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Sex, Math and Scientific Achievement: A Grumpy Review

Two things pushed me to finally write this post. One piece of swag from the bloggers conference was the Scientific American Mind issue that included the article "Sex, Math and Scientific Achievement: Why do men dominate the fields of science, engineering and mathematics?" that I had promised to blog about. And Sciencewoman pointed out that she was waiting for my post So here goes.

I've had a hard time writing this post. Reading "Sex, Math and Scientific Achievement" made me grumpy. At one point I actually did shout-"Why don't they hear what I say?" because the article's underlying assumption was "boy howdy are women and men different." The authors write about differences, not about the relative size of differences, the amount of overlap, or heaven forefend similarities. They write about sex differences rather than gender differences. And as Annalee Newitz reminds us "gender implies a social role, sex implies a biological condition".

The authors pay a lot of attention to the large gender differences in the SAT: Math but don't mention the much smaller differences on the ACT. Nor do they mention that SAT under predicts women''s college grades relative to those of men in all fields except engineering. They do at least mention that the ratio of 12 year old boys to girls scoring at least 700 on SAT: Math has decreased from 13:1 to 3:1 in the past twenty years (guess that math gene is getting weaker).

They quote one 1992 study to "suggest that stereotypes of science as masculine may prejudice educators against girls from the start, but leave out the whole field of stereotype threat.

And maybe I'm being picky but it is seems strange that they write a paragraph about "boys having the upper hand" on visuospatial skills on page 2 but wait until page 3 to tell you about Sheryl Sorby's successful efforts to improve visuospatial skills. And oh yes they don't tell you that she found "even though robust gender differences in 3-D spatial skills exist, training and practice have been shown to effectively reduce or eliminate these differences."

They begin and end with Larry Summers' 2005 remark about innate differences and don't mention his other two reasons ("the high-powered job hypothesis" and "different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search") And weirdly they said he spoke at an economics conference; when he actually spoke at a conference, on women and minorities in the science and engineering workforce held AT an economics center.

I know I haven't started on the "Role of Biology" section but now I'm grumpy and depressed so I'm going to stop.


Thanks for posting this. It does sound like a disappointing article. Why do you think the popular media can't get beyond this and talk about the real issues of socialization, inequality, and discrimination?


One of the best answers I've heard to your question came from Annalee Newitz in her 2007 presentation to AAAS, "Reporting Science and Gender" (you can hear an excerpt here.)

"Many science stories are structured around the idea of a conflict because people like conflict. we like to see people fighting. Or, supposedly we do. Editors think that we do. And so, if you have a story about gender, how do you set up the conflict? Well, it has to be boys against girls. It has to be, if youíve done a study talking about male and female something, people or other creatures, somehow that story will be told as a conflict between those two sexes.

But, my main solution as a journalist has been to make an effort to tell news stories, to not buy into the conflict structure as much as I can, to not buy into this idea that there have to be stereotypical characters. Also, I think one of the ways that we can get out of that conflict structure is instead of talking a study being about women or men or males or females, is to talk about gender and to talk about gender as a dynamic social field where there may be conflicts, but the conflicts arenít necessarily between male and female."

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