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Interviewees: Iris Xu, Sally Wolfe, Madison, WI
That disclaimer didn’t keep then-Harvard president Lawrence Summers, the current Assistant to the President for Economic Policy and Director of the National Economics Council, from sparking a firestorm of controversy with his 2005 take on the reasons for women’s under representation in math and science leadership.
But it did lead some researchers to take up the challenge of proving or disproving Summers’ contention that inherent differences in ability might be more important than discrimination or stereotyping in accounting for the gender gap.
University of Wisconsin-Madison psychiatry professor Janet Hyde and her colleague, oncology professor Janet Mertz say their research documenting female ability at the highest levels of mathematical performance was directly "inspired" by Summers.
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Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers specifically targeted the "greater male variability hypothesis" invoked by Summers as evidence of possible innate differences in male and female math ability.
Simply put, it means that if you look at a standard bell curve distribution of male and female math scores, males and females are equally represented at average scores—the top of the curve. But at the ends, or "tails" of the curve, representing both extremely low and extremely high performance, males far outnumber females.
While Summers suggested that this is evidence of some innate difference between the genders, Hyde and Mertz show that a failure to identify and nurture girls with extreme math talent is the much more likely culprit.
The researchers gathered and analyzed data on gender and mathematical performance around the world. They found that, indeed, there is no longer a gender gap in average math performance.
"In the United States, girls have reached parity with boys in math performance at all grade levels through high school," says Hyde. "A lot of people believe the girls aren’t as good, but they actually are doing just as well."
But, proceeding into the area where Summers’ remarks tread, the researchers also studied "high-end" talent— the far right tail of the bell.
They showed that among those they call "talented—scoring at the 95 or 99th percentile, there has been a gender gap with more boys than girls scoring above those cutoffs," Hyde says. However, they also showed that this gender gap has been narrowing over time.
"That’s an important finding because it indicates that culture is probably the major source of this gender gap in high-end performance," she says. "If it’s closing over time, it’s certainly not biological. If it’s not found consistently in all nations, it’s hard to believe that it’s biological."
In addition, Mertz, whose son is ranked among the "highly gifted… those who have talents in the one-in-a-million range," has been documenting girls’ progress in that category.
"It’s been known that there have been some women who have excelled in mathematics throughout the centuries, but the studies I’ve been doing were among the first to identify dozens and dozens of these girls in various countries throughout the world," Mertz says.
Mertz showed that even at that high level, the gender gap is narrowing.
Excellence and Equity
What’s more, she showed that math excellence in females correlates well with measures of gender equality. "This is true both at the 99th percentile, and at the extreme one-in-a-million level, where you see more girls being identified when the countries have greater equity in terms of educational opportunities, in terms of employment opportunities," Mertz says.
"Which sort of makes sense," she adds. "If you provide good employment opportunities for women in these fields, they’re more likely to be encouraged to want to excel and learn the material really well so they can get those good jobs."
While Hyde and Mertz are encouraged by their findings, they say more needs to be done to encourage girls to do math, especially in the US.
Mertz points out that the US ranked 31st out of 128 countries in the World Economic Forum’s latest international study of educational, economic, health and political gender equity. The top three were Sweden, Norway and Finland.
"So the U.S. has a long way to go in gender equity. Presumably, if we had more gender equity, we would also be identifying more of these girls with exceptional math talent," she says.
This research is published in PNAS early online edition the week of June 1 – June 5, 2009, and was funded by the National Science Foundation.
Elsewhere on the Web:
Young Women Win Top Honors at World’s Largest Pre-College Science Competition
"The Gender Similarities Hypothesis," by Janet Hyde
‘Women Faring Well in Hiring’ -Report from National AcademiesStumble | Share on Facebook | Tweet This |