NY Times columnist John Tierney wrote a pair of columns on the much-discussed question of why women are underrepresented in math and the physical sciences. I didn’t see these columns until someone pointed out this response to them on the PBS Inside NOVA blog:
Why aren’t there more women in the upper echelons of science? It’s a question with many answers, but John Tierney at the New York Times is only interested in one: Maybe women just aren’t smart enough.
This is such an inaccurate description of Tierney’s position that the authors would seem either not to have read his columns or to be deliberately misrepresenting them. Tierney:
So why are women still such a minority in math-oriented sciences? The most balanced answer I've seen comes from two psychologists at Cornell, Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams €” who, by the way, are married and have a daughter with a graduate degree in engineering. After reviewing hundreds of studies in their new book, "The Mathematics of Sex" (Oxford), they conclude that discrimination is no longer an important factor in keeping out women.
They find consistent evidence for biological differences in math aptitude, particularly in males' advantage in spatial ability and in their disproportionate presence at the extreme ends of the distribution curve on math tests (the topic of last week's column). But given all the progress made in math by girls, who now take more math and science classes than boys and get better grades, Dr. Ceci and Dr. Williams say that differences in aptitude are not the primary cause of the gender gap in academic science.
Instead, they point to different personal preferences and choices of men and women, including the much-analyzed difference in the reaction to parenthood. When researchers at Vanderbilt University tracked the aspirations and values of mathematically gifted people in their 20s and 30s, they found a gender gap that widened after children arrived, with fathers focusing more on personal careers and mothers focusing more on the community and the family.
Dr. Ceci and Dr. Williams urge universities to make it easier for a young scientist to start a family and still compete for tenure, but they don't expect such reforms to eliminate the gender gap in academic science. After all, the difficulty of balancing family and career is hardly unique to science, and academia already offers parents more flexible working arrangements than do other industries with smaller gender gaps.
The gap in science seems due mainly to another difference between the sexes: men are more interested in working with things, while women are more interested in working with people. There's ample evidence €” most recently in an analysis of surveys of more than 500,000 people €” that boys and men, on average, are more interested in inanimate objects and "inorganic" subjects like math and physics and engineering, while girls and women are more drawn to life sciences, social sciences and other "organic" careers that involve people and seem to have direct social usefulness.
Ceci and Williams (and hence Tierney) may be right or they may be wrong. But to take this position and replace it with “women just aren’t smart enough” is shamefully dishonest.
For what it’s worth, my best guess is that the key factors explaining the gender gap are:
- Girls being discouraged from doing math and science in school, starting from a very young age, by teachers, parents, and peers.
- The family-unfriendly nature of the tenure-track job process.
- Discrimination (almost 100% unconscious but no less harmful as a result) against women scientists by their peers.
Tierney does give more credence than I do to the Larry Summers hypothesis, that the gender gap is partly explained by the fact that more men than women lie at the extreme high-end tail in the distribution of math ability (as well as the other tail). The NOVA blog post does a good job at laying out some of the reasons why this seems like an unlikely explanation. Among many other reasons:
- If this were the explanation, the effect would be uniform across cultures, but it isn’t.
- In my experience, lying in the extreme tail in the distribution of scores on math tests is not all that highly correlated with being a successful scientist. On the contrary, many of those extreme outliers lack the other skills needed for success in science.
So to the extent that Tierney is advocating this as the explanation for the gender gap, I think he’s probably wrong. But it’s not fair to replace his actual position with an inflammatory and inaccurate straw man.