Larry Summers, Women and Maths

// 30 July 2008

girls and maths

You may remember a controversy a couple of years ago about remarks made by Larry Summers, former President of Harvard University. He suggested that the reason there are fewer women than men at the high end of scientific research is (among other reasons including discrimination and cultural factors), because more men excel in those subjects. He was subsequently fired for his remarks.

Ealasaid Gilfillan wrote a really interesting piece on this controversy for The F-Word, back in 2005.

Since then, Summers has been turned into a pariah figure for those who think women don’t get the top jobs because of discrimination, and a martyr to those who think the liberal agenda is to censor the results of scientific research. Both points of view seem to me to be simplistic and wrong.

The debate has been reignited this week by a new piece of research (paid content) which both sides of the debate claim prove their respective points and, by extension, either condemn or exonerate Summers. Jessica at Feministing and Jeff at Alas, a blog! (along with much of the mainstream press) are claiming ‘victory for girls’ as a result of this paper, but they’re wrong. What this paper says actually backs up Summers’ remarks. But it (like Summers) tells part, rather than all, of the story.

The paper finds that, on average, girls score as well as boys in standardised maths tests (at all ages) in the US schooling system. On the other hand, and backing up what Summers said, it shows the variance around the mean to be consistently greater for boys than for girls – in essence, girls cluster more closely around the average performer, whilst boys’ performance is more varied. This is the part that has gone largely unreported.

So whilst it’s true to say that boys and girls perform equally overall, it’s also true to say that more boys do exceptionally well or exceptionally badly than girls. The top 1% of achievers in maths is disproportionately male (and disproportionately white male at that). Tellingly, I haven’t seen anyone claim this means white folks are smarter – presumably it’s obvious to everyone that socio-economic factors play a pretty big role in test scores.

The study suggests, essentially, that Summers had the beginnings of a point. What it doesn’t do is justify the triumphant crowing of those who would have you believe that men are at the forefront of technical fields is because boys are brilliant and girls are rubbish (and should stay at home baking).

abacusFor a start, the fact that the test results of boys and girls have equalised by so much in just a few decades suggests that there’s nothing very much innate about any performance differentials that exist. It’s true to say that *right now* more men are maths geniuses than women, but it seems plausible that the pattern will continue to change.

Then we have the question of culture – the discussion thread at Marginal Revolution (which is really interesting) spends some time discussing whether other factors interact with pure ability when children take tests. You don’t need me to point this out to you, but, for one, the role of parental expectations and encouragement may frequently be gendered. For two, the role of peer group interaction and its effect on an individual child’s motivation to succeed in particular subjects is likely to be a factor. And highly likely to be gendered as well.

And once we’re done with all of that, there’s still a role for good old fashioned discrimination. There’s endless evidence that discrimination still exists in all types of organisations and sectors. It exists during the hiring and promotions process, and it exists indirectly in most working practices. As Kate points out at the Cruella-blog, if there are more men in the ‘genius maths’ jobs purely because of innate ability, we’d expect to see correspondingly more women in the ‘average maths’ jobs – such as accountancy or tax – but we don’t.

Add to that the unequal position of many women in the household (overwhelmingly primary carers for children even where two parents are working and more frequently single parents) and it ought to be obvious that workplace advancement is based on more than just ability (or even test scores).

Some of those factors will be ‘personal choice’ but the definition of choice becomes increasingly meaningless when it’s considered as the cumulative result of economic and cultural imperatives. (I’ve talked about this before).

People who are trying to tear down Summers, or to use this study to ‘prove’ that women are as good as men are missing the point. The scientific ‘fact’ of this article is a jumping-off point for thinking about how gender interacts with ability, not a case closed. The data shows what it shows, but it doesn’t tell us much about the causes of these differentials. It raises more questions than it answers.

Hat tips to Economic Woman and Greg Mankiw

First image from xkcd – and yes, it’s good to give this another F-Word airing!

Second image by ntr23, shared under a creative commons license

Comments From You

lucy // Posted 30 July 2008 at 9:49 pm

Thankyou Lynne, for again writing intelligently about *actual* research, not just the superficial reporting of it. I’m so tired of the numerous blog posts that jumped on this science-by-press-release without looking at the actual work discussed.

Jess B // Posted 31 July 2008 at 1:22 pm

Well put Lynne. People never seem to acknowledge that young girls are often not encouraged to be academic by family and peers. In my own experiences I found that many girls are encouraged to “dumb themselves down” in order to to massage boys’ egos and to fit in with the notion that women are only to be looked at.

Sian // Posted 31 July 2008 at 2:27 pm

Ditto what Lucy says above-scientific research written about intelligently by journalists/bloggers is normally disappointingly rare.

jj // Posted 31 July 2008 at 3:26 pm

“It’s true to say that *right now* more men are maths geniuses than women, but it seems plausible that the pattern will continue to change.”

