Caryl Rivers

(WOMENSENEWS)–Was the battle over math and gender at Harvard University a witch hunt that cost its former president, Lawrence Summers, his job in 2006?

That’s the argument being made by two Harvard grads seeking positions on the Harvard Board of Overseers.

They are free-speech activist Harvey Silverglate of the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and Philadelphia attorney Robert Freedman.

They want to see all speech and anti-harassment codes banished at the university. They want a "robust culture" of free speech on the campus.

That’s a good debate to have; however, the two men point to the battle over Summers as a triumph of narrow-minded P.C.

In fact, Summers’ banishment didn’t really have that much to do with his comments. They were just the crowning blow. Much of the Harvard faculty had long been at odds over his aggressive style, and the math and gender debate was just a convenient tool to beat him about the face and head.

Other Harvard professors have made similar statements about men’s math superiority, and suffered no harm, including Harvey Mansfield and Steven Pinker.

Fueling the Myth

In portraying Summers as a victim of excess political correctness (at the expense of truth and scholastic honor) Silverglate and Freedman are buying in to an emerging myth that Summers was voicing a scientific truth when he suggested that women might be innately inferior to men at math when "political correctness" obscured the facts.

The media continues to entertain the idea that Summers was just a truth-teller who tripped over political correctness.

Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post wrote, "Summers was boneheaded to say what he said, in the way that he said it and considering the job that he held. But he probably had a legitimate point–and the continuing uproar says more about the triumph of political correctness than about Summers’s supposed sexism."

The Financial Times editorialized that "Summers launched a long overdue debate on an issue often judged too sensitive to discuss."

Syndicated columnist George Will opined, "There is a vast and growing scientific literature on possible gender differences in cognition. Only hysterics denounce interest in these possible differences."

What Are the Facts?

But what are the scientific facts? Since the Summers brouhaha, more evidence has emerged that there is little basis for an argument that women are inherently inferior to men at math.

Girls are rapidly catching up to boys in all areas of math performance. But you’d never know it from the news media. "The Nation’s Report Card on Math and Science Abilities," released in February of 2007, found that girls were on a par with boys on a range of math abilities, including algebra, geometry, measurement properties, data analysis and other areas. But of 37 newspaper articles I found on the report, not one mentioned this fact.

There’s no evidence that girls are innately inferior to boys at math, reports Elizabeth Spelke, co-director of the Mind, Brain and Behavior Inter-Faculty Initiative at Harvard. There is, she notes, a biological foundation to mathematical and scientific reasoning that emerges in children before any formal instruction. These systems develop equally in males and females. "There’s not a hint of an advantage for boys over girls," she says, in any of these systems.

Do males occupy the upper reaches of math scores while women trail behind? Once upon a time, yes, but this is changing.

Studies Find Equality

In recent years, studies of mathematically talented boys and girls found that equal numbers of both sexes majored in math. And they got equal grades. The SAT-M not only under-predicts the performance of college women in general, it also under-predicted the college performance of women in the talented sample.

The University of Wisconsin’s Janet Hyde, who has studied gender differences in math for more than a decade, consistently finds such differences small to non-existent.

And, if gender is the issue, male supremacy should be universal. But in tests that compared grammar school kids in the United States, Taiwan and Japan, Asian girls scored almost twice as high as American boys. This fact is rarely reported in the U.S. news media.

Hunter College psychologist Virginia Valian, author of the 1998 book "Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women," notes: "Maybe Asians are innately better at math. If so, following Summers’ reasoning, Harvard should be preferentially hiring Asian women over American men. (We don’t know what’s behind the large cross-national differences–although education is key–and, as Americans, we’re a little reluctant to think we’re inferior.)"

But maybe the problem is not with women, but with Harvard and other hierarchical universities. If you look only at universities to see who is talented in math and science, you will get a skewed picture. Maybe getting ahead at Harvard has more to do with knowing how to play politics and climb the ladder than does raw talent.

Women do spectacularly better, a 2007 study shows, in non-hierarchical workplaces. Female scientists in biotech have a much higher probability of being in a position to lead research teams than do their female colleagues in academia. In universities, women were 60 percent less likely to be supervising than men. In biotech, women were 7.9 times more likely to be in supervisory jobs than in universities.

In the end, Larry Summers admitted he had the science wrong and pledged $25 million to promote the hiring of women and minorities at Harvard.

Now, there’s my idea of an apology. Who says men can never say they’re sorry?

But the myth of women’s lack of ability in math will most likely continue. Stereotypes trump science too much of the time.

Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of "Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women" (University Press of New England.)