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QotD: Math and Women

Question: Are men, in your estimation, better at math, programming, and sciences in general than women? To what do you attribute your answer: pre-determined nature or nurture/society/etc.?

My Answer: I long ago read a study that said men were better with math and women with language and the arts. In my experience, this has held up - young males are more likely to build blocks or Legos and the females to color or finger paint. I'm not prepared to say that it's an "intrinsic aptitude" as Lawrence Summers recently said, but it seems to bear itself out. It's tough to imagine a 4-year-old feeling societal pressures to go for one thing over the other.

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16 Responses to "QotD: Math and Women"

  1. I believe that this sort of thinking is plain misogyny.

    Absolutely not. I work in a physics department and the few women who do make it past all the societal roadblocks are every bit as sharp as their male colleagues. Why aren't there more women, then? Because the men in physics make life really hostile and hard for women. Sometimes they don't even mean to. If you really want to know details of how this works, ask any woman in science.

    Moms and Dads unwittingly or consciously communicate that women are not expected to do well in science, so they don't. Hell, they insist on clothing them in gender-specific color-coded clothing long before they're sexually mature. That only serves to suppress their actual gender identity. If we can suppress someone's sexual orientation through such unspoken coercion, then imagine how easy it would be to convince someone that they shouldn't do X or Y for a living.

  2. Two of the best developers we had at our company were women. However we had 40 guys and about 5 women working there. It was not that we did not hire more women, we just could not get enough to apply or if they did they were not at the level we needed.

    I would always make sure I had at least of the two women developers on my team because they were awesome!

  3. Oh right, I forgot, one or two examples disproves a generality. Sorry, it doesn't work that way.

    "Men are physically stronger." Finding one strong woman doesn't disprove that fact. They're called "averages" and "generalities" for a reason.

    Misogyny? Cut the crap, man. Saying a woman can't do something as well as a man but can do other things better than men is a far cry from "hatred of women."

    Also, neither of you actually answered the question.

  4. It may be tough to imagine 4 year olds with concepts of gender identities, but that is the way it works. Before 2 years they have a good concept of whether they are male or female and whether they should work on imitating their father or their mother. Now while males typically have a brain that is on average slightly better at spatial reasoning, it is not this fact that makes them male. A female can just as easily have the same attributes but societal pressures generally keep nurture away from such individuals. So yes, there are currently more male engineers, mathematicians, and scientists. But the role of encouragement and social pressures is what keeps it this way. The idea that the best in the fields are male as proof of their superiority in spatial reasoning is not solid. Quality through quantity makes just as much sense, if not more.

  5. My gut reaction is that any distinction is not between the capacities of men and women to perform at these tasks, but the likelihood of these talents to be expressed, and I would put the blame for that squarely on societal pressures. Erik, I disagree with your dismissal of the idea that toddlers try to emulate adults in their lives or that they perceive and react to their parents' (and other adults') expectations.

    If there really are studies that conclude a predilection towards building in men and a predilection towards coloring in women, I'd be interested to see the actual studies rather than rely on anecdotal recollections of their conclusions. Too many "scientific studies" are biased (intentionally or unintentionally) and fail to adequately control social influences when drawing a conclusion based on gender alone.

  6. I think part of it is as simple as you said: Legos versus coloring. Parents are the primary building blocks of our initial development. I'm pretty sure you could give a little girl legos and she'd be more apt to a science career over another field later in life, but that could be considered unethical.

    I've noticed a greater ratio of females use Macs as compared to Windows. Does this show that Macs are more artistically based?

  7. Research into patterns such as brain mapping shows that babies are differentially socialized as soon as they are born. Different parts of their brains are stimulated in varying degrees based on the gender of the child. Give this, I don't think that men or women are more apt to some areas over the other sex. I think that children are essentially a blank slate that are socialized into particular patterns.

    As a simple illustration: parents tend to talk more to female babies than male babies. This stimulates and reinforces language regions of the brain. Females also tend to do better in language arts classes in school. I don't consider this to be coincidence.

  8. I think the difference is real but the source could very well be social. Identity starts forming extremely early and little girls will do the things they see other females doing and little boys will do the things they see males doing.

    We've worked hard to expose our twin girls (two years old) to a wide variety of stuff. They colour, paint, play with dolls, trains, build with lego, pile blocks, pretend to be robots, and love their power tool toys. But somehow they've decided that only boys wear baseball caps. It's probably because in our household my wife doesn't wear them but I do. But at two years old they're aware that girls and boys do different things and they're their cues for that from us (their parents). My wife builds with blocks and lego and uses power tools so they do that too. They also love trains and trucks.

    So my anecdotal experience is that the under-representation of women in math, programming, and sciences could easily be a social phenomenom rather than a biological one.

    On the contrary side my father and I are very alike. We took the same things in University, read the same books, listen to the same music, and generally by behaviour alone you could tell he's my father. I was 19 years old the first time I met him and then I didn't see him again until I was 34. He had nothing to do with raising me. So I think there's nature involved as well as nuture.

  9. After being a student at (and then working at) a math/science/engineering college, it seems to me that men and women have very similar abilities, but society has told us enough times that we're good at different things that most people don't make as much as an effort in the areas where they're not supposed to be as good.

  10. As an addendum. I work in an IS department where the director is a woman and half the staff are women. My boss has mentioned how hard it is to work in this field as a woman. She still finds that when she's calling one of our vendors about a tech problem with their products she has to work to convince them that she knows what she's talking about.

