Sunday, January 23, 2005

Do Females Lack Innate Aptitude in Math and Science?

There has been a lot of hubbub around Harvard University President Lawrence Summers' recent ponderings on why there are so few women in the sciences. One of his speculations was that maybe men and women have "innate differences" in science and math aptitude.

To his credit, Summers wasn't stating this as fact or as his personal belief but suggested it as a possibility worthy of further study. Where did he come up with this hypothesis? At the January 14th conference he shared an anecdotal tale about his daughter playing with toy trucks by turning them into a truck family. (Daddy truck - baby truck.) I'm not sure how Summers then made the grand leap from play differences to a lack of innate scientific abilities. I'll bet his daughter won't be thrilled to hear his conclusion.

According to recent articles, women make up 35% of the faculty at American universities but only 20% in science and engineering.

Along with innate ability, other suspects according to Summers are whether or not women are willing and able to work the hours required to advance in scientific disciplines and discrimination that is holding women back.

Having only observed and not studied, my guess is that Summers has mistaken lack of interest for lack of ability. And why the lack of interest? The most likely culprit is that it is a reflection of the innate misperceptions of educators and professionals. I imagine that it's hard to find interest in a subject when those whom you respect provide little encouragement, when hiring managers don't take you or your work seriously and when you have to watch as inferior colleagues are promoted faster because of gender bias. I think most girls and women would find that somewhat repellent when it came to making career choices.

I wonder if men would continue to find the sciences interesting if the universe discombobbled and scientific fields were suddenly considered to be the domain of females (think secretaries)?

Other interesting links on this story are located here and here.



Blogger Unknown said...

Perhaps it is the competitive aspect of scientific inquiry that drives American women away? At its heart, science is about building an argument of thesis, antithesis and synthesis to test a hypothesis.

Seems to me that the component of cooperation is the research leading up to the scientific discovery, and few people are rewarded for the list of citations or bibliography. It is the argument that moves science forward.

9:47 AM, January 27, 2005  

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