Bridging the Gender Gap

Why aren't there more women in the upper echelons of science? It's a question with many answers, but John Tierney at the New York Times is only interested in one: Maybe women just aren't smart enough. 

In two columns (on June 8 and June 15) for the New York Times, Tierney argues that men outnumber women at the extreme ends of the intelligence bell curve. Though the sexes may cluster around the same average intelligence, men are more likely to occupy the very highest (and lowest) percentiles in tests of mathematical ability. Maybe this, not gender bias, is the invisible force holding up science's glass ceiling.

Here's why we think Tierney is wrong.

  • Most women just starting their science careers don't face the kind of brazen discrimination their predecessors did. Thank goodness for that. Yet there is good evidence that implicit biases color the way we think about girls' capacity to do science. Both women and men are vulnerable to these biases, and they can be self-fulfilling: "Stereotype threat" can cause some women to underperform when they are told to expect that their gender will negatively affect their performance on a test.

  • How can we untangle these social influences from innate ability? One way might be to check whether the math score gender gap persists in other cultures. In fact, it doesn't. More to the point, when the gender gap is matched up with measures of implicit bias, the gender gap widens and narrows in perfect harmony with the strength of a nation's implicit biases. 

  • But let's imagine that the gender gap is real. Is exceptional performance on a math test really a good predictor of an individual's promise as a scientist anyway? The best scientists also have to be top-notch communicators, They have to spread excitement about their ideas at conferences and lectures, and they have to write persuasive grant proposals. They have to manage teams of students and post-docs. And they need a creative spark that sets them apart. One math score is a paltry proxy for this multifaceted set of skills.

  • There is good evidence that male and female brains do process information differently. But that's not a bad thing. In fact, science can only benefit from the participation of minds that literally "think differently." Novel approaches and new ways of seeing problems are responsible for great leaps in science and technology.

  • Finally, what's the point? Science has tremendous potential to help our society face its challenges, so let's ask whether this debate is really a constructive one. Most scientists, smart as they may be, do not occupy that coveted space at the very end of the bell curve. And yet they do good and important work. Why exclude 50% of the population from even trying? What message does that send to girls and women--as well as men who might not occupy that far-right tail on the bell curve--considering careers in science?

 At NOVA and NOVA scienceNOW, we are proud to introduce viewers to scientists of every gender, race, nationality, and age. (See some recent examples of scientists of all types at our Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers series.) These are people of remarkable intelligence but also exceptional dedication, passion, and creativity. We hope that by presenting these scientific role models, we can encourage would-be scientists of every shape, size, and color to pursue their passion. Anything less does a disservice to science and the society it serves.

User Comments:

I was obsessed with astronomy as a child once the obligatory dinosaur phase passed and used to attend math enrichment camps over the summer. As I grew older, the number of girls dropped off from outnumbering boys to being vastly underrepresented. What happened? Even winning all the science fairs in elementary and junior high didn't stop my teachers from pushing me towards English because I was moderately more literate than peers and happened to read a lot, even if it was mostly nonfiction. Can't tell you how many times I endured older men comment about how few girls are "interested in that sort of stuff." After joining Robotics after school, my male teammates either harassed or excluded me until I quit the next year. Who can really blame the women so annoyed by this persistent condescension that they lose interest?

It's the same flawed conclusion as putting the shoddiest electronic model in pink casing, then determining from poor sales that women just don't like technology. It's the way you don't appeal to women beyond low expectations and mild curiosity that they don't involve themselves in the sciences. It's the way you conveniently ignore Arete of Cyrene, Rosa Luxemborg, Lise Meitner, Hildegard von Bingen, and all the others to present its history as exclusively male. Emilie du Chatalet was a lot more than Voltaire's lady friend and posessed an intellect to rival his own. (Same difference with promoting mythical matriarch Betsy Ross over Mercy Otis Warren.) Women didn't roll out of bed one day in the 80s and decide science was fashionable.

Is there good evidence that one brain processes information differently from another, regardless of gender?

I completely agree. The cultural angle is proof that gender gaps have a huge social component. The Gender gap is much smaller in Asian countries and the top girls there tend to out perform our top males.

I recently heard that in the UK girls routinely out perform boys in science and math. Conversely British boys out perform their female classmates in literature (and possibly history). Culture does play an important role in determining achievement among socioeconomic groups.