  11. All through school until I got to college, I was the top in my math and science classes, but there were at least three girls up there with me and no other guys. This happened at different school districts, starting in grade school. When I got to college, all the girls dissappeared (I'm an engineering major). This makes me think that maybe a lot of the driving factor is interest rather than simply aptitude.

    I obviously cannot disagree that there are *huge* social pressures that women must overcome to work in math/science/computing fields. And I also am firmly in the camp that women and men are intrinsically different, more than just sexually. Perhaps the difference in temperment between men and women is a big driving factor for the discrepancy.

    In short, I think that from a clean slate, girls are just as capable as guys at math/science/computers, and guys as capable as girls at humanities/language/arts. The real difference is the respective interest, which over time shows up as increased/decreased performance because the skills are not refined.

  12. Answer: No.

    Reason: I work in the biological research, in academia, where there is roughly a 50/50 split between men and women. Medical school admission statistics also show a roughly 50/50 split.

    What is particularly interesting, and has been almost completely overlooked in all the public outcry, is that Summers was specifically addressing "the issue of women's representation in tenured positions in science and engineering at top universities and research institutions." Women are less represented in tenured positions, and severely less represented at the highest levels of those institutions (department chairs, deans, etc). If you follow men and women through their education, 50/50 graduate from college, 50/50 enter PhD programs, 50/50 are awarded graduate degrees, and then less women get hired, and then a very small minority of them advance.

    Of course, these numbers differ greatly in other parts of science. It's my understanding that a dramatically less number of women enter into engineering and physics. However, I don't believe there's a genetic or intrinsic quality preventing them from doing so. Going back to your comment, Erik, of "one or two examples disproves a generality", it's important to make sure you're looking at the right generality. In general, I do not believe a higher number of women fail at the hard sciences than men do. That is, the same percentage of women will drop out/fail out as the men. So the exceptions that were cited aren't actually exceptions, now are there?

    If you're going to analyze this correctly, you have to look at % in and % out on a per sex basis, not the raw numbers. Doing that will actually allow you to gage aptitude (sort of), and I believe you won't find a significant difference between men and women.

  13. Short Answer: No, men are no "better" in math, programming, sciences, etc.

    What fascinates me about the Summers debacle is the defense that Summers was trying to start an objective conversation and raise a possible scientific point. This "point" is not new, original, insightful, or 'previously unconsidered'. His point is not a far cry from eugenics. To raise such a point in the context that Summers did is sophomoric and reflects badly on Harvard.

    But to put Summers aside, the Theoretical and Applied Sciences strive to be fact based, impartial and objective. However in practice, these fields are not perfectly objective despite the best intentions of everyone in these fields. Science used to think that too much reading and thinking would make a woman's uterus shrink. Science used to claim that sperm were little men and that the womb and the mother only served as an incubator. And sure, science also used to believe that the universe was full of aether and phlogistons. All of these claims have been disproven by research. But it is fairly obvious that some of the earlier mistakes were heavily influenced by ideas of a woman's role (shouldn't get too much book learning) and importance (don't genetically contribute to children).

    My long winded point is that sex distribution and sex-linked theories in science in engineering (and all other intellectual fields) *today* is not necessarily an indicator of absolute truth. Contrawise, it could be proposed that the uneven distribution of sexes is one (of many) indicators that society and science have not yet progressed to a sufficiently truthful scientific ideal. I'm not belittling modern progress, I'm suggesting we consider our frame of reference when we use phrases like "better in the sciences".

  14. Answer: Yes, there are lots of differences.

    I'd strongly recommend the book: Why Men Don't Listen and Women Can't Read Maps, it's really an interesting read and an eye opener.

    In this book is depicted a 3D cube with a pattern on each side, and 3 versions of it flattened out. The job is to tell which of the 3 versions is the correct one, something which took me less than a second to realize, but something none of the women in my psychology class even dared take a guess at (because they couldn't do the required mental rotation).

    Of course the book also lists plenty of areas where men are the inferior sex, and it's not really which sex you belong to, but the level of testosterone versus estrogen you've been exposed to during pregnancy. There is a test to measure your doze which I made into a java applet (but don't put too much into it).

    Also, observe kids from their early stages, there really are lots of differences.

    Interestingly, one of my sisters strongly believed in social conditioning a few years ago and wanted her girl to be much less feminine than the stereotype, and that girl today wants to dress up like a princess all the time, picks me flowers when I visit, and wants to play social games.

    My other sister really wishes for her two boys to be more feminine, these boys only want to fight and plays anti-social games (and ignores most of the family at social events), but none of what she does really affects this situation.

    Of course there is some social conditioning going on (and my examples are not proof of anything), but don't say my lacking ability to play an instrument or do a nice drawing stems from social conditioning (I spent much time trying to master these tasks, and failed utterly), similar to how my ability to program and do math has nothing to do with how I was raised (on the contrary, I don't think my parents were fond of me spending so much time in front of a computer, and I hardly did my homework in math).

  15. Yes, but not necessarily programming. I attribute it to both nature and nurture.

    Programming is combination of language and logic. I think it can be done by (average) boys and girls alike. Guys are just more interested.

    If generations upon generations have an aptitude for something it is likely that you will nurture that natural aptitude -- just like you would if you found an individual with an aptitude in some area.

    Nina -- looking at the percentages you mention is misleading, because "in general" women in higher-level academia are more responsible as an average than men are. Also, women in academia are more consistant so you'll always find tighter standards of deviation with them in polling anything having to do with academia than you will with men.

  16. No, I don't think men are better at math then women. They are just more interested.... May not be true but its just an opinion......