The latest essentialism go-round: do we dare to discuss?

Showing up on our Linkspam radar this week is John Tierney’s article for The New York Times, Daring to Discuss Women in Science, which is another round of “I am going to challenge the groupthink and be the one person who dares to make gender essentialist arguments about women in technical fields [well, me and that army over there]”. It argues from a finding among very high performing high school students, the top 0.01 percent of the population as sorted by the SAT and ACT standardised tests in the US, from which the researchers concluded that there’s distinct gender differences among students with that sort of performance.

Tierney writes:

The boy-girl ratio has also remained fairly constant, at about three to one, at the right tail of the ACT tests of both math and science reasoning. Among the 19 students who got a perfect score on the ACT science test in the past two decades, 18 were boys.

Meanwhile, the seventh-grade girls outnumbered the boys at the right tail of tests measuring verbal reasoning and writing ability. The Duke researchers report in Intelligence, “Our data clearly show that there are sex differences in cognitive abilities in the extreme right tail, with some favoring males and some favoring females.â€

Here’s a roundup of feminist/women-in-science-o-sphere responses, many via SKM at Shakesville:

  • Anna N., 3 Problems With The “Women In Science” Debate: If boys and girls, men and women had truly equal opportunities, we might be able to conclude something about their “innate abilities” — or at least stop worrying about gender inequality in various fields. But we’re still very far from that point. Tierney finds fault with programs to eliminate bias at the university level, and says, female scientists fare as well as, if not better than, their male counterparts in receiving academic promotions and research grants. But girls may be implicitly or explicitly discouraged from pursuing science long before they actually become scientists…
  • Caroline Simard, “Daring to Discuss Women in Science:” A Response to John Tierney: The problem with the biology argument that “boys are just more likely to be born good at math and science” isn’t that it’s not “politically correct” — it’s that it assumes that we can take away the power of societal influences, which have much more solid evidence than the biology hypothesis. Tierney makes the point himself in his article…
  • Christina Agapakis, Adventures of Women in Science: The irony here being that this article is a very clear example of some of the social biases women in science face every day, just one of the countless attacks and indignities that make it that much harder for women to get up and go to lab every day, to achieve great things in math and science.
  • Janet D. Stemwedel, John Tierney thinks he’s being daring: On the general subject of claims for which there does not does not exist relevant empirical evidence, are there any published studies (or any research projects currently underway) to explore the connection Tierney, Summers, et al. seem to assume between being in the extreme right tail of laboratory measures of mathematical and scientific aptitude (like the math section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test) and having the chops to to get a doctorate in science or to win tenure at a top university?
  • SKM, Daring to Discuss Women and… *Yawn*, which also includes several links from the Larry Summers debate and earlier: For that matter, I think the “daring” idea that women are innately inferior to men at various Important Things–and indeed the preposterous notion that the idea is “daring” to begin with–has been answered quite competently in the past
  • Gretchen Keller, Women in Science: 2+2=?: …one of my least favorite, yet thought-provoking questions is “How does it feel to be a woman in science?â€. Usually I reply that it feels the same as it does for a man: frustrating, time-consuming, invigorating and mostly like a bird flying repeatedly into a window desperately hoping that one of these times that pane of glass will turn into thin air.
  • Amy E. Slaton, Erring on the Side of…Exclusion: I know, I know: sarcasm is petty and unattractive. So before I lose any remaining credibility, let me defer to Troy Duster’s brilliant historical discussion of biological understandings of intellectual capacity. For almost 20 years, editions of his book, Backdoor to Eugenics, have laid out the very worrisome political and cultural implications of our pursuit of biological bases for intellectual and behavioral differences.
  • Clara Raubertas, “daring” to draw unscientific conclusions from statistics: Of course, his conclusions aren’t very scientific. Here are a few of the unfounded assumptions he has to make to draw the conclusions he draws… The assumption that science is so hard that it’s really only suited for people with extremely high scores (in the top fraction of a percent among a group of students who are already in the top fraction of a percent among their peers)
  • Melissa, The never-ending discussion: biology or bias?: What I find most frustrating is that there are myriads of studies, and everyone can cite their favorite study to support their viewpoint — be it that bias is the dominant factor keeping women out of sciences or that biology accounts for the paucity of women… I found what may currently be the best, though still imperfect, antidote to the never-ending, go-nowhere discussion of this topic, namely Stephen Ceci and Wendy William’s book, The Mathematics of Sex: How biology and society conspire to limit talented women and girls.
  • FemaleScienceProfessor, But I Don’t Want to Write about John Tierney Again: Thanks for all the e-mails and comments with links to the New York Times commentary by John Tierney, but what he wrote is just more of the same of what he’s written before: i.e., many women don’t want to be scientists or engineers, others can’t because they aren’t as good at math as the guys. Oh yeah, and Larry Summers made some reasonable statements in a speech that was misunderstood by hysterical females.
  • Hannah (in reply to FemaleScienceProfessor), Daring to Discuss: While I do understand this fear, how else are we going to convince the scientific establishment, many of whom likely share Tierney’s views, that gender bias is real and actually does keep women from succeeding in science careers? Clearly, just waiting for the old guard to pass on isn’t working, because I’ve met plenty of young male scientists who are just as biased as the old ones: they just hide it better.

2 thoughts on “The latest essentialism go-round: do we dare to discuss?

  1. Kat

    Ugh. I get pissed off when I see statistics about 7th graders being used to guess about women in a career. I took the SAT in 7th grade as some sort of gifted program; not sure what it was but I was basically just instructed by mail to take it, so I did. Math was a strong point for me in school, but at the small, girls-only school that I attended, there was only one choice: take math with the rest of your class. And in 7th grade we had barely gotten to pre-algebra. I’m not sure we had done anything more than simply been introduced to the concept of variables.

    Having worked as an SAT tutor for a while I’m pretty familiar with the test now. The math portion tests mostly algebra and geometry using…unsurprisingly, the sort of problems you would see in standard algebra and geometry classes. But if you’ve never taken one of these classes, which is true for the vast majority of 7th graders, you will probably not have much of a clue as to what to do with such a problem even if you have the capacity to understand it. It’s not something you can figure out by intuition.

    So how is this a great predictor of who’s going to make an awesome scientist some day? It seems more like a measure of who was exposed to more advanced math classes early on, by school or parents or something. So, yeah, kind of a crap measure.

  2. Carolyn

    I love the assumption that only those in the top 0.1% of the mathematical ability have a chance to be great. Sure, you might need better-than average skills to have much success, but you also need other skills, and you don’t need to be quite that exceptional as a youngster. The relevance of this fact is unchallenged.

    Even if children of 12 were not already affected by societal forces, what does exceptionality at this age really mean for the future? Are they really destined for success or failure by minor differences in test scores at that age? The science doesn’t support this assumption at all.

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