03/27/2013 11:41 am ET Updated May 27, 2013

The War Over Math and Reading

There is a simmering war (of words) about boys, girls, math, reading and why fewer women become scientists or technology experts. Sometimes, as with then-Harvard president Lawrence Summer's 2005 remark that "there is reasonably strong evidence of taste differences [with regard to becoming engineers] between little girls and little boys that are not easy to attribute to socialization," the war explodes onto the front pages of the papers and wildly disrupts a major institution. Other times, it softly bubbles along in the arcane pages of scientific journals. Here the battle weapons include difficult to fathom statistics and uncertain claims about educational and social policy. A recent publication by psychologists Gijsbert Stoet and David Geary (Sex Differences in Mathematics and Reading in the open access journal PLOSIone, provides a case in point.

Caveat Lector

All scientists have a point of view. This doesn't necessarily make their results wrong, or unworthy of notice. But it does mean that readers need to understand interpretive angles as well as the actual data. One of my favorite sociologists, Bruno Latour nailed this in his pioneering book Science in Action. He compared the opening section of scientific papers -- the one where the authors gather all the relevant literature and make a case for the importance of what will follow -- to a grand opera. "Crowds of people," Latour writes, "are mobilized by the references; from offstage hundreds of accessories are brought in...the heroes triumph over the powers of darkness, like the prince in The Magic Flute." Latour has made me ever alert to opening gambits and I tripped over Stoet and Geary's first paragraph well before I could dig into the meat of the article. Despite all the efforts, they write, to improve women's participation in the scientific workforce, there continue to be "striking differences" in college majors and career choices. "Particularly notable" is the lack of Nobel Prizes going to women and the fact that no women have won any of the three major awards in mathematics.

Lack of prizes, the first accessory dragged on stage, provides the protective artillery for the next set of citations, all from a well-worn, heavily disputed literature on the performance of girls and boys on standardized tests in math and reading. For the authors the leap seems seamless. Lower performance on skill tests has something to do with the fact that women rarely earn Nobel or math prizes. I almost stopped reading right then except that this opening gambit made my blood boil. Prizes go to people who have done amazing work and who are known to and respected by their fellow scientists. But from the days that Robert Boyle first offered the idea that true science required the assent of "modest witnesses," women have been denied fellowship. Boyle deemed women incapable of being modest witnesses (because they felt sorry for the birds killed during his vacuum experiments), and women were excluded from the major societies of accomplished scientists until surprisingly recently. For example, women were first admitted to the British Royal Academy of Sciences in 1945 (I was already one year old). Even today fewer than 10 percent of living Royal fellows are women, similar to the percentage of women members of the 150-year-old U.S. National Academies of Science.

What They Found

I had to get past what felt like a deliberate ignorance of the history of women in science before I could clear the stage for what, it turns out, is a not all that new or impressive a set of findings. Stoet and Geary used the results of standardized achievement tests in reading and mathematics from 2000, 2003, 2006 and 2009 provided by an international testing consortium called PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment). Their data included almost 1.5 million 15-year-olds from about 75 different countries.

First, math: they divided the kids into low, average and exceptional test performers. The poorest and intermediate performers did not differ by sex, but at the highest achievement levels boys outperformed girls by a statistically significant but not very large amount (in technospeak about 0.2 of a standard deviation for the top 5 percent of math achievers). These differences were larger in some countries, non-existent in some and reversed in others. Stoet and Geary couldn't really explain why. Did some countries (e.g. Iceland) do something right with regard to gender and math education, and others not? Is gender really the issue at all, or just figuring out how to convey mathematics in a way that students can learn it?

Next, reading: One of the interesting findings in this paper is that the relationship between reading performance and sex was the inverse of math. There were up to three times more low-achieving boys than girls (with a score difference of about 0.4 standard deviations). Again in the middle the difference almost disappeared and at the higher levels there were again small differences, this time favoring the girls. For both math and reading, these differences did not change much between 2000 and 2009.

What Does It All Mean?

Stoet and Geary wondered if the general level of gender equity in a particular country had an effect on math and reading achievement. If the answer was "yes" then we might expect that improving overall conditions for women would also eventually help on the math and science front. If not, those interested in equity need to rethink their approaches to bringing more girls into the sciences and helping boys learn improve their reading skills. Stoet and Geary found no correlation between their measures of human development and equality and math and reading achievement. It seems likely, however, that they did not use the best measures of gender inequity. For example one of the composite measures they used did not include a comparison of number of years of schooling. (Indeed one could do an entire blog on how to measure gender equity across nations.) Still, earlier work has found only mixed support for a crude gender equity explanation of math and reading achievement differences, so their findings continue to add to the question mark column for the gender equality/math achievement hypothesis.

What are we to make of findings such as Stoet and Geary's? First, sex differences in math and reading for high achievers are not very big. We may want to close the remaining gap for these kids, and we still are not entirely sure how to do that. However, having personally endured life as a scientist in a male dominated field and institution, I think it is likely that we can explain the gap with many of our tried and true methods: There is still discrimination, there aren't many role models, girls and boys are not treated the same in the classroom, etc. etc. Neither are male and female adult scientists equally regarded, paid or given the same lab space. I am not convinced we need any more big international studies to make policy changes and continued progress. The latter, by the way, probably needs to be measured over several decades, not just nine-year gaps.

I think Stoet and Geary's most interesting findings concern our low achieving students. Of course, if you have a variable population, shaped in the proverbially Bell curve somebody has to perform in the bottom 5 percent. But who, and why? What can we do for these kids? What do we know about their abilities, about their early development? Are there medical issues, poverty and malnutrition? What is going on here? Maybe these kids are not going to be our future scientists and engineers, but surely we want them to be able to read and cope in a technical world. I don't want to slow down the engine that is promoting improved access for girls and women in science and technology. But Stoet and Geary's data actually beg for answers about educating the low achievers. I'm just sayin'.