February 26, 2005

Women in Math and Science

Lawrence Summers insulted many people with his remarks at the NBER conference. Have you noticed that when someone makes claims like Summers did, some people can't resist in coming up with something even more inane? Today, I found an opinion on Eric Alterman's blog that takes the prize for stupid thinking because the fellow baldly states the stereotypical cannard that women just don't have the innate desire to do math and science (emphasis mine).

Name: Rick Frederickson
Hometown: Pembroke, NH

Although I disagree with Harvard Professor Lawrence Summers perception that females have a genetically inferior aptitude for math and science, there may be some merit to a genetic relationship. Before you female readers get furious with me, please read on. A scholar, I am not nor am I a psychologist or biologist, however, of all the commentary I have heard and read concerning this matter, none coincide with my opinion on the subject.

The fact which is the basis of this heated discussion is that there are fewer women in advanced math and sciences in high school and college as well as careers in which math and science is a staple. Professor Summers was merely doing what Professors and academics are supposed to do when confronted with an effect. They contemplate what the cause might be. As the father of two girls and two boys in elementary school, I reflect on the question as well.

After some unemotional deliberation, my hypothesis is that the reason or cause is not that females have a genetically inferior aptitude for performing these functions. A more likely cause is that females are genetically predisposed to lack interest in the subjects. Similar to the reason boys wrestle and girls have tea parties. Females' likes and dislikes differ partly because of their genetic predisposition. Because Math and Science have a propensity to be less appealing to females, they are less inclined to pursue success in these subjects.

In conclusion, it is not a genetic inferior aptitude but a genetic aversion to Math and Science. Most simply do not enjoy it. Problem solved. Move on.

So now we find that the reason there aren't more women in math and science is because they are genetically disposed to not like these subjects.


As a professional in the software industry in a company where women are encouraged to excel in both the management and technical tracks, it is more than just a bit disconcerting to read this claptrap. According to his statement, many women at my company must be genetically out of step with their gender. I wonder why they didn't get the message?

So why are women doing better at advancing into the top leadership roles at my company than at other companies? I submit there are two reasons:

  1. Women believe that their efforts in this direction will be worthwhile because they see women advancing into the top ranks of the company.
  2. Because the company believes that women can and should be tapped if they have the talent and ability to move up, they are advancing women.

At my company, we have created a healthy golden circle: women believe they will have an equal opportunity to compete and the company believes women are just as capable and so absolutely consider women for further advancement.

This belief thing works for children too. When kids believe that some career would be interesting, and they believe they have an opportunity to compete effectively in that field, they will study subjects that allow them to pursue that career. It wasn't too long ago that girls didn't study science because they were told it wasn't seemly and they didn't think women could work at NASA as a scientist or at GE as an engineer. And remember, it wasn't too long ago that girls aspired to be nurses rather than doctors. Yet today over half the doctors graduating from medical schools are women. Did the genetic makeup of women change or did the expectations for women change?

The other thing to note is, I work with many women from other countries where there is less gender stratification as far as education, and it is easy to find women who are incredibly interested in math and science and who do believe that they are capable of outstanding contributions in these fields. So why is it more natural for women of India and China to do very well in math and science than women in America?

This leads to the question: why do men from India and China find math and science more interesting than American men? Is it because Americans are genetically less interested in math and science than people of an Asian culture?

When you boil this argument down to its logical conclusion we find that if we agree that women are genetically less interested in math and science than men, it must also be true that Amercan men are genetically less interested in math and science than Asian men, otherwise we'd see American men interested in taking math and science in equal proportions as Asian men.

For his daughters' sake, I hope that Mr. Frederickson reconsiders the message he is sending them about their future. And if not, maybe they will be lucky enough to run into someone who sparks their imagination and let's them find out for themselves that the study of math and science can be fascinating.

Posted by Mary at February 26, 2005 11:38 AM | Women | TrackBack(1) | Technorati links |

Where do people get this crap?

"Genetically predisposed to lack interest in the subjects" ???


Excuse me while I check to see if my mastadon steak is done.

There will be no, repeat - NO, advancement of American science education as long as throwbacks like this can influence people.

This garbage is the worst kind of offal I've seen since the Bell Curve.

I may be out of line, but I find it glaringly apparent that if you stick a Barbie doll in a young girl's hand whenever she asks for a gift, but give erector sets, tinker toys, Lego blocks and science kits to the boys; you might have a point on disposition of talents. But this is cultural, not genetic.

And it has to stop NOW!

Posted by: David Aquarius at February 26, 2005 11:50 AM

The Barbie Doll/Lego Blocks cultural imprinting suggestion is valid, but oversimplified. Most contemporary science and social thinkers can recognize a more complex relationship between what's wired and what's acquired, and respect gender differences/similaries without tolerating gender discrimination, or denial of opportunity in any form.

Summers immediately issued an apology for his ill-chosen remarks, but the debate it sparked are more interesting than the remarks themselves. Good article about this. by Jacob Sullum, came out in late January:

"Can we talk about sex differences in math and science aptitude without yelling?"

"A variety of data collected throughout the 1990s show that gonadal hormones...have demonstrable effects on the cognitive abilities of women and men," wrote psychologists Diane Halpern of California State University in San Bernardino and Mary LaMay of Loma Linda University in a 2000 Educational Psychology Review article. "Converging evidence from a variety of sources supports the idea that prenatal hormone levels affect patterns of cognition in sex-typical ways.

The precise contributions of early brain structure and subsequent experience are still a matter of controversy. Halpern and LaMay, for instance, suggest initial differences in aptitude may be magnified by their impact on interest, encouragement, and self-esteem. But Summers never implied the matter was settled; to the contrary, he called for further research and debate.

This controversy is ostensibly about the ability of women to excel in math and science. But it says more about the ability of academics to engage in rational debate when confronted by views that contradict their cherished assumptions.

Posted by: Michael at March 2, 2005 01:12 AM