Sunday, December 1, 2013

Women Underrepresented in the Fields of Science and Engineering; Larry Summers's Talk

I know that this doesn’t have to do with women and politics per se (this post has to do with the underrepresentation of women in math, science, and engineering), but I wanted to put this on the blog because I think that women being “less logical” or “more abstract” in their thinking is an argument that has been used to explain the underrepresentation of women in politics as well, and the argument is still being used against us today and by our own peers.
The other day I was talking to a friend of mine, a male junior at Pomona who knows that I’m interested in feminist issues. He told me about an economics book he is reading for class called “Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-By-Numbers is the New Way To Be Smart” by Ian Ayres, specifically a section of the book about a talk that Larry Summers, the then President of Harvard, gave back in 2005.
            Larry Summers is a prominent economist, and served as the President of Harvard University from 2001-2006. Summers resigned in 2005 for multiple reasons, but mainly because of a talk he gave in which he suggested that the underrepresentation of women in the fields of math, science, and engineering was due to a statistical difference in scores between the genders or what he called a “different availability of aptitude at the high end.”
            In the part of the book “Super Crunchers” my friend was referring to, Ayres explains how Summers was wrongly accused of sexism, was not making a definitive statement as to the inferiority of women and was merely pointing to a statistical fact. The study that Summers refers to in his talk compares the scores of girls and boys in a math exam given to the graduating senior class of a high school. The results of the test showed that the average test scores of the girls and boys were the same. However, the variations within the scores were different. The scores for boys showed that, in the top 5% of test scores, boys outnumbered girls two to one. They also showed that boys outnumbered girls by two to one in the bottom 5% of scores as well. This means that, though the averages of the two genders were the same, the scores of the boys had a larger range. So, girls scored in a smaller, more tightly knit range whereas more boys scored very well and very badly.
            My friend agreed with Ayres and thought that Summers was wrongly accused of sexism, but I pointed out that both he and Summers were ignoring significant social factors that could contribute to this variation in test scores. I argued that women haven’t been encouraged to pursue math and science and grow up to believe that they are “male” fields. He agreed with me on this point but argued that this lack of encouragement only accounted for the lack of women in the top 5% of scores, not the bottom 5%. I argued that the lack of women in the bottom 5% could be explained by the fact that men in general are raised to think that they can pursue any path that they choose whereas women are encouraged to toe the line; to not do too well but to not do too badly either. Men are free to slack off in school whereas if a woman slacks off in school it is seen as a reflection of the female gender as a whole. He brushed this off and saying that my argument was vague and unfounded whereas his argument was based on statistical evidence.
            The next morning I was still thinking about our conversation so I decided to look for articles on the topic and maybe (hopefully) some counter-evidence. I found many articles about the controversy and one in particular showed that though the variations in test scores were higher for boys in America, they were actually higher for girls. This statistic from an article I found on Jezebel points out, “In most countries studied, girls' math skills were just as variable as boys', and in the Netherlands they were actually more variable. In general, countries where girls matched or outperformed boys were also countries with high gender equality — like Denmark, Iceland, in the UK.”

            I find it frustrating when statistics and test scores are used to explain away women being underrepresented in certain fields and social spheres when the social spheres are what breed the difference in test scores in the first place.

Here are some links to the articles I was looking at:

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