It doesn't just happen in science. When I was an Art History major in college - this was in the 80's - I was shocked at the assumption that women had never been among the great artists throughout history. I bet Tierney thinks there were no great women artists before the 20th century, and he would probably extrapolate from there that women are not as talented.

The truth for both art and science is that women have been, and still are, systematically discriminated against in these fields, and centuries of male supremacy are attributed to genetics instead of the legal and cultural restrictions that have been considered "normal".

When the British Art Academy had a group portrait done of it's artists in the 1800s, the women artists could only be represented as figures in portraits on the walls.'

Throughout the centuries, women who wanted to be taught by masters were not allowed unless they slept with the artists or posed for them.

Our problem doesn't seem to be the intellectual capabilities and talents of women so much as our unwillingness to finally put a stop to always allowing men to bully their way to controlling everything - to our great detriment.

Could you add "share" links to this blog so that we can share it with one click on facebook etc.? Thank you!

Aren't career women, in general, more likely to be the care takers of children once they start a family. They may leave their career to raise their kids and go back after their children are older. This alone puts them at a disadvantage. Women that continue to work are more likely to take time off when a baby is born, stay home when needed, and not as available for long work hours.

It's my experience in the engineering field, that women tend to take care of family needs while men are able to work longer hours.

It seems this might be a contributing factor.

I have been encouraging my 16 year old daughter to go for whatever she wishes, and it just so happens she's a very well rounded scholar, working on chemistry and calculus this year. Thirty years ago, however, I was ridiculed by a math teacher: "It figures a GIRL would ask that question" and didn't get my math groove on until I was a late bloomer in college. Hopefully this generation will be the one to stop the discrimination. It's about time.

When I was a little girl, I lusted after my older cousin's (a boy, of course) CHEMISTRY SET! I wasn't even in school yet, but I wanted to mix those chemicals and see what happened!

13 years later, when I went to my high school guidance counselor will great math and science scores and a 34 in science on the ACT, he or she (I don't remember; must have blocked it out) recommended (drum roll, please) that I become a pharmacist!!!

The follow spring, when I completed all of my "unknowns" but one before Spring Break, the grad students running the lab (boys, of course) gave me water as my final one. I slaved over that stuff for weeks and never figured it out. Who'd have thought that reasonable? So I started the semester going through those things, one after the other, at breakneck speed--every one right the first time--and ended it with a C in lab. I was too naive to realize it wasn't my fault and too intimidated to do anything about it.

Folks, that's how it's done.

p.s., all's well that ends reasonably well, I suppose. I stayed in science, went on to law school (when women were still less than a third of the class), and I haven't done too badly, but I can tell you that most people still choose people like themselves. And some people are determined to keep it that way. Not that much has changed. Women who "make it" in non-traditional fields work really, really hard and tolerate a lot of mistreatment.

Never mind that high standardized test scores do not do a good job of predicting success in college. And the assumption that the tests are truly neutral and measure raw math ability.

Gender gap?
Try racial and nationality gap. Most post-graduate level engineering students enrolled in and graduating from US schools are foreign born and US Asian males and females.

The problem is the way we educate the youth in The USA. Our nation has lost its footing in education and is failing its children in many ways. In particular we are doing a terrible job with white male youth from low to middle income families. The pendulum of focus has swung to the extreme and it is time for a centered approach on many fronts concerning education in The USA.

It's probably because the academic system has been designed by men, and linear thinking brains. Women also may think linearly, but they may also have a more global way of thinking that makes "making it" in academia just that much harder.

Try doing it with a AADD brain, even harder yet. The systems need to change, not the thinkers. Don't hate the player, hate the game. Getting these different ways of thinking into play in helping us save the world is required. As Einstein said we can't solve our problems with the same type thinking that caused them. Hunter-gatherer thinkers unite! :)

Thanks for the suggestion! We'll get that option on the site asap.

I don't know if it's still true today, but 10 - 20 years ago, it seemed that many women teaching math in elementary schools disliked math and passed that on to their female students either consciously or otherwise. I tutored many students in remedial math back then and many of the women confirmed this early dislike.
If this is still true today, it needs to be addressed.

As noted in the main story, "...the gender gap widens and narrows in perfect harmony with the strength of a nation's implicit biases." In societies where abuse of women is regarded as "proper treatment," even being encoded in laws that favor keeping males in power, it's only natural that abusers will rationalize their bullying with nonsense claims like, "Females are not as intelligent." I think we can demonstrate that only someone lacking intelligence would make that claim.

