Author Topic: Why aren't there more women in science and math? Part 1  (Read 5185 times)

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Offline Mankay

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Why aren't there more women in science and math? Part 1
« on: October 01, 2007, 08:39:44 AM »
When Lawrence Summers suggested that the reason there aren't more women in the top academic positions in math and science is that they don't have the aptitude for it, a firestorm was created that may have cost him his job as president of Harvard University. Sometimes lost in the hullabaloo surrounding the incident is the science surrounding that bit of speculation.
The entire August 2007 issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest was devoted to the "science of sex differences in science and mathematics," and Cognitive Daily will spend the remainder of this week discussing that article. The article was written by a formidable team of psychologists, led by former APA president Diane F. Halpern.

The authors begin by defining terms, demonstrating that even the terminology underlying this complex issue can be controversial and nuanced. Consider the terms "sex" and "gender." Traditionally "sex" has referred to the biological differences between people, while "gender" covered social and environmental differences. But recent research has demonstrated that it is exceedingly difficult to separate environmental from biological differences. Brain development, for example, is influenced by hormones, which are in turn influenced by both social and biological factors. So is the structure of the brain a biological or environmental factor? Arguably, it's both. The authors settle on the term "sex" for their article, but point out that both terms are favored by different groups.

Similarly, "abilities" and "achievement" are difficult to separate. We can't rightly say that different people don't have differing abilities, for two people could achieve the same (low) result on a math test -- one after years of study and instruction, and one with no instruction at all. Surely the second person has more ability in this subject than the first. But ability can only get you so far. Every normal human is born with the ability to learn language. But if a child is raised without exposure to language, she won't learn it.

Halpern et al. make a fascinating observation about IQ and intelligence: Modern IQ tests throw out questions that favor one sex over the other. Therefore the most commonly used IQ tests show no difference in results between the sexes. IQ tests, therefore, can't tell us anything about sex differences.

Sex differences in abilities and achievement:-
So what can we know about sex differences?
Girls scored significantly higher in every country in the study. A subsequent study of 15-year-olds in 25 countries showed a similar pattern: Reading literacy was significantly higher for girls in every country studied.

In the U.S., girls get higher grades than boys in every subject (including math and science), and females have a significantly higher college graduation rate than males.

So if boys are supposedly better, where are differences coming from? Well, boys do score better on the SAT test -- both verbal and mathematical. In the verbal portion of the test, the male advantage is eliminated if the analogy portion of the test is eliminated; arguably this is more a test of mapping relationships than literacy. As for the math portion, one study suggests that if questions requiring mental rotation are removed, again the male advantage is removed.

Mental rotation tasks ,which require working with a three-dimensional representation of an object, have been found to have very large sex differences favoring males. The authors argue that the male math advantage in a number of different studies appears to be directly related to visuospatial skills, the most important being mental rotation. In tests on calculation or other mathematical problems that don't require visuospatial skills, females perform just as well as -- or better than -- males.

What's more, at least one study has found that it's possible to teach these visuospatial skills. Such a course has been offered at Michigan Tech for many years, and students taking the course have not only shown measurable improvement on visuospatial tests, they have gotten better grades in subsequent engineering and graphics courses.

So while there is some reason to believe that females might not be as good at math and science as males on average, there's also evidence that education can reduce or remove this gap. Further, the authors point out that success in math and science doesn't depend solely on math skills. Strong reading and writing skills are essential in these fields as well, and here females have a clear advantage.

But there are other possible reasons that women are underrepresented in math and science. We'll explore some of them tomorrow.
 feel free to comment  ;D

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Offline Mankay

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Why aren't there more women in science and math? Part 2
« Reply #1 on: October 01, 2007, 08:45:46 AM »
In yesterday's post, we discussed sex differences in achievement and ability. Few were identified. For the most part, however, this research discussed average differences. The problem with only discussing averages is that people engaged in science and math careers are far from "average" when it comes to math and science ability. Math and science professors often score in the top 1 percent -- or higher -- on standardized math tests.
It's entirely possible that the top 1 percent looks very different from the average results for the population,
is that what we find when we look at real populations?  when it comes to mathematical ability?
The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth observed thousands academically gifted American children who took the SAT test at age 12-14, several years before the usual administration in the 11th grade. In 1983, among those who scored higher than 700 on the test, males outnumbered females by 13:1. This indeed suggests that males have a much wider distribution of scores than females at that age. Interestingly, by 2005, the ratio at that same level had dropped to 2.8:1. Either girls have gotten a lot smarter in the last 20 years, or some of the discrepancy in 1983 can be explained by social differences: different opportunities for boys and girls.

Yet there is still a large, significant sex difference in math scores at the top of the scale (there's no difference in verbal scores). Where does this difference come from? Some evidence suggests that the brightest boys even have an advantage at kindergarten age. Some scholars have speculated that sex roles in humans evolved millions of years ago: while men were out hunting and fighting with neighboring tribes, women stayed closer to home, foraging and caring for children. Since men travelled farther than women, they required better navigation skills -- similar to the visuospatial skills we discussed yesterday. The men who survived were better at navigation, and they passed this trait on to their male children. But others have argued that women needed to travel just as far in foraging. It's certainly possible that differences in ability can be entirely explained by factors unrelated to evolution.

