Back in 2005, then-Harvard president Lawrence Summers proclaimed that boys were simply better at math because, well, because they were boys. It was a statement once-removed from sending the little ladies back into the kitchen with aprons tied around their waists and frankly, the backlash that quickly followed and pulverized Summers was well-deserved.
There are only two studies that have stuck in my craw with such ferocity. There was the Newsweek report in the mid-1980s that claimed college-educated women who were still unwed by age 40 had a greater chance of getting killed by a terrorist than getting married, and then there was that beauty of a bomb that Summers dropped, based on his own research, at a 2005 academic conference.
While Newsweek wound up apologizing for its own report, albeit 20 years after the fact, the "you're a girl, so you won't be good at math or science declaration" still raises its ugly head and refuses to go away.
Until now. A major study on international school math performance buries the idea once and for all that girls and women have less ability to succeed in math and science because of their biology.
Janet Mertz, senior author of the study just published in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society and an oncology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, reduced her findings to the simplest terms for The Huffington Post: It's nurture, not nature, that holds women back in math, she said.
"We live in a Barbie doll society," Mertz added.
It's things like tee-shirts marketed to tweens proclaiming "I'm too pretty to do homework," or "Allergic to Algebra" that are emblematic of the problem, she said. It's lowering the expectations that our daughters can be successful in the sciences and math and instead directing them -- however subtly -- to other career paths. It's believing that women are somehow inferior because of their gender and assuring them that that's OK, not to worry their pretty little heads about it.
Think it's a coincidence that, according to Mertz, it took Harvard 375 years to hire its first tenured woman math research professor?
What causes the findings of the Wisconsin researchers to resonate so loudly is that the study looked beyond the cultural boundaries of the U.S., where, by the way, both boys' and girls' math scores are plummeting compared to kids elsewhere. The researchers studied data from 86 countries to test Summers' "greater male variability hypothesis" famously expounded upon in 2005 as the main reason there were so few outstanding female mathematicians.
What they found was that boys -- as well as girls -- do better in math when raised in countries where females have better equality. Knock me over with a feather.
Now just because it took Newsweek 20 years to admit it was wrong, that doesn't mean Summers needs to wait another day, does it?
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