Maybe science isn’t the answer - at least, not 100% of it. There’s more to health, energy, well-being, the environment - than science. Peace, and sustainability can be solved in many ways – that have zero to do with science. Until we realize this – we will keep repeating our mistakes. Time to grow-up, America!

First, I will withhold complete judgment until I have the opportunity to read both Mr. Tierney's articles.
Second, I'm wondering whether his articles were written with a sort of reverse psychology--i.e., that by saying women aren't smart enough, he is hoping he will elicit the opposite response. (Perhaps I'm being too naive and hopeful myself, however.)
Third, I was never gifted in math or the sciences. In many ways, I wish I were, for I remember star-gazing as a child and hoping that I would someday be an astronomer or astronaut. And yet, I do have at least a little facility with language, including some more technical aspects of grammar. In my field (editing; in particular, medical and scientific manuscripts), you see anecdotally, at least, that a majority of people in all echelons are female. I would like to make the argument that high achievement in language, technical editing, technical writing, and grammar--not just the traditional "hard" sciences--could also be used as yardsticks to measure the mind's ability to think rationally and scientifically, if you will. (As a side note, it might also be beneficial to look at the yearly national Spelling Bee and Geography Bee winners. Not only are the winners usually children of Asian descent, but it is important to also note that a number of girls have risen through the ranks to win these competitions.)
Finally, I agree with previous posters (and original article) on at least three crucial points: (1) a mathematical test is not the sole indicator of one's intelligence in the sciences or otherwise (2) women even today are expected to, and often do, leave the workforce should they decide to have a family. I'm sure there's at least a little loss there, in terms of women not "rising to the top levels" of their scientific fields because they've had to re-enter or leave the workforce; and (3) women (and men) in different societies or cultures have different achievement levels in the sciences (and other fields, too). I attribute the third to the United States' coveting and enshrinement of stupidity--who here in the United States was ridiculed in school for making good grades, loving to read, enjoying learning, or winning awards in school? (This would not happen in many other countries, such as China, Japan, or India.) And who was held up as a hero for making the touchdown, scoring the goal, knocking that baseball over the fence, or, to shift focus, for just being "handsome" or "beautiful" or popular enough to be the prom king or prom queen, respectively?

Could it be that women think they already know everything that's worth knowing. Why do they need the big horse, the big gun, or the big bread machine when they can just relate to someone who has one.

Is that the same argument as "why be a doctor when you could just marry one"? Seriously?

Scientific literacy is cultural/social rather than gender differences in brains. People who are fun, people who are good liars are social leaders. The dumbest are funny and bully the most. Scientists are serious people. Females get the better grades yet men get the jobs. Most males between 18 and 25 are in jail or the military. Females are in college. Males still get paid more. The smartest people I know, male or female are gay or Jewish or both. No man would ever have an intelligent conversation with me. "You think too much". It is more important to be funny or popular than to be smart. Our culture raises children with praise for mediocrity believing every child smart without effort in learning. Girls rule, boys drool.

Let's face it, men and women are different, but so are men and men, and women and women.

It can't be genetic or biological because there is no real difference between the sexes, other than a few genes like SRY.

Which brings me to suggest a topic; what is the latest on genetic sex determination?

PBS/BBC have done some interesting shows on the topic over the years, (don't remember what NOVA has done), so this isn't an ignored topic. But the news on the case of another athlete whose sex is questioned should keep reminding us that sex isn't black/while or male/female, but shades of gray.

But what I haven't found is what is different between a male/female genetically besides the SRY gene. The Y chromosome is, crudely a degraded X, carrying SRY, and that triggers the asexual fetus? or not, into becoming male. But a Y with defective SRY doesn't lead to a full female. Why?

And, a bit more on target of this topic, any progress in figuring out what imprints the brain into male vs female? SRY, some cascade of hormones, epigenome?

Revisiting the topic, I see wikipedia points to a new article published in 2008:
SRY and the Standoff in Sex Determination
Leo DiNapoli and Blanche Capel @Duke

Hey, Blanche looks like an expert in figuring out the difference between men and women:

My guess is multiple areas of the brain are imprinted from -1 to 1 for the two sexes, and each area represents attraction, aggression, nurture, team, spacial, and maybe logic, math.

But that's a guess. Maybe Blanche has some ideas about how men and women are different, given they start off so nearly identical.

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