Women’s Mathematical Abilities

Former Harvard President Larry Summers lost his job for suggesting that researchers consider the possibility that biology partially explains the dearth of female science professors. 

Some psychologists believe that if women are told they are less likely than men to be good at math then women will suffer from a “stereotype threat” that reduces their performance on math tests.

Let’s assume that this stereotype threat is real but also that there is some evidence that men are more likely than women to be born with the exceptionally strong mathematical ability needed to be a science professor.  (Full disclosure:  When I started college I wanted to be a theoretical physicist.  I quickly realized I wasn’t good enough at math to accomplish this dream.)

Many professors, especially at the women’s college where I teach, discuss in class how society might and might not be discriminating against women.  Should these professors discuss possible biological reasons for why men and women don’t achieve equal career outcomes?

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  • TGGP

    The best stuff I’ve read about the Summers controversy has been from the site Gene Expressions, which despite the quite admirable efforts of the contributors here remains the most intellectually stimulating blog I read. A good place to start and work your way backward in time would be here, which links to their open letter to Ben Barres (who wrote about it in Nature) and his reply.

  • We’ve seen this general scenario posed many times here: we may have evidence suggesting that speaking about certain best honest estimates may harm some people. How large and clear must this harm be before we should be silent?

  • Why not discuss biological reasons? Biology isn’t exactly destiny, is it? I have a degree in mathematics, but figured out before I completed the degree that I didn’t have the ‘right stuff.’ Still, in a classroom, I see that men “on average” understand geometric arguments much more easily the than women, again, in the mean. Individuals fall all along the distributions of any measure, and highly capable women may have to be a lot more driven than a man to succeed, on a “man’s” career path. In fairness, shouldn’t she be told? (She already knows, trust me here.) Not discussing the biology strikes me as falling victim to PCness, and costing legitimate investigation into biological differences.

  • Doug S.

    One “biological” factor that tends to produce reduced career success in women is pregnancy. Women who have never been pregnant make about the same amount of money as men in comparable situations, but women who have been pregnant and carried a child to term do appear to suffer penalties in terms of career advancement. (The current hypothesis is that pregnancy and its aftermath hurt career prospects because it causes extended absences from work.)

  • What an impressive website. Well, natural scientists should primarily discuss potential natural explanations, and give it up if it turns out that it doesn’t work. Social scientists should primarily discuss social explanations but they should give them up if they don’t explain data. Interdisciplinary people – and policymakers – who are supposed to be solving the real question what is behind the differences must of course be ready to look at all possible kinds of explanations and compare their results. If they do so, I think that they will clearly see that it is impossible to explain the observed patterns without a very important and sometimes well-defined and well-established biological component, and without a significant and usually ill-defined, fuzzy, and unpredictable social component. My name links to the “freedom vs PC” category in my blog dedicated to these questions and news. 😉

  • I wonder if stereotype threat also works on non-biological stereotypes: if a woman is told that on average there are systematic societal biases against her and that her work will tend to be undervalued, will she then do worse on a test? Intuitively it seems likely that this would happen. Are there any studies on this?

  • Douglas Knight

    the article linked above (ungated): “women who read of genetic causes of sex differences performed worse on math tests than those who read of experiential causes.” In fact, the ones exposed to experiential causes did the same as those exposed to the claim that there was no difference. There doesn’t seem to have been a control without exposure to some discussion.
    This is a non-biological point, but it is not exactly the one you ask about; it is about different test scores, not about undervalued work.

    In fact, the article claims that the standard stereotype threat works by invoking gender, but not connecting it to the task at hand.

  • A notable bias in the public discussion of this question is that only whether expressing the truth harms women is considered. But it is equally important to consider whether suppressing the truth harms men. Quite clearly it does, since this supression results in men being accused and convicted of immoral behaviour of which they are innocent.

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  • Dear Douglas Knight,

    You make a very good point. I wonder if any studies have been done asking if men’s average academic performances have been harmed because men as a group are often accused of discriminating against women.