Don't ask whether girls are actually bad at math. Ask why we're still having this discussion.

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.

I’ll leave you with another cartoon, also courtesy of Sociological Images via Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

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?

Daring to Discuss Women in Science [New York Times]
Gray Matter and Sexes: A Gray Area Scientifically [New York Times, January 2005]
The Truth About Gender and Math [Sociological Images]

by Kjerstin Johnson
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Kjerstin Johnson is a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. She is the former editor in chief of Bitch. She tweets at @kajerstin

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16 Comments Have Been Posted

Before I continue: the top

Before I continue: the top image is originally from XKCD,

As a mature student, and a

As a mature student, and a woman, it seems to surprise people that I'm pretty much at the top of my engineering classes. Although I don't know everyone's grades my toughest competition is another female student. I have to admit I take great joy at blowing them all out of the water on tests. :)

Do you find yourself graded

Do you find yourself graded harder or differently than your male identified cohorts? I'm interested in this because while being very "good" in math and science, I wasn't especially interested in either. My interest was always vectored towards arts and letters, and I think at some point my teachers realized I was a "lost cause". Not because I wasn't bright enough, but because I didn't display the proper reverence for the sciences.

I wonder how many other women are labeled as "not good at math" when maybe, just like some male identified folks, they aren't especially enthralled by it. Though of course, male identified people aren't generally faulted for a having a disinterest in math.

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

I'm with you here

I, too, was someone who always got good grades in math and science classes in high school (though I had to work harder at them than humanities) but never felt the same inclination toward them as humanities. Then again, I'm not an English major but a linguistics major—something that might be called one of the more "scientific" humanities, as it involves a lot of research, data analysis and problem-solving. My boyfriend, meanwhile, is also more right-brained than left-brained, yet he's had to take a lot of math classes as he's an economics major, but in fact he's more inclined toward the sociological side of economics—as am I with linguistics. I think what I'm trying to say here is that the whole left/right brain divide is not as black and white as pop sociology makes it appear to be.

Also, on the other side of the coin, I think there's a meaty discussion on how English and art (and to a lesser extent, history and foreign language studies) have been "feminized," and that boys who are interested in those are often dissuaded on grounds that they ought to be in the more "masculine" math/science realm—and that girls who are genuinely more right-brained often have to defend charges that we're stifling our potential.

(By the way, the captcha is inherently math-biased! Why can't I diagram a sentence instead? :P)


for the links! And to annamatopoetry up top as well, I've added links to the comics in the original post.

I'm sorry, but I feel like

I'm sorry, but I feel like you missed the point of the NYT article. Summers wasn't saying that, on average, men are "better" or possess a greater innate ability in the fields of math or science. As you mentioned, men dominate both ends of the bell curve; that is, even with approximately equal average scores for the two genders studied, men had a greater degree of variance. If top institutions like Harvard are seeking tenured professors at the top of their fields, that small group will likely contain more men than women. (The obvious corollary is that the small group that has the most difficulty with science and math will also be primarily male.) And at the conclusion of the article, the author even states "Of course, a high score on a test is hardly the only factor important for a successful career in science, and no one claims that the right-tail disparity is the sole reason for the relatively low number of female professors in math-oriented sciences. There are other potentially more important explanations, both biological and cultural, including possible social bias against women." At most institutions, this "right-tail disparity" should not be an issue, and it is probably fair to place most of the blame on the social construction of the female gender; however, at institutions that are global leaders in science and math, it is entirely possible for this variance to become statistically significant.

What is significant...

My reading of Tierney's article is that the having government-advised workshops to increase women in the fields of science and engineering is a mistake (he puts "existence of gender bias" in quotation marks, which blows my mind). He concludes his article by saying these workshops require "re-educating" scientists, like considering gender bias in academia pushes out vital neuron-splicing skills from their brains.

Summers on the other hand, after skimming through his address on <a href="">"Divers... the Science & Engineering Workforce,"</a> becomes a more troubling character. He does not see socialization as a significant factor in development, putting more stock in biological determinism rather than social factors that contribute to career choices and hiring practices (which some people take him to task on in the Q&A).

I disagree with the ways both these men approach having women in science and engineering. I also don't understand the use of seventh-grade SAT scores (the study Tierney cites) when considering hiring these tenured professors at the top of the fields. Maybe because I've never been in NASA's personnel department, but I don't understand how hiring candidates at that level could be based on a single quantitative measurement.

I am from Aus. and a recent

I am from Aus. and a recent mathematics grad.
In mathematics its impossible to mark unequally because at the end of it there is only one solution. And students complain if there are discrepencies which is painful for academics who hate marking!

I started in Engineering, and yes very few females, i changed to maths because i enjoyed it more.
In maths there it was predominantly females. My year coordinator and all but one phd students are females.
I cant say my year coordinator was supportive because of my gender, i think she was more concerned about where i was heading with my units and to make us look more saleable (there arent many non-academia jobs for mathematicians) Likewise with the rest of the students.
I entered a science course because it was the only thing i am good at.

I hope that sheds some light on the topic. Im equally as SICK of the "girls arent good at maths" jokes. ESPECIALLY if they come from girls!

Grading Mathematics Isn't That Simple

<blockquote>"In mathematics its impossible to mark unequally because at the end of it there is only one solution"</blockquote>

This statement is quite mistaken.

