WITH the depressing extent of the UK’s gender pay gap now laid bare, commentators have gone into overdrive discussing what – if anything – should be done about it. On Wednesday evening, amid the final countdown for firms to submit their pay data, gender was on the agenda at Edinburgh International Science Festival.

The occasion was the presentation of the Edinburgh Medal to Cordelia Fine, the celebrated professor of history and philosophy of science whose witty, engaging books about human psychology have been widely acclaimed. The topic of Fine’s address was “Science, Values and Gender Equality”, and she made a passionate case that great swathes of research into sex differences are fundamentally flawed.

Perhaps “passionate” is an unhelpful word to use here. The physics teacher who disapproved of Fine describing a graph’s curve as “dramatic” would probably be furrowing his brow at such use of emotional language in a discussion of the serious, objective business of science. But Fine argues (persuasively, rationally, logically) that it’s naive to imagine scientists as dispassionate investigators, untouched by wider society’s biases and prejudices.

In her award-winning latest book Testosterone Rex, she documents how researchers of the past reached conclusions about sex differences that were not supported by their own findings. Those who claimed to have found evidence of significant, innate differences between males and females – whether they be fruit flies, birds, apes or humans – instead relied heavily on gender stereotypes to fill in the blanks. The possibility that societal factors explained most of the observable differences between the sexes was ignored in favour of a kind of “Men Are From Mars, Venus Are From Venus” biological determinism.

Rather than helping to banish outdated notions, the emergence of new technology has simply opened the door for more dodgy science. The ability to scan human brains has, Fine argues, resulted in a collection of well-publicised studies with tiny sample sizes that simply present “old-fashioned sexism dressed up in neuroscientific finery”. In some cases the existing technology simply hasn’t been employed, such as in a study of the effects of testosterone on risk-taking among chief executives that didn’t actually measure the hormone levels of its participants.

Instead, age was used as a proxy for testosterone level, on the basis that younger men have more of it than older ones. The fact that age is an independent variable that’s strongly associated with experience and wisdom did not stop the study findings being written up in support of what Fine calls the “Testosterone Rex” theory: that the presence of this hormone explains why men are (or appear to be) more competitive and risk-taking.

So why does all this matter, and what do studies of fruit flies or sandpipers have to do with the gender pay gap? It matters because a widespread belief that the brains of males and females are wired differently provides a simple, convenient explanation for the fact men are more likely to have higher-status, higher-reward jobs than women, and presents any deviation from this trend as unnatural. This scientific evidence does not tell us that women ought not to have important jobs, or large salaries, but by framing such women as exceptional outliers it suggests any pushes for 50/50 equality are doomed to fail.

Women who speak out in favour of better gender balance in boardrooms, on editorial or trading floors, or more broadly in fields such as science, engineering and technology, may unwittingly perpetuate gender stereotypes in the process. Highlighting the value of “female qualities” such as empathy, co-operation and caution risks reinforcing the notion that these come naturally to every girl and woman, rather than being a product of a gendered socialisation that starts with a pink BabyGro and colours every human interaction from birth onwards.

If the alternative is for women to unlearn such tendencies and become “like men” – the kind of men who start wars, preside over financial crises and go for post-work drinks at lap-dancing clubs – then of course women will make a strong case that it is workplaces, rather than women, that need to change. But not every woman is inclined towards nurturing and peace-making, and not every man feels at home in a macho business environment, despite the cultural pressure to slot into neat boxes marked “female” and “male”.

Of course, those employers whose gender pay gaps are huge chasms should be examining their recruitment and training policies. They should be asking whether these are due to some of the same unconscious biases that have informed decades of bad science about sex differences.

But women cannot be hired to senior positions if they do not apply for them. They cannot become politicians if they shy away from being seen as competitive. And they cannot become medal-winning scientists like Cordelia Fine if they are not encouraged to stick with science at school.

For the gender pay gap to be addressed, society as a whole must change. By all means wag a finger at the worst offenders (which include airline Ryanair, lingerie firm Boux Avenue and bank JP Morgan), but also ask yourself honestly i f you might be part of the problem. Do you compliment little girls, but not boys, on their appearance or good manners? Do you gift boys, but not girls, toy planes, trains and automobiles? These differences might feel natural, but they aren’t. If a scientist tries to tell you otherwise, demand to see their working.