Of course, I don’t know, as no one does. But I think Simon Baron-Cohen’s autism research offers an interesting theory for the higher male standard deviation in highly abstract disciplines. It should be noted though, that there seems to be a difference between biological sex and what neuro-biologists call male and female brains. Men can apparently have “female brains” and be very much men and women can have “male brains” and be very much a woman. It’s just about differences in cerebral anatomy and information processing strategies that seem to be related to prenatal hormonal exposure.

The Male Condition, NY Times

Mark Headey // Posted 31 July 2008 at 5:59 pm


I have to confess to being sceptical of Baron-Cohen on the grounds that I’m sceptical about Evolutionary Psychology period.

With one or two exceptions, most of the “tests” done on the brain are (and can ONLY be) done on adults or, at best, children who can understand instructions. That there are identifiable differences between male and female brains tells us very little since we know even the adult brain can change with practice (the London cabbie experiment). As the author points out, it can tell us about *now* but nothing (or virtually nothing) about what is *natural* to the sexes.

Shea // Posted 31 July 2008 at 9:06 pm

I agree with the comment by Mark above, I’m also sceptical of the evolutionary biologist approach to neuroscience. I don’t believe in either a “female” or a “male” brain and I don’t believe there are huge innate differences between them. I also think if more women were better at maths and engineering, these subject would not be held in such high esteem.

Its interesting the above results reflect IQ tests (which are themselves dodgy) which show higher and lower spectrum IQs in men and a greater cluster around the median in females. (Although the person with the highest IQ ever recorded was female- pleasingly.) Great article, the reasoned and rational analysis was a welcome relief.

chem_fem // Posted 31 July 2008 at 11:13 pm

I agree with you Shea.

I’d also say that being good at science tests means little about your ability to be a scientist. It rarely gauges creative sideways thinking, which is a must if you are to research novel science.

You also need certain other skills, often including the ability to manage (if you are to supervise a group), collaborate and the ability to keep on going even when nothing has worked for a long long time.

Some of the best brightest scientists (in tests) I’ve know went on to become accountants and business consultants.

jj // Posted 1 August 2008 at 3:16 pm

I’m don’t quite understand what makes anyone think that this line of research (hormonal explanations for autism) has anything to do with evolutionary psychology. Is has not.

That said, while it is quite possible to disagree with a lot of methodological assumptions and details of evolutionary psychology, at the fundamental level, it is based on the more than just plausible assumption that the most important human organ, the brain, has actually evolved beyond size. There *are* anatomical cerebral differences between males and females (on average) that are undeniable.

Since feminism is based on the assumption that the sexes/genders are equals despite their biological differences, I’m a little confused about the partly violent feminist opposition to neurobiological research trying to identify differences. My current theory is that this opposition can only be explained by the normative sociological roots of academic feminism.

chem_fem // Posted 1 August 2008 at 6:26 pm

jj – I’m opposed to it because it never seems to take into account that there is as much (if not sometimes more) variation in a sample of men or women than there is between them.

I don’t want to be pigeonholed into ‘what a woman is’ when that category actually encompasses much of what it is to be a man too. The reporting of these sciences just doesn’t take individuality or variation across a sex into account.

If I have an ability for science let me bloody get on with it and stop using study data to justify your prejudices – because there is study data that shows a female authored paper is more likely to be published if her sex is unknown by the referee.

jj // Posted 1 August 2008 at 8:54 pm


“The reporting of these sciences just doesn’t take individuality or variation across a sex into account.”

I agree very much with this statement. I think part of the reason for this is – beyond the media’s interest in simple headlines – academic feminism’s (partly absurd) resistance to even the suggestion of the possibility of biological roots for behavioral differences have created two opposed camps rather than one group of people trying to learn more about humanity (as we all know, humanity comes “clustered” around two sexes).

“If I have an ability for science let me bloody get on with it and stop using study data to justify your prejudices”

I can understand that there is some concern about that. It has been done over and over in history. However, in general, I don’t think this means that we should stop research at some point we find convenient enough to support particular political views – and that cuts “both” (and more) ways.

Interesting FAQ, via the wikipedia article on the evolutionary psychology controversy –

monika // Posted 28 February 2010 at 10:51 am

I’m a female mathematician , I love it and I don’t understand those studies , in history there have been many female Mathematicians : E.du Chatelet , Sophie Kovalevskaïa ,my math professors etc … But it changes over the centuries , women were considered to be unable to write excellent novels , they were supposed to be bad in litterature …That’s so stupid , I’ve had a lot of male english teacher and they were great ! My dad is lame is maths ,and his a man .That just means everybody is different ,and we have to take into account women history , they’ve just emancipated themselves !

And apparently ,we still try to take them to a lower level …

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