In 2005, when then-president of Harvard (and current Obama advisor) Larry Summers posited that biological differences might be one reason why women have not been as successful as men in math and science careers, he was only the latest man to make that suggestion. Back in 1887, George Romanes declared that mental abilities were secondary sex characteristics related to brain size (i.e., girls were stupid because their brains were too tiny).
I wasn’t the only person who thought that Summers was nuts in 2005, even if his theory had such a long tradition.
A new study in this week’s PNAS adds to the evidence that girls' brains are just fine. Psychologist Janet Hyde and oncologist Janet Mertz of the University of Wisconsin set out to answer three questions: Do gender differences in mathematics performance exist in the general population? Do gender differences exist among the highly mathematically talented? And do females exist who possess profound mathematical talent?
The answer to the first question is “no.” There are no longer any differences in math performance between girls and boys in the United States and several other nations.
For the second question, the answer is “sometimes.” There is a gender gap between males and females in the top percentiles of math performance, but it is not found in some ethnic groups and nations. The presence of a gap, they write, “correlates with several measure of gender inequality. Thus, it is largely an artifact of changeable sociocultural factors, not immutable, innate biological differences between the sexes.”
As for the third question, all the researchers had to do was go out and find some of the top-performing female mathematicians. And they didn’t have to look very hard.
The conclusion: girls can do math just as well as boys.
The timing of this study is interesting, because I’m currently reading Women in Mathematics, a 1974 book by Lynn M. Osen, and a gift from my mom, a math teacher. Women have been mathematicians as long as men, and it’s really only women’s circumstances throughout history (mostly uneducated, often unseen) that prevented all but a few from pursuing the field:
In almost any age, it has taken a passionate determination, as well as a certain insouciance, for a female to circumvent the crippling prohibitions against education for women, particularly in a field that is considered to be a male province. In mathematics, the wonder is not that so few have attained proficiency in the field, but that so many have overcome the obstacles to doing so. We can only speculate about the multitude who were dissuaded from the attempt—the Mary Somervilles who never had a fortunate accident to discover their talent, the Agnesis who lacked a mathematically trained parent to nurture their genius, of the Mme du Châtelets who were seduced completely by a frivolous salon life.
But perhaps the larger tragedy is that, even today, we can find remnants of the elitist (or sexist) tradition that has so often surrounded mathematics in the past. It should be acknowledged that during the present century, there have been many women who have achieved remarkably successful careers in fields drawing heavily on mathematics, but to use these women as exemplars of what is possible for any woman who “really tries” is one of the crueler sports of our day. That so many of the resolute do survive speaks to their capabilities and circumstances, as well as the caprice of luck and nature. Far too many fail even to see the reasons they were dissuaded from the effort.
Girls can do math. Can we now move on to making sure that career opportunities are the same for each? That’s a tangible, fixable, problem.