship between feelings of vulnerability, as measured by fear of crime, and women’s preference for physically formidable and dominant mates is stable, and does not update according to environmental circumstances or relative level of protection needed.”

Menopause appeared by accident, evolved due to stay-at-home males

The evolution of the menopause was ‘kick-started’ by a fluke of nature, but then boosted by the tendency for sons and grandsons go on living close to home, a new study by Liverpool scientists suggests. The full paper, titled ‘Patterns of philopatry and longevity contribute to the evolution of post-reproductive lifespan in mammals’ is published in the journal Biology Letters here.

When you think about it from a biological point of view….Menopause doesn’t make that much sense, does it? All life is an embroidery of the fierce competition each living thing finds itself in in order to pass on its genes (for the most part). And yet, the females of some mammal species (including humans) spend up to one third of their lifespan unable to conceive offspring. So what’s the point in slamming the breaks early on one’s reproductive ability?

Now also available in musical form.
Image via flickr

In an effort to understand why this happens, University of Liverpool and Liverpool John Moores University researchers applied phylogenetic principles to see how the most common theories of why menopause evolved stand up to scrutiny. They used data from 26 different mammal species (including three distinct human populations) to test the effects lifespan, group size and each sex’s tendency to remain within family groups have on post-reproductive lifespan (PRLS)

This study, published in Biology Letters, used data from 26 different mammal species, including three different tribal or historical human populations, to test for the effects of lifespan, group size and male and female philopatry (the tendency to remain within a family group) on post-reproductive lifespan (PRLS).

First was the so-called “Grandmother hypotheses,” probably the most widely-believed explanation for the advent of menopause. According to it women outlive their reproductive period to help with raising their grandchildren. This way, they increase their chances to reach maturity and have children of their own — making the grandmother’s genes more likely to be passed on.

Another theory they looked into is that evolution didn’t actually make menopause happen — we did. Because menopause offers no obvious advantage to the female, some hold that it’s just a ‘mismatch’ that stems from the desynch between our long lifespans in the modern world compared to what we were likely to get in the wild.

The team determined that no one hypothesis could, by itself, adequately explain why menopause sets in. They suggest a new scenario, in which “non-adaptive origins followed by evolutionary tinkering” would bridge the two theories and finally explain menopause.

“Our results suggest that the menopause arose through a non-adaptive ‘mismatch’ between lifespan and reproductive span. Subsequently we think that in populations where males remained at home and females dispersed to reproduce, an adaptive benefit drove the extension of this post-reproductive period,” said evolutionary biologist, Dr Kevin Arbuckle, from the University of Liverpool.

“This adaptive benefit could have come from grandmothers looking after their sons and grandsons at home. As females tend to reproduce more reliably than males, this additional family support could have made it more likely that their grandsons successfully reproduced. ”

Co-author Dr Hazel Nichols, from Liverpool John Moores University, added: “Conflicting views in science can be challenging to reconcile, but our study suggests that both adaptive and non-adaptive ideas may be correct – it’s just that they apply to different parts of the evolution of this most unusual reproductive trait.”

 

How women subconsciously fight sexual competition

A new paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examines women’s efforts to guard their mates from sexual competition — especially other ovulating females.

For women, close cooperative relationships with other women offer important opportunities but at the same time raises possible threats — mate competition being one of them. So women have developed mate guarding behaviors to maximize the benefits of these same-sex connections while reducing their risk to the minimum.

It’s all fun and games until the guys get involved.
Image via Quartz

Psychologists from Arizona State University studied how women go about guarding their mates. They found that members of the fairer sex are sensitive to both interpersonal and contextual cues indicating whether other women might be likely (and effective) mate poachers.

And they all have their sights firmly placed on other ovulating women.

The team carried out four studies involving a total of 478 heterosexual engaged or married women. The participants were recruited from Amazon Mechanical Turk, an online crowdsourcing marketplace. In each of the studies, participants were shown photographs of a series of women and then asked how willing they would be, on a seven-point scale, for the women in the picture to befriend their partner.

An interesting thing happened: the participants were more likely to want to put as much distance between their partner and the woman in the photograph as possible if the latter was ovulating. They weren’t told if the person in the picture was ovulating and, in all likelihood, they didn’t even consciously consider the idea, authors note. But studies have shown that humans do subconsciously pick up on the subtle cues that indicate when women are more fertile.

“Research across species demonstrates that social perceptions, cognitions, and behaviors do temporarily shift in response to ovulation, and that these shifts may enhance individuals’ reproductive fitness,” write the authors.

“Similarly, psychological research on humans has demonstrated that (a) women’s perceptions and behaviors shift across their own cycles and (b) men respond to these cyclic shifts.”

