This Time It’s Personal: Women In STEM

17 Dec

Over the summer I had a delightful time at IdeaCity, but one particular talk annoyed me tremendously; A speaker claimed that boys are innately better at math and science than girls. And unfortunately, there was no Q&A.

So I’m extremely pleased to see the new article in Science mag setting the record straight. Such notions about natural differences between our abilities are not only personally insulting, they perpetuate a negative message to young women and men interested in STEM regarding social expectations. So I hope the Lawrence H. Summers of the world will take note:

Much attention has been given to the gap in performance between boys and girls in mathematics skills. In a new study, [Jonathan Kane and Janet Mertz] examine this gender gap and test several popular explanations. Their cross-cultural analysis seems to rule out several causal candidates, including coeducational schools, low standards of living, and innate variability among boys — a proposal made famous in a 2005 speech by Lawrence H. Summers, who was Harvard University’s president at the time. “We have pretty clear data debunking the greater male variability hypothesis,” Mertz says.

While the authors do not completely rule out the possibility of very small biological differences, they indicate that local social factors are likely the primary culprit.

Gender gaps vary from place to place, showing that cultural factors swamp biological ones.

I also particularly like this quote regarding their conclusions:

“If we were willing to speculate, one thing the U.S. might do to improve math performance would be to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act and the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” ~ Janet Mertz

Go read the full article, share it widely, and let’s finally snuff out the false and damaging message that women aren’t as smart or capable as our male colleagues in STEM.

10 Responses to “This Time It’s Personal: Women In STEM”

  1. razib December 17, 2011 at 10:04 pm #

    did the speaker use the word *average*? i.e., if they said that boys were *on average* better at math than girls would you still be insulted? several people have sent me he link to the press release of that paper, but the doi doesn’t work yet, so i guess it’s not on the web (not too surprised at the result, there’s a lot of inter-cultural variation).

    • Sheril Kirshenbaum December 17, 2011 at 10:20 pm #

      The speaker said, more or less, “Larry Summers is right.” Clearly she’s never met Jenny Tung (and a number of other female friends of mine).

      • razib December 17, 2011 at 10:31 pm #

        the point about variance, whether right or wrong, doesn’t imply that there aren’t many women in mathematical sciences. there are. it’s just about ratios/distributions. unless you think the distributions are disjoint (i haven’t met anyone who thinks this) there will be many, many, jenny tungs.

  2. razib December 17, 2011 at 11:06 pm #

    But if we consider ratios/distributions, can’t one attempt to make similar arguments about other groups as well–where it’s clear that social factors are involved?

    yes. i think one can.

    and, some of those factors are not exogenous (i.e., from the “outside”). for example, i’m sure you’ve noticed that people of “asian” origin are well represented in the sciences. but, their representation varies. why? frankly, because “asian culture” (read: immigrant parents) have expectations of what domains of study are prestigious and worthwhile. to give a concrete example, a friend at UCLA moved from a neuroscience laboratory to a cognitive neuroscience lab. all of a sudden the proportion of asians she saw in the hallway went from 40% to 5%. why? i’ve seen similar tendencies when one moves from molecular/medical genetics to organism/evolutionary biology.

  3. Joe R. December 17, 2011 at 11:30 pm #

    Along with the experiment mentioned in the linked article from Science mag where they eliminated gender differences by simply saying that a test was unbiased (without actually changing it),I also remember two other examples that lend credence to the environmental/societal hypothesis, but I can’t remember if they were psych studies or anthropology studies. One was a class observation where boys would blurt out answers without any negative feedback from the teacher, but when a girl did the same thing she was reminded that she should raise her hand. This was to show that girls are treated differently in class rooms based on gender biases. The other was about randomly assigning children to either “trouble” or “gifted” and those who were randomly assigned to either group were treated as their label from the start. A teacher’s bias became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    All that taken together leads me to think that society more easily accounts for the gender differences than anything biological.

  4. Hal Caswell December 18, 2011 at 5:37 am #

    The article in Science is fascinating and important. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to provide any hint of where the Kane and Mertz study actually appears. Do you know? Thanks.

  5. Hal C. December 18, 2011 at 6:41 am #

    Looked around and found it. The original article is:

    Kane, J.M. and J.E. Mertz. 2012. Debunking myths about gender and mathematics performance. Notices of the American Mathematical Society 59(1):10-21. DOI:

    It seems to be available to download as:

  6. Stephen Rogers March 5, 2012 at 6:29 pm #

    You may be interested to know that the all-girls teams from Jackson Intermediate Center IN (see link) won one of the local NFPA Fluid Power Challenges this year. The project actively promotes young women in the event.

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