Gender gap in maths driven by social factors, not biological differences (Not Exactly Rocket Science):
Since 1894, some scientists have suggested that men have a greater variability in intellectual ability than women, a simple statistical quirk that would result in more male prodigies. This was the controversial hypothesis that Lawrence Summers mentioned in his now-infamous speech at the National Bureau of Economic Research Conference in 2005:
To test that, Hyde looked at data from maths tests in Minnesota and compared the numbers of boys and girls who scored in the top 5% of their year. The ratio was 1.45, meaning that for every two girls in this elite group, there were around three boys. In the top 1%, the ratio was 2.06, meaning two boys for every girl. That seems to vindicate the Variability Hypothesis, but those figures only applied to white American children. In other ethnic groups or, indeed, in other countries, the picture was very different.
For Asian-Americans the ratio was actually 0.91, meaning more girls than boys in the top 1%. International studies have found similar trends. One analysis of tests from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) showed that 15-year-old girls matched or outnumbered their male peers in the top tiers within Iceland, Thailand and the UK. Two studies found that 15-year-old boys and girls were equally varied in their mathematical skills in most of the countries taking part in PISA and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). In some, like the Netherlands, girls actually turned out to have the wider range of ability.
So much for the idea that a greater variation in ability underlies the larger number of men in the top ranks of mathematics – if that had any biological basis, it should apply to all populations regardless of ethnicity or nationality. Clearly, that’s not the case. Instead, the evidence suggests that whatever gender differences exist are mostly down to social factors.
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that, given the right social environment, the gender disparity in maths becomes vanishingly narrow. Various studies have found that countries with the poorest degrees of gender equality also have the widest gulfs between male and female mathematical performance. And in their own analyses, Hyde and Mertz found that a country’s gender inequality gap significantly correlates with the ratio of boys to girls in the top 5% of PISA test scorers, and the proportion of girls competing in the International Mathematics Olympiad – an incredibly challenging competition where the top scorers have one-in-a-million ability.
It’s no coincidence that countries like Denmark, the Netherlands, the UK and Iceland, where equal numbers of girls and boys populate the top 1% of the PISA results, are also in the top dozen countries in terms of gender equality. (The US, for the curious among you, is ranked 31st, between Estonia and Kazakhstan) These international comparisons point the finger at gender inequality, rather than greater male variability or aptitude, as the main reason behind the lack of women at the highest levels of maths in some countries.
Obviously, that includes a multitude of sins that will need to be addressed – lack of attention or encouragement, the effects of stereotypes, a lack of female role models, wilful misogyny and unconscious biases, hostile work environments, and so on. Addressing these issues is no easy task but at the very least, this review summarises firm evidence that attempts to do so will see female mathematicians rivalling their male counterparts at every level of the discipline.
Of course, it takes more than facts and empirical evidence to change the opinions of most male geeks about female inferiority in math. The Slashdot community’s reaction to the story is an example of this.
Let us ignore the first comment joking that the study cannot be trusted because it was done by a team of female mathematicians/statisticians, as well as the comments assuming that women in CS are useful because they increase the chances of men in CS getting laid. In addition to submissions about women triggering general sexist comments, the study that disproves innate female inferiority in math becomes an opportunity for male geeks to rehash old, obsolete arguments about innate female inferiority in math.
Note that most of the Slashdot comments I repost below were modded up with a score of 5 (out of a maximum of 5).
“Girls are barely passing math. It doesn’t come naturally to them.”
In a comment titled “Taking vs Excelling”, modded up with “Score:5, Interesting”, Tanktalus writes:
Taking the course is not the same thing as passing or excelling. It’s an important metric, but not the only one. Perhaps we have a “traditionally disadvantaged” group being pushed, in the name of equality, into an area they dislike because it doesn’t come natural, and they’re barely passing. That’s not success – that’s a failure because these people probably would be more successful in life playing to their strengths rather than weaknesses.
In other words, this commenter didn’t bother to RTFA, but felt confident anyway in asserting that women are probably barely passing their math courses.