It also (unsurprisingly) became apparent to the team that women were especially protective when their mate was desirable to the other subjects, or when their mate found the woman in the photograph to be physically attractive. It’s not all about keeping distance, though. The authors also note that women employ other tactics to keep their partners close:

“Specifically, women with desirable partners reported that they would show increased sexual interest in their partners after viewing a high-fertility target, regardless of how attractive that target was,” the paper reads.

But, sadly, the study didn’t produce any evidence that women’s efforts are rewarded or that “mate guarding” is particularly effective.

The authors also note that the study relies on composite photos of strangers; In real life, when socializing with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, women may well choose to trust their friends and worry less about ovulating threats.

Men ate almost twice as much when they dined with women

We all know that men like to impress the fairer members of our species, and this permeates into almost everything we do: we want to drive the shiniest car on the block, crack the funniest jokes 24/7 and write for ZMEScience so we can impress the ladies at parties (works every time). In essence, no matter how unlikely it is to actually impress, if a man has a choice between doing something and doing that something over the top so he can show off to women, you can bet your right arm he’s gonna do the latter.

Don’t believe me? Well, a recently published study discovered that men will actually eat more food when they dine with a woman than they do in the company of other males, just to show off.

Men who were coupled up with a female tend to eat more to impress the fairer sex. Image via wikimedia

 

Netflix and eat?

The study observed over 150 adults having lunch at an all-you-can-eat Italian buffet over a two-week period. Researchers from Cornell University, who collaborated with Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab for the study, took note of the number of pizza slices and how many bowls of salad each subject consumed. Men who walked in the buffet with a female and ate there packed their plates with pizza slices and left the buffet line with bowls overflowing with salad. On average, they ate 93 percent more pizza and 86 percent more greens than the men who ate alone or with other men.

‘These findings suggest that men tend to overeat to show off – you can also see this tendency in eating competitions which almost always have mostly male participants,’ explains lead author Kevin Kniffin, PhD, of Cornell University in a recent press release.

The researchers waited for the diners to finish their meal and asked them to complete a short survey indicating their level of fullness after eating, their feelings of hurridness and comfort while eating. While they didn’t change the amount they ate while dining with either gender, the women reported feeling like they overate and rushed through the meal when dining with men — however, the team said that their observations disproved this.

So the next time you’re out eating with a guy friend, just try to relax and enjoy your meal; it’s just your brain trying to impress him — his brain is busy doing the same.

 

Study finds most women are gay or bisexual — a personal take

One study, led by Dr. Gerulf Rieger of the University of Essex looked at human sexuality in an effort to understand exactly what makes the gentle sex tick. It recorded the biological responses (a fancy wording for arousal) of a sample of 345 women who watched videos of nude males and females. And the data is quite surprising: 82% of participants responded sexually to both men and women.

Image via Telegraph.uk

Women who identified as lesbians unsurprisingly showed a strong preference for the female form. But what the team didn’t expected was that 74% of the ones who reported their sexual orientation as “straight” were also aroused by the videos showing nude women, in addition to the ones showing only men.

“Even though the majority of women identify as straight,” Dr. Rieger said, “our research clearly demonstrates that when it comes to what turns them on, they are either bisexual or gay, but never straight.”

There are a few flaws that I see with this study though:

For starters, it doesn’t mention including openly bisexual women. Either this was not an option for the participants to choose from, or the data was lost during re-writing (i haven’t been able to locate the original papers of the study yet). Thought the argument could be made that if a large portion of the women identify as bisexual, the findings (i.e. women are bisexual) still stand, i don’t agree with that — the test aimed to find what fires up the imagination and loins of ladies everywhere, but maybe the test just happened to include mainly bisexual or so-called “bi-curious” women on accident; there’s a certain social stigma associated with homosexuality, and faced with a choice between hetero or homo-sexual, many of the participants could have chosen the first one out of the need for social acceptance, rather than personal preference in bed buddies — more and clearer options regarding sexual orientation would have been ideal.

Secondly — and this is not the fault of the study per-say but rather the one leading it — Dr. Rieger has a knack for generalization; 74 percent still needs an extra 26 percent for a whole.

Add this to the fact that previous work of his found that bisexuality in men doesn’t exist at all — again, pretty broad — you kinda start seeing a pattern.

But, just because I personally have some issues with how the study was carried out and Dr. Rieger’s inclination towards headline-grabbing statements, does not mean that the findings are wrong — he may very well be right on target, and there are no biologically heterosexual women out there. I’d definitely like to see more studies that come to test the good doctor’s findings.

And who knows, maybe we’ll find something about the ladies that we all can enjoy. But right now?…Naaaah.

[Journal reference]