In January, Harvard President Lawrence Summers created quite a stir when he suggested that one reason why there are fewer women than men working in math and science is that there are inherent differences between male and female brains. (Summer's full speech can be found here.

The comments created quite a controversy. Enter "Summers Harvard women math speech" into Google and you'll get about 28 thousand hits. Many people are reluctant to accept the idea that men and women are inherently different.

Now comes The Chronicle of Higher Education which reports that Summers is right—there are indeed some well-documented difference between males and females that can influence interest and abilities in math and science:

Cognitive research is also showing that boys and girls perform differently on some types of mathematical tests. Although the two sexes score the same on broad measures of mathematical ability, girls demonstrate an advantage in arithmetic, while boys score better in spatial tests that involve mentally rotating three-dimensional objects.

. . .

In general, boys are born with an interest in figuring out how systems work, while girls naturally focus more on understanding the mental state of others, he says. A fair percentage of each sex shows an equal interest in people and systems, and some small fraction of males and females display the reverse pattern. But broadly speaking, boys tend to exhibit preferences that coincide, later in life, with careers in mathematics, science, and engineering.

Some people, understandably, are concerned by these findings. They want to promote and protest equal rights for all. (I think we can all agree that this is very important). But, if two groups are "different," then they are no longer "equal," right?

But that's not the way it works. Politics is a human invention. We can still give each other equal rights, regardless of whether or not nature has given us differing abilities.

Science doesn't care about politics. It focuses on discovering the facts of the world. As Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker says, any idea is worth thinking about, if only to determine whether it is wrong.

The Science Museum of Minnesota is committed to bringing science to learners of all ages (and sexes, and races). Like Dr. Summers, we recognize that certain groups face extra handicaps-society often doesn't encourage girls to pursue careers in math or science; the demands of motherhood often conflict with the demands of a scientific career. We have several diversity initiatives to try to overcome cultural obstacles like these. And if there are any obstacles that arise from biological differences between people--well, it's best to know about those, too, so we can tailor our efforts to suit everyone's needs.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Liza's picture
Liza says:

I think that the scary part for a lot of people, including myself, is the possibility that some institutions, societies, workplaces, etc., will make decisions about the opportunities open to whole groups of people based on generalizations like this ("boys are better at math than girls"), and they won't look at the skill sets of individuals. And all of these studies clearly state that these ARE generalities; there are significant numbers of boys who are interested in people and girls who are interested in systems, and another significant number of people of both sexes who are equally interested in systems and people.)

I'm OK being denied a position because I'm unqualified on the basis of education or experience, but not on the basis of someone else's prejudgement about how my brain is wired. I can either do the job, or I can't, but my ability shouldn't be prejudged on the basis of my sex.

Given all the hurdles that can stand in the way of achievement in math and science, many people are reluctant to popularize a study that might serve to "validate" bias through science (even though, in fact, the study does no such thing).

I think that people are also afraid that studies like this only serve to reinforce stereotypes: that girls who like and are good at math are somehow "unfeminine" and that boys who are interested in people are "unmasculine." It's taken a long time to even start to shed those stereotypes, and many people don't want to revive them.

It's a very real risk, I think, especially since women and minorities have been denied so many opportunities because "science" has somehow found us "inferior" in some way or another...

posted on Thu, 03/03/2005 - 12:11pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

I agree with you entirely: it is vitally important to see people as individuals, and not as members of groups. But I would be surprised if this were a major problem in the workplace. Businesses have a strong financial incentive to hire good people, regardless of race, class or sex. (Do all employers do this? No, but it's a goal we can strive toward.)

I'd be more worried about the educational system. Teachers have little material incentive to push students to reach their potential. (Moral incentive, sure, but that doesn't figure into your paycheck.) I teach, and I get paid the same whether my students pass or fail. (I remind them of that, to get them to take more responsibility for their own education.)

So, introducing accountability into education is a difficult task (not to mention a political hot potato). Efforts so far have tended to focus on raising average test scores, or making sure all students meet some minimum requirement. Which is fine -- but what about the above average student? The teacher spends most of their effort on the poorly-performing students, and has little time for the rest. Thus, they may fall back on the stereotype -- "boys are better at math; girls are better at language" -- and not give proper encouragement to the budding female scientist or male poet.

But for me, the scary part is the sense that academia and the sciences -- areas that are supposed to be dedicated to debating ideas and seeking the truth -- seem willing to shut down entire avenues of inquiry because they may lead to "inconvenient" results. In the wake of the Summers controversey, there have been reports (anecdotal, to be sure) of faculty and researchers claiming they have been discouraged from pursuing studies that were "politically incorrect." It seems to me that is the real danger. If there truly are inequalities -- that the average woman is weaker in math and the average male weaker in language -- then ignoring these differences will not make it go away. We need reliable information on the differences between people -- both individually and in the aggregate -- so we can provide them with the help and services they need.

posted on Thu, 03/03/2005 - 1:19pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Sixteen months later, here comes the latest installment of the Summers saga...