“Perhaps women are biologically inferior in math, and the appearance of equal ability is produced by cultural factors.”
In a comment titled “Just a thought”, modded up with “Score:5, Insightful”, Xeth writes:
(not meant to necessarily have any correlation with reality)
People seem to assume that what is happening is that previously, cultural norms dictated gender inequality when there was no biological basis, and now that those norms have changed, biological equality is restored. Couldn’t it be the other way around? I.e. that there is a biological inequality, that is being altered by cultural factors to produce equality?
Confronted with the study’s suggestion that women are not biologically inferior in math ability, Xeth offers an alternative interpretation: perhaps women are biologically inferior to men in math ability, but modern cultural factors are producing the external appearance of women having equal math ability.
“But men have greater variance!”
In a comment titled “Simply doesn’t address the real issue”, modded up with “Score:4, Interesting”, an Anonymous Coward writes:
This is an extremely dishonest story which does not address the most basic issues involved. What Summers said at Harvard is supported by the evidence and remains the best explanation for the “gender gap.” Indeed, he felt confident that he could “get away” with his statements because the evidence is so overwhelming and the facts so obvious.
for virtually all traits the STANDARD DEVIATION of the male distributions is somewhat larger than the female distribution — although not by much. Again this makes some intuitive sense — men are biological more expendable then women so more variation in male traits can be tolerated.
I can hardly be expected to believe that physical traits (the measurement of which is generally not controversial) are unique in having property (4). Especially when the observable data available for mental traits exhibits a difference in standard deviation.
This difference in standard deviation predicts what we see in practice — if we set a high threshold and look at the number of men and women with ability above that threshold we expect the ratio of men to women to be large. Because this is an effect of differences in standard deviation, it is not observable near the middle of the distribution — only at the tails.
There are many many articles which conclude that there is no gender gap in mathematical ability because the mean of the male and female distributions are the same or similar. I am not familiar with every such article, but every one I have read — including the two famous Science articles — presents observational data showing a difference in STANDARD DEVIATION. An issue none of them seem to address.
Once again, the commenter didn’t bother to RTFA, which has already addressed and debunked the “greater male variability hypothesis”. He is already convinced that the study is flawed, that he is more clever than the female researchers, and that women are biologically incapable of excelling in math.
“Females can learn math, but they have difficulty applying it, because their brains are not equipped to do so.”
In a comment titled “The article is confused”, modded up with “Score:5, Interesting”, j. andrew rogers writes:
The article is confused about where most of the real differences are purported to be.
No one credible claims that females have less ability to learn mathematics or crunch numbers in most cases, which is what this article is contesting. In other words, they built themselves a strawman. The differences involve application, not learning.
What *is* credibly claimed, in the sense that there is not insignificant quantities of direct and indirect evidence in literature, is that females are markedly poorer at certain classes of applied mathematical problems, notably applications involving complex, high-dimensionality metric spaces. Females understand the mathematics just fine, they have relative difficulty applying it to real-world problems when system complexity exceeds a certain threshold. This is largely attributed to male brains having more neurons dedicated to conceptualizing and manipulating spatial relationships.
There are real differences, but it is mostly in specific areas of the applied side and there is a relatively straightforward causal theory related to brain structure. That people feel it necessary to repeatedly trot out the strawman that women have less ability to learn math while conveniently ignoring supportable arguments for differences in practical ability reeks of a political agenda. There are other biases in application spaces strongly favoring females that also have straightforward causal links related to differences in brain structure but which say nothing about the ability of males to learn.
There is evidence of a gender difference in ability to manipulate spatial relationships, but there is no consensus that this difference is innate. Some of the indirect evidence used to support this hypothesis is a gender difference in math performance of school-age children and the scarcity of women in math, science, technology, and engineering—which is what this very study addresses.
As for math application and complexity, the paper notes (p. 8802):
Thus, girls have now reached parity with boys in mathematics performance in the U.S., even in high school where a gap existed in earlier decades.
