A Re-examination of Gender and Math/Science Careers

By Sean Cavanagh — November 18, 2009 2 min read
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A new book seeks to offer a “nuanced, balanced” examination of why women lag behind men in their representation in certain math and science fields. Yet by its very nature, the volume, The Science on Women and Science, is bound to ignite some impassioned chatter.

The book is a collection of essays by scholars who come at the topic in different ways and reach starkly different conclusions. Some argue that research suggests that gender biases are the overriding factor in males outnumbering females in physical science, engineering, and math. Others dispute that idea, quite strongly.

The volume is edited by Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who’s written for years about claims of gender bias in math/science. Noted social scientist Charles Murray contributes an essay, as do Harvard University scholars Elizabeth Spelke and Katherine Ellison, and many others. In her introduction, Sommers presents the book as a fairer look at the issue than what was presented in a 2007 report by the National Academy of Sciences, which found that bias, as opposed to intrinsic ability, was a strong factor in discouraging women to enter math and science fields. “There are sensible and fair-minded scientists on all sides,” she writes. “They should be free to argue without being intimidated, silenced, or compared to racists.”

Some of the essayists, like Spelke and Ellison, argue that research shows that men and women have the same intrinsic cognitive abilities and motivation for math and science careers. They say there’s also no evidence that market forces are going to correct those imbalances, as some suggest, so higher education institutions would have to act for change to occur. The evidence shows that gender stereotypes are having an impact on leading women away from math and science fields, the authors explain.

But others, like authors Jerre Levy and Doreen Kimura, have a different take. They argue that the “fundamental claim” of the Academies report that men outnumber women in certain math and science fields because of social barriers against females has “no scientific foundation.” They say research has shown a connection between genetic and hormonal differences between males and females, which affect behavior and choice of occupation. They write:

Although the magnitude of average sex differences in certain cognitive abilities has declined in the last forty years, none of these differences has disappeared or is likely to disappear. However, even if there were no cognitive sex differences in average mathematical or spatial ability, there would still be more males than females at the upper end of intellectual talent due to greater male variance. In consequence, there would still be more males than females who meet even minimum standards to be academic engineers, physical scientists, or mathematicians, and many more men than women with exceptionally high levels of talent."

If you’re in the DC area, the AEI is hosting an event on the book tonight. They also promise a webcast after the fact.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.