Suppose that you are asked to prove a simple number theoretic claim, for which there are any number of valid proofs. Same goes for real analysis, graph theory, topology, mathematical logic etc. So the claim that there is only one solution is very much false, as it is often the case that there are multiple solutions to this sort of problem. And these sorts of questions are fairly common; a good portion of my exams in mathematics that I've graded and written have had multiple choice as well as these sorts of exercises.

Now, suppose that you're grading an exam, and the student leaves a convoluted mess, but you've been instructed to give part marks. Their answer is wrong, but it seems like their on the right track, so you have to make a judgment as to whether or not you should give them 3/5 or whatever on that question. This can even occur in something as simple as a basic calculus quiz, which are very much the sort of question one would think of as being black and white.

It's pretty easy to let implicit bias guide your assessment of the student (eg, neatness of handwriting, quality of other work on the exam, and yes, gender!) in these sorts of cases, so it's definitely the sort of thing you have to guard against, even when grading in maths.


It is interesting that we don't have a reversal of this question. In other words, young men are never seen as excpetions nor are their innate abilities questioned if they are good at writing or the humanities. Of course, men dominated all academic fields for some time, so to question a man's presence or excellence in any field because of his sex would seem preposterous to people (the only exception I have found is women's and genders studies, where the presence of a male makes people raise an eyebrow). but, if people ARE going to make such huge generalizations about men and women's abilities, why do they focus solely on female scientstis and mathematicians and not men that are artists or writers? if you're going to be uncritically biased, then be democratic eh?

also, if people seek to use biology/genetics/sex to understand the "lack" of female scientists, then how would they explain the women who do excel in these fields? would they say they are somehow genetically or biologically different from females who aren't scientists or mathemeticians? i know that an oversimplication , but i can't help asking that question.

all of this reminds me of a conversation i had recently with a grad student who is studing biology. she said she looked forward to they day when people who are tracking the human genome were able to trace the genetic discrepencies between men and women's abilities to do science and math. i asked her that if there really were genetic differences that determined those abilities, then how did she explain all the female scientists we currently have (including HER??). she suggested that women have been more prevalent in the science field for 50 years or so, and in that time, we could have "evolved" to become more mathemtically and scientifically inclined.
I'm sorry, but WHAT?!?!? doesn't evolution of that kind take more than 50 years?!?!

I figure I'm good at math

I figure I'm good at math because my mom's a bloody genius of the sort who took three levels of calculus + linear algebra just for fun because she had the time. She aced them, of course. So 1) I had a good example, 2) probably got whatever genes are involved 3) never thought I shouldn't do math. I used to have an "equalling is fun" song when I was 4 & doing basic addition/subtraction.

A lot of girls I know have the "classic" conditioned girl responses. I posit that removing #2 from the three reasons I'm reasonably good at math would probably not make a huge difference.

In high school, I hated math

In high school, I hated math and did poorly. Then in college I realized how easy it was, and aced all my math classes. So it literally was just my attitude.

A cross-cultural study perhaps...

Perhaps a little cross-cultural study is in order. I'll focus on the Indian school system where the 10th and 12 standards (grades) determine the course of the rest of a student's life.

2007 results of the 12th CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) exams
"Sharing the top slot with him in the 12th standard was Nisha Hariharan, a student of Bhavan's Rajaji Vidyashram. She scored centums in Biology and Maths. "I expected to score school first marks. This came as a treat." Though she found Biology a "little tough", she was happy that she secured good marks. Like Vijayakumar, she was also a topper in the 10th exam."

2010 CBSE results
"Beyond that fine print, though, the CBSE results released on Friday held few surprises. Girls raced past boys for the twelfth year in a row, but this time, with an all-time high lead of 9.38%. The margin, a good 1.03% over last year, came even as overall pass percentage among girls fell by 0.66% compared to last year. Girls outshone boys in the merit list too in the results for Delhi, Guwahati and Allahabad regions - 678 girls scored 95% and above as against 524 boys."

2010 state results for economically well-off state
"Chennai June 8,2010: Jasmin Banu, the Tamil Nadu topper of Class X exam 2010, was today felicitated by Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK) here. Banu of Tirunalveli Town MPL High School topped the entire state in board exam by scoring 495 marks out of 500."

2010 state results for an economically poor state
"The sky is no limit for them now. After outsmarting the boys at CBSE examinations recently, the girls once again grabbed the top five positions and nine of them figuring in the top 10 rank at Intermediate Science Examination-2010 conducted by the Bihar School Examination Board (BSEB), the results of which were declared here on Friday."

And here are the views of a female student. I don't agree with all aspects that the article brings up, but it suffices to make the point about sociocultural factors.
"Jayabharathi, a management student is of the opinion that “girls perform better at Math these days because they take the subject up as a challenge and wish to break the stereotype that they can’t be better than their male counterparts, atleast in this field.”"

I'm so sick of this

I'm so sick of this bullshit. Me and my mom (she's a computer programmer) have always done well at math. My elementary school principal said I'd be a mathematician, and, with the exception of geometry, I've aced all my math classes. (My geometry teacher was really bad at teaching. He also jokingly said that girls are dumb. But I'm not so sure he was joking.) I've done better at math than every boy I've known.
And even if a girl doesn't do well at math, that's not a bad thing. She's not some reflection on the entire gender/sex (as the first comic, which I love, points out). Even if I am good at math, I'm sometimes afraid I'll still fail at it, and people will use that to "confirm" their bias.

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