"Daring to Discuss Women in Science:" A Response to John Tierney

06/09/2010 03:58 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Caroline Simard Leader, Anita Borg Institute’s research and executive program initiative

On Monday, John Tierney of the New York Times published a provocative article, "Daring to Discuss Women in Science" in which he argues that biology may be a factor to explain why women are not reaching high-level positions. He suggests that boys are innately more gifted at math and science and that the dearth of women in science may point to simple biological differences. If this is the case, why would we waste our time trying to get more women in science?

Mr. Tierney, let's indeed discuss women in science.

First, let me start by saying that I applaud the discussion -- all potential explanations for a complex issue and all evidence need to be considered, even the ones that are not popular in the media or not "politically correct." I also believe that Larry Summer's now infamous comments about the possibility that biological differences account for the dearth of women scientists and technologists was, similarly, in the spirit of intellectual debate.

The problem with the biology argument that "boys are just more likely to be born good at math and science" isn't that it's not "politically correct" -- it's that it assumes that we can take away the power of societal influences, which have much more solid evidence than the biology hypothesis. Tierney makes the point himself in his article -- in order provide evidence for biological differences, he cites a longitudinal Duke study which shows that the highest achievers in SAT math tests (above 700), which counted 13 boys for every girl in the early 80s, became a ratio of 4 boys to 1 girls in 1991, "presumably because of sociocultural factors." Hmm, isn't this actual evidence that biology is not what is at play here? If it is possible to reduce the gender achievement gap in math by 3 thanks to "sociocultural factors", I rest my case, sociocultural factors are indeed extremely powerful.

The Duke study also notes that the 4/1 achievement gap at the highest score hasn't changed in the last 20 years despite ongoing programs to encourage girls in math and science, whereas the highest achievers in writing ability (SAT above 700) shows a ratio of 1.2 girls for every boy, slightly favoring girls. However, if the premise is that boys are inherently "better" at math, and girls are inherently better at writing, why would the achievement gap be so large in math and negligible in writing? The stagnant 4 to 1 ratio is not evidence that there is an innate biological difference in math aptitude, but rather confirmation that persistent sociocultural barriers remain -- that is, science and math are still thought of as male domains.

Research shows that math and science are indeed thought of as stereotypically male domains. Project Implicit at Harvard University studied half a million participants in 34 countries and found that that 70 percent of respondents worldwide have implicit stereotypes associating science with male more than with female. Years of research by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson and their colleagues shows that implicit stereotypes affect girls' performance in math -a phenomenon called "stereotype threat". When girls receive cues that "boys are better at math," their scores in math suffer; one study in a classroom setting showed that the difference in performance between boys and girls in math SAT scores was eliminated by simply having a mentor telling them that math is learned over time rather than "innate".

The problem is, girls are routinely getting the message that they don't belong in math and science, further undermining their performance (and Mr. Tierney's article isn't exactly helping in changing the stereotype for the general public). The result of this implicit (unconscious) stereotype is that parents, teachers, and school counselors are less likely to encourage girls to pursue math and science than they are boys. These girls are then less likely to seek advanced math classes and would be unlikely, without those opportunities, to make it to the above 700 SAT math score regardless of innate ability.

Anecdotally, I had this experience with my daughter a couple of years ago. At age 10, she had somehow decided that she wasn't good at math (despite being raised in a household with 2 PhDs). With her self-confidence plummeting, math homework became very painful in our household. When I dug deeper, I found that she mistakenly believed that you were either born with math ability or you weren't -- that this was an innate biological ability as opposed to something you could learn, and that somehow she hadn't been "born with it." Once I actively dispelled that notion and provided her with additional mentoring, her math performance significantly improved. I never hear her say that she isn't good at math anymore, and her math homework is flawless.

The Duke article, and Tierney, raises an important question about preference, however, that research suggests that boys are more interested in "things" and girls are more interested in "people", and thus gravitate towards fields reflecting that interest. In this research too, there is debate about what in this difference is "nature" versus "nurture" -- there are powerful socialization forces at play. Regardless, we have to dispel the notion that science is only about "things" and not about people or somehow disconnected from all social relevance. Indeed, some of the most successful interventions to increase girls' interest in math and science have been to reframe the curriculum to provide examples and projects that are grounded in the interests of a diverse population of students. The EPICS program at Purdue University is a great example of grounding engineering disciplines in socially relevant contexts and has been shown to engage a diversity of students.

What we need, to put this debate to rest, is to replicate these findings in a country where science and math is not viewed as stereotypically male. The most recent cross-national comparison study, published in 2010 in Psychological Bulletin by Nicole Else-Quest and her colleagues and comparing 43 countries, shows that the achievement difference in math between girls and boys varies broadly across countries.

Their research shows that country by country variation is correlated with gender differences in self-confidence in math, which is compounded by stereotype threat. One of the strongest predictors of the gender gap in math achievement is a given country's level of gender equity in science jobs, consistent with socialization arguments: "if girls' mothers, aunts, and sisters do not have STEM careers, they will perceive that STEM is a male domain and thus feel anxious about math, lack the confidence to take challenging math courses, and underachieve on math tests."

Until girls stop getting the signal that math is for boys, the 4 to 1 gender ratio in highest achievement categories of math and science will persist. This has nothing to do with innate ability.

Mr. Tierney, I look forward to your subsequent articles on this issue. Let's indeed dare to discuss women in science and continue to bring to bear the most relevant research on this issue.