Sex differences in higher education
We've established that in the tiny slice of students with the highest math test scores, there are many more males than females. But how are these boys and girls doing when they grow up and go to college and beyond? While the overall graduation rate from college favors women, in math and science, the numbers tell a different story. The male to female ratio of science majors at MIT in the 1990s was about 1.5 to 1. Among faculty it was higher than 10 to 1. Part of the discrepancy might be due to different social conditions when MIT's faculty was educated.
people choosing the fields most dominated by men, math/computer science and engineering, tended to score much lower on the verbal SAT compared to the math SAT when they took those tests years before. And boys are much more likely than girls to score lower on verbal than math -- for girls, the scores tend to be equal.

But one theme Halpern and her colleagues constantly return in their article is that the issue of women's achievement in math and science is extremely complex. To suggest that the relationship between verbal and math test scores explains all sex differences would be vastly oversimplifying things. We'll cover more on this important topic in tomorrow's post.


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Offline Mankay

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Why aren't there more women in science and math? Part 3
« Reply #2 on: October 01, 2007, 08:49:48 AM »
we discussed sex differences at the highest levels of achievement and found that there are some significant differences between males and females. But despite these observations, it's still unclear why the disparity exists, and what can or should be done about it.

Sex differences in brain structure:-

One possibility is that the physical structure of the brain is different for males and females. MRI imaging shows that males do have larger brains than females on average. But women have a higher proportion of "gray matter" -- the part of the brain where most cognitive activity is believed to occur. Indeed, there is no significant difference in the amount of gray matter in male and female brains. However, one white matter structure in female brains -- the corpus callosum -- appears to be bigger than in males (though different studies are more or less successful in replicating this observation).
The corpus callosum is where most communication between brain hemispheres occurs, and it appears that female brains are more effective at coordinating both hemispheres. Male brains, by contrast, appear to have more connectivity within each hemisphere than female brains. There also appears to be some correlation between these physical differences in brain structure and mathematical ability. The coordination of both hemispheres is associated with better language skills, while the connectivity within hemispheres is associated with better math skills.

But there is plenty of research demonstrating that the physical structure of the brain changes as new knowledge is acquired. Are the differences in brain structure the cause or the effect of sex differences in math skills?

It seems unlikely that all these differences could be acquired during a lifetime, but it also seems probable that a different environment could mitigate or eliminate these differences. And let's not forget that despite the apparent advantages of male brains, there are still plenty of women who demonstrate exceptional ability and achievement in math and science.

Social and cultural influences on sex and math/science
The evidence for social influences on math/science ability is so vast that it is difficult for me to condense the information contained in Halpern et al.'s article in a narrative form. However, it is also problematic because so much of the data consists of correlations. For example:

Parents' expectations of their children's math and science achievement correlates with their actual achievement
Parents encourage sex-typed behavior (e.g. fathers prevent sons from playing with dolls)
Boys outperform girls in high-ability math tracking courses
Parents allow boys to roam more than girls (perhaps favoring navigation/visuospatial skills)
Children see math skills as masculine
Teachers offer more encouragement to boys in math and science classes
Boys are more likely to have computers than girls
Is the differential treatment of boys and girls causing the differences in achievement and ability, or is the reverse occurring?

There is some evidence that once the stereotype of boys being better at math and science is invoked, it results in diminished performance by girls. We've reported on some of this research on CogDaily. But just because stereotype threat appears in a lab, when stereotypes are deliberately invoked, does it mean that women actually do worse in real-world testing situations. One study found that if the AP Calculus test gathered race and gender information before the test, 5.9 percent fewer females and 4.7 percent more males passed the test, compared to if the information was collected after the test.

Finally, there is considerable evidence that actual discrimination against women continues to occur. While it may not be the old-fashioned, active discrimination that occurred decades ago, both laboratory research and analysis of actual hiring patterns show that discrimination is still with us.

One of the more interesting lab studies asked volunteers to rate prospective job applicants. When the job was seen as a "male" job, applicants who were men were rated higher than women with identical qualifications. The reverse occurred for "female" jobs.

A 2005 study of medical students found that female students who had experienced discrimination or harassment were more likely then men to change their choice of specialty.

And a Swedish study in 1997 reviewed applications for post-doc appointments there. The researchers devised a formula to rate the qualifications of each applicant. They found that the women who ranked highest using their formula (scoring 100 or above) were rated as equivalent to the lowest-ranked men (scoring 20 or below) by the peer review board. All other women in the sample were rated lower than all the men in the study.

So it appears that there are a wide variety of social factors that affect (or are affected by) sex differences in math and science. Because of limitations in the way these studies can be controlled, it's difficult to say that discrimination or differential treatment cause the sex differences we see in math and science. But the converging evidence from many different study methodologies suggests that these social differences are an important factor.

Finally, even if it is conclusively demonstrated that men are, on average, better built for careers in math and science, the disparity in actual employment figures is much larger than the differences in abilities that have been identified. Surely we can do better at helping women succeed in math and science.

that's be all for now.
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Offline Abdullahi!

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Re: Why aren't there more women in science and math? Part 3
« Reply #3 on: October 05, 2007, 01:59:30 PM »
New Research suggests that playing video games reduces sex differences in spatial skills...

Read the full story here:
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