A two-panel cartoon of stick figures. In panel one, the figure on the left observes “Wow, you suck at math” to the stick figure on the right, who has made an erroneous calculus statement. The exact same thing happens in panel two, only the figure on the right has longer hair, and the figure on the left remarks, “Wow, girls suck at math.” Image from Sociological Images via XKCD
But seriously. “Daring to Discuss Women in Science” by John Tierney ran in the New York Times two days ago. In it, Tierney announces a proposed national law that would require the White House science adviser to oversee workshops aimed to close the gender gap in science and engineering fields. But rather than express support for this proposal (“Fulfilling the potential of women in academic science and engineering,” section 124 out of 700 section-bill, brief the 248-page PDF here), Tierney approaches it with trepidation.
“At the risk of being shipped off to one of these workshops,” Tierney wonders if perhaps Larry Summers hadn’t been incorrect to assert that women lack an “innate ability” to do math as well as men. Why the iconoclastic, “so not” PC claim? Tierney points to a recent study by Duke University psychologists who looked at the very top seventh-grade scorers on the ACT and SAT–the “extreme right tail of the distribution curve,” or the top 0.01 percentile. THE RESULTS MAY COGNITIVELY SHOCK YOUR LADY BRAIN:
In the early 1980s, there were 13 boys for every girl in that group, but by 1991 the gender gap had narrowed to four to one, presumably because of sociocultural factors like encouragement and instruction in math offered to girls.
Since then, however, the math gender gap hasn’t narrowed, despite the continuing programs to encourage girls. The Duke researchers report that there are still four boys for every girl at the extreme right tail of the scores for the SAT math test. The boy-girl ratio has also remained fairly constant, at about three to one, at the right tail of the ACT tests of both math and science reasoning. Among the 19 students who got a perfect score on the ACT science test in the past two decades, 18 were boys.
Meanwhile, the seventh-grade girls outnumbered the boys at the right tail of tests measuring verbal reasoning and writing ability. The Duke researchers report in Intelligence, “Our data clearly show that there are sex differences in cognitive abilities in the extreme right tail, with some favoring males and some favoring females.”
But why is this article, and the study it cites, actually not the blow-your-mind study Tierney seems to expect it to be? I’d like to share with Tierney, at the risk of being mansplained, why this is problematic, with some help from Sociological Images.
For one, it ignores cultural and qualitative data about girls and boys and math and science. Although the gender gap narrowed “presumably” because of sociocultural factors, it doesn’t say what these factors were or how they were actually taken into account. And were these sociocultural factors considered in the later studies? The study also completely trusts the use of ACT and SAT scores as accurate measuring tools, without considering the class and cultural biases of these “standardized” tests.
Tierney also may have missed a New York Times article (“Gray Matter and Sexes: A Gray Area Scientifically”) from 2005 that also “dared” to ask if Larry Summers was correct. It also looked at the ways that boys and girls score on the SAT. However this article took the attitude that there are multiple factors in determining both standardized test scores as well as career paths between boys and girls. As if predicting Tierney’s timid attempt to conscientiously object to mandated girl-power workshops, the article states, “For Dr. Summers and others, the overwhelmingly male tails of the bell curve [for college-bound seniors SAT scores] may be telling….But few researchers who have analyzed the data believe that men’s greater representation among the high-tail scores can explain more than a small fraction of the sex disparities in career success among scientists.”
Sociological Images recently posted a wonderful bullet list of the main points of the 2005 article, many of which directly quash Tierney’s ballsy (read: narrow-minded) assumptions to support Larry Summers, which reads more like the lazy, one-pronged approach that Steven Levitt of Freakonomics often employs in his “groundbreaking,” and often sexist, theory-making. Here are just a few of those points (I recommend reading both the NYT and SI pieces in entirety):
• Even though boys outperform girls on the SAT, it turns out those scores do not predict math performance in classes. Girls frequently outperform boys in the classroom.
• When boys do better, they are usually also doing worse. Boys are also more likely than girls to get nearly all the answers wrong. So they overpopulate both tails of the bell curve; boys are both better, and worse, than girls at math.
• In Japan, though girls perform less well than the boys, they generally outperform U.S. boys considerably. So finding that boys outperform girls within a country does not mean that boys outperform girls across all countries.
• Still, even in Iceland, girls overwhelmingly express more negative attitudes towards math.
“Gray Matter and Sexes” concludes “Many argue that it is unnecessary to invoke ‘innate differences’ to explain the gap that persists in fields like physics, engineering, mathematics and chemistry. Might scientists just be slower in letting go of baseless sexism?” Tellingly, that question was asked five years ago.
Panel one: “Boy Toys.”
Disembodied adult voice: It’s a Mechablox!
Little white boy with box: What’s it do?
Disembodied adult voice: Be arranged in literally infinite ways, then hooked to a computer and remote controlled!
Panel two: “Girl toys”
Disembodied adult voice: It’s a doll!
Little white girl with blond doll: What’s it do?
Disembodied voice: Be a doll!
Panel three: “Subsequently…”
White adult male looking over shoulder of black adult male seated at computer: Why are there so few girl engineers?