An article in the July 16 Washington Post begins:

"Neurobiologist Ben Barres has a unique perspective on former Harvard president Lawrence Summers's assertion that innate differences between the sexes might explain why many fewer women than men reach the highest echelons of science.

That's because Barres used to be a woman himself."

Barres's commentary, backed up with scientific studies, was published in the July 15 issue of Nature. He says that switching sex has given him a unique insight into the biases that make it harder for women to succeed in the sciences.

The article continues,

"While there are men and women on both sides of the argument, the debate has exposed fissures along gender lines, which is what makes Barres so unusual. Barres said he has realized from personal experience that many men are unconscious of the privileges that come with being male, which leaves them unable to countenance talk of glass ceilings and discrimination."

I'm not in any way saying that's you, Gene. But there are a lot of people out there, still, who think women are or should be like Barbie. (That's why the title of your original post was funny, right?)

Barbie: (Photo by Jennifer Hogan)
Barbie: (Photo by Jennifer Hogan)

posted on Fri, 07/28/2006 - 1:56pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

"The privileges of being male"? I believe we have left the field of neurobiology and entered sociology. Or perhaps science fiction. Take a look at the gender gap in education, at how our schools are failing our boys, and then talk to me about "privilege."

In the mean time, why are we having such a hard time accepting that male bodies and female bodies are different? Egalitarianism is noce, but not when it suppresses scientific findings.

posted on Mon, 08/14/2006 - 2:24pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Recent research on where math is done in the human brain indicates there might be a significant difference in where in the brain people from Eastern cultures do math as contrasted with people living in Western cultures. Does that mean we or they do math 'better?' I would like to suggest that gender differences in approaches to mathematics might be a positive situation, just like different math approaches across cultures might also be beneficial. We need to stop making judgements about 'good' or 'bad' and just say 'different' because those different approaches may be the source of creativity we need to solve complex mathematical dilemmas.

posted on Fri, 07/28/2006 - 2:22pm
Megan's picture
Megan says:

I think it is quite interesting how people from different cultures use their brains differently to do the same math problems. Researchers from China and the United States found a difference in how native English speakers and native Chinese speakers used their brains while doing math problems. This difference was the most dramatic when they were doing addition and quantity comparison problems.

posted on Fri, 07/28/2006 - 4:11pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I like math and i know it can be hard.

posted on Fri, 07/28/2006 - 2:35pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I like math

posted on Fri, 07/28/2006 - 3:10pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

math is amazing.. although i dont know why there is so many types but the best in theh world

posted on Fri, 07/28/2006 - 3:32pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

A panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences has concluded that women in science and engineering are held back not by a lack of ability, but by bias and institutional structure.

(Read the panel's report, "Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering," online, free.)

(Read some recommendations by the National Academies of Science about how to address the problem: "To Recruit and Advance: Women Students and Faculty in Science and Engineering.")

According to the New York Times review,

"The panel dismissed the idea, notably advanced last year by Lawrence H. Summers, then the president of Harvard, that the relative dearth of women in the upper ranks of science might be the result of 'innate' intellectual deficiencies, particularly in mathematics.

If there are cognitive differences, the report says, they are small and irrelevant. In any event, the much-studied gender gap in math performance has all but disappeared as more girls enroll in demanding classes. Even among very high achievers, the gap is narrowing, the panelists said....

Nor is the problem a lack of women in the academic pipeline, the report says. Though women leave science and engineering more often than men 'at every educational transition' from high school through college professorships, the number of women studying science and engineering has sharply increased at all levels.

For 30 years, the report says, women have earned at least 30 percent of the nation’s doctorates in social and behavioral sciences, and at least 20 percent of the doctorates in life sciences. Yet they appear among full professors in those fields at less than half those levels. Women from minority groups are 'virtually absent,' it adds.

The report also dismisses other commonly held beliefs — that women are uncompetitive or less productive, that they take too much time off for their families. Instead, it says, extensive previous research showed a pattern of unconscious but pervasive bias, 'arbitrary and subjective' evaluation processes and a work environment in which 'anyone lacking the work and family support traditionally provided by a "wife" is at a serious disadvantage.'"


"The 18-member panel had [only] one man: Robert J. Birgeneau, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley. But Dr. Shalala [President of the University of Miami and the panel's chairwoman] noted that the National Academy of Sciences committee that reviewed the report had 10 men.

'Nothing was a foregone conclusion,' she said, adding that the committee was surprised at the strength of evidence supporting the report’s conclusions. In an interview, Dr. [Ruth] Simmons of Brown [University] said: 'The data don’t lie. There are lots of arguments one could have mounted 30 years ago, but 30 years later we have incontrovertible data that women do have the ability to do science and engineering at a very high level.'"

An intriguing suggestion that might benefit all of us is for academic journals to hide the identity of authors when the magazines send manuscripts out for peer review. In theory, the research should then be judged on its merits alone, instead of the sex or reputation of the author.

What do you think? What are some other ways to make sure that scientists' opportunities match their abilities, no matter what their sex (or race, or ethnicity, or orientation, or religion, etc.)?

posted on Thu, 09/21/2006 - 1:16pm

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