Sex Differences in Math & Science
Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 7, 2007
Man’s intellectual superiority cannot be a question until woman has had a fair trial. When we shall have had our freedom to find out our own sphere, when we shall have had our colleges, our professions, our trades, for a century, a comparison then may be justly instituted. When woman, instead of being taxed to endow colleges where she is forbidden to enter – instead of forming sewing societies to educate “poor, but pious,” young men, shall first educate herself, when she shall be just to herself before she is generous to others; improving the talents God has given her, and leaving her neighbor to do the same for himself, we shall not hear so much about this boasted superiority . . . .
Stanton was, at least in that way, a situationist – reminding her audience that, contrary to the received wisdom, women’s “place” may well be a reflection of her situation more than her disposition. Not before situations between the sexes are more equal can we begin to make reliable judgments about group-based dispositions.
A century and a half later, the question about whether the “place” of women and men reflects biologically based disposition or situation continues to be an important and provocative one.
In January 2005, former President Lawrence Summers outraged many when, at a conference, he indicated that that innate differences between men and women may help explain why lower proportions of women succeed in math and science careers. In effect, his point was that situations are now sufficiently equal across groups that observed differences in performance between those groups can be attributed, at least in part, to disposition.
The resultant uproar, of course, had adverse consequences for Summers’s already precarious presidency. But the remarks may have, consistent with Summers’s purported justification for making them in the first place, provoked some valuable and illuminating responses. In the wake of his comments, several groups of prominent scholars have collaborated in interdisciplinary efforts to try to sort out the extent to which, if at all, sex differences can account for the disproportionality of men to women within certain math and science fields.
For example, in 2006, the Committee on Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering of the National Academy of Science (NAS) compiled an interesting, if not fully convincing, report that reached the following conclusion: ‘‘It is not lack of talent, but unintentional biases and outmoded institutional structures that are hindering the access and advancement of women.” In other words, it is not disposition, but situation that is hindering the access and advancement of women.
In August (2007), Psychological Science in the Public Interest devoted an issue (titled, “The Science of Sex Differences in Science and Mathematics”) to this question. We have excerpted portions of Susan Barnett’s introduction to that issue below. As things stand today, Barnett’s summary suggests, the issue remains roughly as Elizabeth Cady Stanton described it – we have yet to have a fair trial.
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Unlike the more policy-oriented report of the NAS task force, this article focuses on the scientific evidence regarding the causes of the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields [that is, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics]. The authors conclude that ‘‘early experience, biological factors, educational policy, and cultural context affect the number of women and men who pursue advanced study in science and math and that these effects add and interact in complex ways’’ . . . . They note that, if readers were expecting a single conclusion, they ‘‘are surely disappointed’’ . . . . Perhaps so, but complex questions rarely have simple answers. . . .
The authors point out that one problem in attributing causation in the area of sex differences is that, although relationships can often be found between variables, the direction of causality is often unclear because experimental manipulation is frequently impossible. For example, the monograph reviews considerable evidence showing that men’s and women’s brains differ, but conclusions are necessarily hard to draw: Is it that innate brain differences cause males and females to have differing interests and abilities? Or are the observed brain differences the consequence of differing experiences? As the authors mention, the brain ‘‘remains plastic into very old age’’ . . . . Similarly, girls’ and boys’ interests also differ, but are males more interested in STEM fields because they are better at them, or could they be better because they are more interested or are socialized to believe they are more competent?
One of the most frequently cited bodies of evidence mentioned in the article, suggesting ability differences as a major cause of the dearth of women in advanced STEM fields, is the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY) by Benbow and Stanley. This research program has consistently shown strong male superiority in math aptitude scores for mathematically advanced middle schoolers. However, even these results are open to interpretation. According to the monograph, ‘’25 years ago there were 13 boys for every girl who scored above 700 on the [mathematics portion of the SAT] at age 13. Now the ratio is only 2.8:1’’ . . . . Such rapid changes suggest strong environmental effects, highlighting [the report's] caution that ability is an environmentally influenced measure, not a pure measure of innate talent. The finding that international differences in math performance swamp intranational sex differences also suggests that cultural factors play an important role.
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Finally, the ability of women to build successful careers in STEM and other fields is dependent upon the time and effort they can devote to their work. As long as women continue to play a greater role in child rearing than men, they will have fewer hours to invest in their careers. And in demanding fields like science and mathematics, this is likely to affect their success.
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To open a pdf file of Professor Barnett’s introduction, click here. For previous Situationist posts discussing or related to situational sources of sex differences, take a look at “Your Group Is Bad at Math,” “You Shouldn’t Stereotype Stereotypes,” “Women’s Situation in Economics,” “How Situational Self-Schemas Influence Disposition,”and “The Perils of ‘Being Smart.’” Regarding the plasticity of the brain, see “Brainicize” and “Imagine You Could Change Your Brain.” For a thirty-minute NPR (Talk of the Nation, Science Friday) panel discussion of “Gender Differences and Cognitive Abilities,” click here.