Math and gender

More contrarian research, this time on mathematical aptitude and culture:

Five years ago, then Harvard president Lawrence Summers’s suggestion that women lack an ”intrinsic aptitude” for math and science drew a firestorm of protest, but he was drawing on a century-old hypothesis that males exhibit greater variability in many features, math included …

This, Summers said, is one reason there are fewer women in tenured science and engineering positions at top universities and research institutions. ”I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong,” he added.

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences might make him happy. In it, psychologists Janet Hyde and Janet Mertz, from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, used data from math aptitude tests to show that among top math performers, the gender gap doesn’t exist in some ethnic groups and in some countries. The researchers conclude that culture is the main reason more men excel at the highest math levels in most countries.

”When parents are asked to estimate their child’s math talent, they estimate higher numbers for their sons than their daughters despite similar grades in school,” Hyde says. Teachers and guidance counselors share this bias, which is why math has served as a filter to keep young women out of science, technology, and engineering …

But what of the statistics that seem to back up the hypothesis that males have greater variability? Hyde and Mertz found there are more girls in the top tier in countries such as Iceland, Thailand, and the United Kingdom–and even in certain U.S. populations, such as Asian-Americans. Furthermore, they noted that a small math gender gap correlated with a higher rank on the World Economic Forum’s 2007 measures of gender equality, in which the United States ranked 31st, between Estonia and Kazakhstan. A similar correlation was found for the number of girls on International Mathematical Olympiad teams.

So how does culture shape how women do in math? Hyde says that in many countries, especially those in Asia, excellence at math is considered a result of hard work. By contrast, in the United States it is more commonly believed that people are born with or without a gift for math, a subject that in any case is thought to be hard, and not only for girls. Then there’s the cultural perception of math achievers–the nerds who are heckled in one society are exalted in another. Irina Mitrea, a math professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, in Massachusetts, who finished high school in Romania, says she never felt discouraged there: ”In fact, being good at math made you popular.” Romania’s International Math Olympiad team has had one of the highest ratios of females of all top-ranked teams in the past decade.


6 Responses to “Math and gender”

  1. Steve Edney Says:

    Like a great many things I am sure that culture tends to exagerate smaller genetic biases.

    However I can’t see that their correlation between Gender inequality and women in the IMO teams is particularly strong. The spread of results is pretty high to me, and its no surprise if there is some relationship. Its entirely unremarkable that the most oppressive to women countries will have proportionately less women competing,. This doesn’t prove that that correlation ends up ultimately in equality.

  2. Jc Says:

    But are female geeks really heckled more in American society than their male bros? I don’t see it. Me thinks there’s something in the they’re not showing or failed to look into.

  3. graemebird Says:

    I don’t think there is much of a maths advantage to being male if any. I think its about variability. Its that deal where the fellows are “Gods crapshoot” and the sheilas are “Gods insurance policy” which is inherent to the double X chromosones tendency to cover up abnormalities.

    I would have thought that Maths was about raw talent when I was in school. But getting to the less organized situation of University, having missed year twelve (seventh form) maths I was for the first time having a little trouble in some classes when I tried to take it up again.

    And the problem is that you don’t know what you don’t know. You cannot rightly locate what it is you have missed or need to revise. If I had never had this experience, I would have always put down maths ability to natural genius in the usual self-serving way. Later I found this fellow who had set up these self-teaching texts for home-school students who really crystalized that sort of thinking. He compiled the course not because he was a great genius at maths, but because he himself was having trouble with it. And apparently he’s put in all these backtracking examples that you need to revise again before launching onto the next topic.

    Its pyramids again: One ought to think of it as an upside-down pyramid. And you get to one of the upper blocks that you cannot deal with. The problem is simply that you cannot find, and are not organised to quickly find, the blocks below that you are to revise. So a powerfully well organised maths course will allow the hard-working and pretty-smart girls to get ahead of your flawed male genius if they were to persist with it.

    The genius side of things only really allows a kid to improvise the gaps in his memory and understanding. Thats only going to get you so far. So well-organised courses ought to get the girls probably beating the fellows on the average, and almost catching the odd male genius on the top end.

    We need to go to education as an outgrowth of home-schooling. I now have a bit more empathy for my former classmates. You see one time or other they had slipped behind on some area of their understanding. And it could have been years before. I think about my wife and just how smart she is. And when she tells me of how she struggled in maths but her younger brother is a sort of genius scientist, I think of what a shame it is that people are generally not taught better. If she had been in my Mothers maths class, and come out to our place to stay, as a lot of girls did who were struggling at maths, she would have easily caught up no problem.

    Edney took maths through all the way and might not understand where I’m coming from. I almost never got less than 90% in maths courses and in my last two years at high school it was always high 90’s. I never had to rely on my Mother for any of it either. Bit in third year university, suddenly out of that environment where every idea is enforced with mega-examples of a progressive nature, I find I’m mystifyingly having trouble with it. So I say ongoing problems with maths education are to do with the lack of innovation we see from socialist education.

  4. jc Says:


    Please don’t ruin this good site with pyramid talk. Enough of pyramids.

  5. graemebird Says:

    You are too stupid for this site Cambria. You are not smart. You are a dummy. Subsidised. Bailed-Out. A welfare-Queen.

  6. daddy dave Says:

    This is an open question – how much does genetics play a role.
    I worry that the question has been highly politicised.
    In fact I worry about the politicisation of so much of science these days.
    The subtitle of the article is “it’s culture not biology”, which is pushing a point of view. The consensus has been for several decades that “it’s culture not biology” but recent findings are casting doubt on that monolithic claim.
    The sensible and informed thing to say in 2009/10 is “maybe it’s not completely culture after all.”
    Sure, it’s culture to an extent, but biology has a non-zero contribution.
    I’ve said it before, but Steven Pinker’s “The blank slate” is a superb and engaging treatment of this topic.

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