Sex without yelling

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.

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  1. It certainly seems quite possible to me that there are some sex-based differences at the extreme high end of mathematical talent, but saying so would be very unpopular at most universities in this country. The sad thing is that this is quite an interesting question, and investigating it might lead to meaningful results. If there are real intrinsic differences understanding them could be very valuable in understanding how people do mathematics. And if there aren’t, then perhaps we could understand the social barriers that keep women from succeeding as often at the highest levels in this field. Because it is certainly a fact that the overwhelming majority of the very best mathematicians in this country are male.

    I don’t know if the same is true of other areas, such as the physical sciences. Does anyone else?

  2. Everybody brings up the “spatial reasoning” data; however, there are vast areas of science and engineering that have nothing to do with spatial reasoning. I don’t know what you’d need spatial reasoning for in most electrical engineering disciplines, for example.

    Also, there seem to be a fair number of female air traffic controllers, and that field is largely *about* spatial reasoning. (Although it’s also heavily involved with communication and multitasking, both said to be fields in which women excel.) So, maybe people with slightly different strengths can still do the same job…

  3. I don’t know what you’d need spatial reasoning for in most electrical engineering disciplines, for example.

    You might be surprised. Sometimes what happens in an electrical circuit is best understood by visualizing a two-or three-dimensional model. I’m sure the same is true for other disciplines.

  4. But couldn’t someone whose preferred mode wasn’t highly visual accomplish the same thing in an alternative way? In mechanical engineering, I could see a high dependency on 3D visualization, but it just seems it wouldn’t be that essential in EE (or in computer science)

  5. It’s possible, but the ability to manipulate mental models is a nice tool to have, even if you have other means to solve a problem. And the lack of this ability is no guarantee that there will be another talent to compensate.

  6. Walter E. Wallis says:

    What difference does it make? Take the courses, pass the tests and you are a mathematician/engineer/scientist. Flunk and you ain’t. No need to check the equipment,just score the tests.

  7. The trouble with discussions of this sort is that while we can all tell ourselves that we’re simply discussing science, the discussion will have (perhaps) unintended, but very real world consequences.

    Mankind overgeneralizes – it’s been built into us by evolution. And in this case, the more the scientist says “a higher percentage of men than women may have an aptititude for the highest levels of maths and physics”, the more the general attitude will be “women can’t do hard science”.

    And deep in their bones, those evaluating candidates to these positions will have something telling them “can this female candidate *really* do physics? It’s just so unlikely.”

    The good evaluators will ignore the voice, because, yes, their instinct is *wrong*. Most will be influenced. It’s why in situations where by ability 10% of the candidates should be from a given group, you’ll be lucky if 1% are.

    Should it happen? Of course not. Does it happen? Yes. Should we blame only the disciminators? Well, depends. People shouldn’t die when rushing out of a crowded theatre, but they do. Do we blame them, or do we blame the person who yelled “Fire”? We’re responsible for how our words are used, even if it’s not what we intended.

  8. Independent George says:

    I dunno… While it’s obviously not suitable for every situation, sex with yelling can be kind of fun.

    Then again, maybe I only think that because I’m a guy…

  9. Tom,

    I think the better analogy here is not someone yelling ‘FIRE!’, but merely saying ‘fire’ as part of a conversation. If academics, of all people, cannot carry on conversations about ideas because someone might do something wrong with the information, then we are in deep trouble.

  10. Richard Brandshaft says:

    There is a book by two female firearms instructors on teaching women to shoot. If a man had written it, he would have been lynched. I’ve never heard a male instructor say such things even privately.

  11. If academics, of all people, cannot carry on conversations about ideas because someone might do something wrong with the information, then we are in deep trouble.

    Well, I’d not call this a private conversation, nor had Mr. Summers done any research on the topic. He’s done what any of *us* might do when looking at the root causes: he guessed, based on personal experience. Unfortunately, he is *not* insignificant, and his remarks carry weight.

    Sort of the difference between John Smith musing about nuking Iran to prevent it developing nuclear weapons when talking with a friend, and the President doing so in an address. Doesn’t mean much in either case, but only one is going to cause a fire storm (so to speak…) of controversy.

    And yes, Summer’s remarks do not justify discrimination against able candidates, however, they will help reinforce the belief that *does* cause such discrimination.

  12. Steve LaBonne says:

    The only discrimination in filling academic positions nowadays (_especially_ in the hard sciences) is in favor of female candidates, not against them. Anybody who’s not aware of this knows nothing about contemporary academia. Whatever the problem, if it is a problem, in the pipeline that leads to a dearth of female faculty, it occurs far earlier than the hiring process.