Jacob Sullum talks about sex differences in math and science aptitude without yelling — or getting nauseous.
This controversy is ostensibly about the ability of women to excel in math and science. But it says more about the ability of academics to engage in rational debate when confronted by views that contradict their cherished assumptions.
Speaking at a conference sponsored by the National Bureau of Economic Research, (Harvard President Lawrence) Summers, an economist and former treasury secretary, suggested three factors that may help account for the scarcity of women on the math, physical science, and engineering faculties of leading universities. In addition to discrimination (the explanation favored by Hopkins) and the reluctance of mothers to put in the long hours required by top math and science positions, he mentioned sex-related differences in ability.
Males tend to outscore females on spatial reasoning; more men are at the very high end of the scale for advanced math skills.
Yet average group differences in ability do not imply a judgment about any particular individual, since there is still much overlap between the sexes. Although men predominate in the upper echelons of math and science, that doesn’t mean the women who make it are any less qualified. The situation could change, of course, if the demand for gender balance leads universities to select faculty members based on their sex.
Differences may start with exposure to prenatal hormones, then be influenced by social factors.