However, coding of the test items on these examinations for cognitive level indicated that none of them tapped complex problem solving at most grade levels for most states (13). Thus, it was impossible with these NCLB data sets to investigate whether a gender gap existed in complex problem solving. Therefore, the researchers also examined data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a federally managed program that tests a random sample of U.S. students each year (14). Items from 12th grade data categorized by NAEP as hard and by the researchers as requiring complex problem solving were analyzed for gender differences; effect sizes were found to average d = 0.07, a trivial difference. These findings provide further evidence that U.S. girls have now reached parity with boys, even in high school, and even for measures requiring complex problem solving.
“Women are mentally differently-abled. The Politically Correct regime denies innate gender difference even in the face of hard evidence.”
In a comment titled “There is and always will be differences.”, modded up with “Score:5, Insightful”, JustNiz writes:
Whether you like to accept it or not, women and men are psychobiologically different. Meaning, there are observable, quantifiable and consistent physical differences in the brain and its chemistry based solely on gender.
As a result, women consistently perform worse at spatial-based tasks than men. Women consistently perform better at communications-based tasks than men. There are millions of well-conducted experiments and studies that re-prove the existence of these and other gender-based differences over and over again.
It frustrates the hell out of me that the loony ‘Politically Correct’ regime is so enforced on us and continues to reduce to denial any innate gender difference even in the face of hard evidence.
Most ‘normal’ people now feel they can’t even openly raise the possibility, much less the FACT that we actually are mentally differently-abled BECAUSE of gender.
Society as a whole will not properly develop until we accept the existence of gender-based ability differences, including mental, as a fact and move on.
Ironically, this commenter accuses the ‘Politically Correct’ regime of denying innate gender difference in the face of hard evidence, while denying in the face of hard evidence. If he doesn’t like the results, he concludes that the study is biased.
“Women do well in math because they work harder. Men do well because of innate ability. Estrogen and testosterone have different effects on the brain and body.”
In a comment modded up with “Score:5, Insightful”, CorporateSuit writes:
Chemically, testosterone and estrogen have different, powerful effects on the brain and body. Be careful not to call people “bigots” because they celebrate this diversity and seek out the advantages it contains, or you must call yourself a bigot for your intolerance toward anyone who thinks that any notable differences are an evil that needs to be squashed. Yes, with extra effort, one sex can almost always measurably outperform the opposite sex where the opposite sex is more fitted, biologically, to a purpose — but that doesn’t reinforce your point; it contradicts it. If a woman and a man can perform equally at math, but the woman has to study n% longer, then the man is inherently better at math. That’s what inherency means. It’s not politically correct, but it’s nature… however, I vehemently agree that the product of nurture and identity should always have the /choice/ to agree with nature or to struggle to see if it can obtain something better. If a woman chooses to study n% longer than the man to perform equally at math, her identity shows that she would be the better mathematician — because she’s more willing to put forth the necessary effort– but don’t hate or belittle people because they accept what nature has given us as a gift, rather than viewing it as a curse.
The commenter believes that if women do as well as men in math, it must be because they work harder, since they cannot possibly have innate math ability. Of course, he has no evidence for this, except his prior conviction that women are biologically weaker in math, his rationalization being that women have higher levels of estrogen.
Conclusion & How It Works
Sexism, not learning, is the general male geek reaction to the study. Apparently, the mere suggestion that men are not innately superior is a vicious attack on men that must be responded to with hysteria, defensiveness, and mental gymnastics.
Once again, men use sexism to argue that sexism no longer exists. For most male geeks, it is unfathomable that there could be sexism or hostility towards women among male geeks. Sexism is such a constant in male geek culture that it is invisible to them.
- Janet S. Hyde and Janet E. Mertz. Gender, culture, and mathematics performance. PNAS 2009 106: 8801-8807.
- Culture, Not Biology, Underpins Math Gender Gap at ScienceDaily
- Sharon Begley: The Math Gender Gap Explained at Newsweek
- So Summers was simply wrong. by jj at Feminist Philosophers
- Is There Anything Good About Men? by Roy F. Baumeister (2007) – sexist