(WOMENSENEWS)–Guess what? Larry Summers was wrong. Girls are not innately hobbled in math and science. It’s culture, not brainpower, that counts.
The ex-president of Harvard created a firestorm in 2005 when he spoke of women’s deficiencies. But it wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now.
A June 1 report by the National Academy of Sciences finds that the primary cause for the gender disparity in math performance at all levels is culture, not biology.
This is the kind of finding–and there’ve been plenty of others–that needs to be amplified and widely broadcast.
If we want our daughters to thrive in math and science, we have to peel away the layers of myth, misinformation and conditioning about women’s lack of ability.
Roots in Society, Culture
In this case, a research team headed by psychologist Janet Hyde of the University of Wisconsin found a pattern of performance that strongly suggested that the root of gender disparity in math are planted in changeable socio-cultural factors.
And the fact is that girls are doing much better in math.
A major study by the National Science Foundation in 2008 found girls performing as well as boys on standardized math tests.
In 2007, a nationally representative sample of more than 350,000 students at grades 4 and 8 participated in a mathematics assessment by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. That exercise found girls on a par with boys on a range of math abilities, including algebra, geometry, measurement properties and data analysis.
The media ignored that story. Of 37 newspaper articles I found on the report, not one mentioned this fact.
Those who liked Summers’ argument stuck to the root idea of male superiority. Girls may do OK on tests, but as the London Daily Mail put it in 2007, "Only men can be geniuses."
"Summers may have been on to something," Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus wrote, pointing to the gender differences at each end of the performance spectrum that create an overrepresentation of men at the very top and bottom.
The overrepresentation of males at the upper tail of the distribution of math aptitude scores has been used to justify the preponderance of men in leadership positions in science and math.
But a 2006 review of major studies, funded by the National Academy of Sciences, found no relationship between scoring in the upper tail of ability and eventual success in math or science careers.
Many other factors are at play: drive, leadership ability, a talent for pleasing bosses, personality, and skill at political maneuvering.
Plain old sex discrimination also rears its ugly head.
Women fare much worse in hierarchical environments than in "flatter" organizations.
Female scientists in biotech–which is newer and less hierarchical– have a much higher probability of being in a position to lead research teams than female colleagues in academia. In biotech, a 2007 study shows, women were nearly 8 times more likely to be in supervisory jobs than in universities.
"The stereotype that boys do better at math is still held widely by teachers and parents," Hyde told the New York Times. "And teachers and parents guide girls, giving them advice about what courses to take, what careers to pursue. I still hear anecdotes about guidance counselors steering girls away from engineering, telling them they won’t be able to do the math."
The fact is, girls can do the math.
Parents and teachers have to stop saying –and stop believing–they can’t.
Boston University Journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of "Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women."