Posts Tagged ‘math’
The study suggests, essentially, that Summers had the beginnings of a point. What it doesn’t do is justify the triumphant crowing of those who would have you believe that men are at the forefront of technical fields is because boys are brilliant and girls are rubbish (and should stay at home baking).
If there is one figure who neatly divides feminism and economics, it is Larry Summers. The now ex-president of Harvard drew a great deal of criticism in 2005 after suggesting that women’s under-representation in science and engineering was due in part to differences in ability. Among most feminists, Summers’ name is synonymous with pseudoscientific sexism. But Summers is an economist, and many other economists seem to see him as something of an intellectual martyr.
This week, both sides of the debate have more or less claimed victory – and they are citing the same paper (gated), just published in Science. Compare Alex Tabarrok’s post at Marginal Revolution with Jessica Valenti’s post at Feministing. So how did this happen?
What the study actually says
The Feministing post, and most of the mainstream media’s coverage of the study, focus on its main finding: using 7 million students’ standardized tests scores from across the United States, Hyde et al have shown that the average girl is as good at math as the average boy. This holds for all ethnic groups, and for average students tackling difficult material as well as basic skills. This is an important finding, and I’m glad it’s getting some attention.
Most people who seriously argue that ability is at the root of men’s dominance in mathematical fields, however, are not talking about the average – they are talking about the variance. In layman’s terms, the variance measures how spread out data is, or how far most individuals are from the average. The Science study’s second finding is that the boys’ scores have a higher variance than the girls’ scores.
The studies’ authors note that the difference in variances is not very large, but as Tabarrok points out, it’s tough to discount when you focus on the very top of the distribution. In this study, if you look only at students in the 99th percentile of mathematical ability, white boys outnumber white girls two to one. (There is an imbalance among Asian and Pacific Islander children as well, though it is smaller, and there wasn’t enough data available for other ethnicities.)
In short, boys are more likely to be exceptionally bad at math, and more likely to be exceptionally good at math. Of course, we should ask what causes higher variance. It could be the product of nature or nurture.
What it means for women in economics
The Marginal Revolution comment thread has focused on this hypothetical:
If a particular specialty required mathematical skills at the 99th percentile, and the gender ratio is 2.0, we would expect 67% men in the occupation and 33% women. Yet today, for example, Ph.D. programs in engineering average only about 15% women.
First of all, I can’t believe that success in economics requires mathematical ability in the 99th percentile. Economics is not pure mathematics, and even if it was, getting through a Ph.D. program is more about perseverance than IQ. (And we know what hostile, sexist environments can do to perseverance.) I’d like to see some studies of mathematical ability among actual economics professors. I bet most wouldn’t be above the 90th percentile.
Second, notice that even in their example, undoubtedly more empirically challenging than economics, by this model the number of women in the profession should double. Fifteen per cent to 33 per cent is a significant gap. I’m reminded of debates over the wage gap, where 15 per cent becomes “insignificant” in some economists’ hands.
Third, let’s remember for a second that economics is a social science. Great economic theory draws on all sorts of skills, perspectives and experiences. To the extent that we want to answer questions about the real world, women’s perspectives are necessary.