On "Daring to Discuss Women in Science"

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June 18th, 2010


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New York Times columnist John Tierney recently dared to discuss women in science (the occasion being the passing of a law called “Fulfilling the potential of women in academic science and engineering” in the House).

The problem is well known: there are fewer women than men in the top scientific positions at universities. Speculations about its causes have sparked considerable controversy over the years, leading to the demise of many an academic (Larry Summers is a notable example. When Summers was president of Harvard, he gave a speech in which he suggested that women are inherently incapable of being top-notch scientists; Summers was forced to resign shortly afterward) and instilling in them a fear of the taboo topic.

Discussing women in science has nevertheless remained sexy in a strange sort of way. Tierney cites some relevant research on the right tail of scores distributions (while average scores on standardized tests are the same for boys and girls, boys outnumber girls four to one on the top math scores around the 99.9th percentile; this is despite the push since the 1990′s to close the gap). The fear is not only that this gap won’t disappear anytime soon, but that its causes are genetic (innate!).

99.9th percentile aside, Tierney seems to have overlooked the possible social reasons for the underrepresentation of women in the sciences. These might be the games and toys that parents and teachers give their children (do girls play games involving spatial reasoning?) and/or the gargantuan investment that women make when starting a family (having children and raising them is no small feat).

Perhaps while neuroplasticity is such a hot topic in the brain sciences, someone could systematically explore the effect of early exposure to math and science on later performance on standardized tests.

As for family planning, maternal investment is a product of evolution and unlikely to change soon. Perhaps fathers can take one for the team by helping rear the kids (after they’re born, of course)?

Tierney’s original opinion may be found here.

– G. Guitchounts

One Comment on On "Daring to Discuss Women in Science"

  • There is a wealth of information that suggests that the gender gap in the sciences is a result of social and political factors, rather than an innate difference in aptitude.

    Just to give an example of data which points in this direction, consider the fact that, though in the U.S. many more high-school boys than girls score above the 99th percentile on standardized tests for math performance, the ratio is roughly equal in the UK and Thailand. In Iceland, girls show *higher* aptitude for such tests.

    This factoid, and others equally as compelling, appeared in a paper by the biochemist Janet E. Mertz, which can be found at http://www.ascb.org/files/0908wicb.pdf

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