City Journal Winter 2016

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Winter 2016
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By Heather Mac Donald, Victor Davis Hanson and Steven Malanga

The Immigration Solution.

By Heather Mac Donald

Are Cops Racist?

Eye on the News

Heather Mac Donald
Math Is Harder for Girls
. . . and also, it seems, for the New York Times.
July 28, 2008

Selected Responses:

Sent by G. Clark on 07-30-2008:

What I find mystifying in all of this research is that women who are able to pursue higher education in India, China, Russia, and Egypt do not seem to have the same difficulty with higher math that consistently appears in European, American, and Australian research. What gives?

Sent by Julia Kamin on 07-30-2008:

Great article. Always wonderful to see a more careful analysis of data - and especially on a topic it's not fashionable to question the conventional wisdom on.

Although the NYT was certainly facile with the facts, I'm surprised you yourself gave glancing notice to the numbers for Asian students. Those seemed to me to be the most suggestive that, in white America at least, there is a cultural element that dissuades girls from pursuing their math potential. The only other explanations for the difference in Asian and White girls' performance is that a) Asian Americans have a cultural bias toward girls in math, or b) there's a racial variation between Whites and Asians that make Asian girls' brains more mathy. Both seem really unlikely.

Just so you know, I think there are cultural and biological reasons for why more guys go into math - that have nothing to do with sexism (or do so, but in a positive sense). I (a female) was a math whiz in high school. I was planning on studying math at Harvard but, although I got A's in my two math classes there, I was simply drawn to other topics - in the human sciences. I've also heard of a study that says similar things - that woman are turned away from the math and sciences, not because they are discouraged by lack of success, but because they don't find them as interesting or fulfilling as studying and doing other things.

That makes sense with my understanding of women - both biologically and culturally. We are naturally more social than men and fewer of us are willing to forgo social fulfillment (at work or at home) to spend massive hours working on highly theoretical abstract problems.

Aside from having broader interests, mathy women, I'm guessing, generally have an advantage over mathy men by being more employable in other areas. I'm someone who loves math geeks, but really - have you ever met any guy math professors? Can you really imagine them getting a job doing something else? Forget social work, but even running a business, playing with the boys on Wall Street or lecturing on philosophy would probably be a stretch.

Again, great to see you publishing smart, insightful work - as always.

Sent by Rachel C. on 07-29-2008:

Heather Mac Donald seems to have missed the point of the math study just as much as the New York Times did. One of the purposes of education is to idenify students who have the potential to excel in a field, and to help them to do so. The fact that statistically, more boys may excel at math than girls is no reason we should assume that "math is harder for girls" -- as Ms. Mac Donald titles her article. Rather, the top female students may excel as much as the top male students; they just may be fewer in number. However, they have an equal right to have their skills encouraged and developed -- and to be encouraged to seek out potentially lucrative math careers. Ms. Mac Donald's article seems just as intent on misreading statistics as the NYT article it criticizes.

Sent by Nick Karp on 07-29-2008:

You are spot on, as usual. Apart from the willful negligence of the NY Times, it is horrifying that Science would publish the source article with such a false title and deceptive conclusions. "Gender Differences Account For At Least Half of the Underrepresentation of Women in Science" would be a far more accurate title for the article's evidence.

One other aspect of the Science article caught my attention: How can the data show 1.25 percent of 219 Asians (in the chart labeled "The upper tail")? Two people out of 219 is 0.91 percent and three is 1.37 percent (the precise value given for females). I wasn't able to locate the raw data from Minnesota, but fractional persons suggest a data error. This leaves aside the question of whether a difference of less than one person can responsibly be presented as statistically significant, of course.

The New York Times is determined to show that women are discriminated against in the sciences; too bad the facts say otherwise. A new study has “found that girls perform as well as boys on standardized math tests,” claims a July 25 article by Tamar Lewin—thus, the underrepresentation of women on science faculties must result from bias. Actually, the study, summarized in the July 25 issue of Science, shows something quite different: while boys’ and girls’ average scores are similar, boys outnumber girls among students in both the highest and the lowest score ranges. Either the Times is deliberately concealing the results of the study or its reporter cannot understand the most basic science reporting.

Lewin begins her piece with the mandatory mocking reference to former Harvard president Lawrence Summers’ suicidal speculations about why women are underrepresented on science and math faculties. She also manages to squeeze in a classic feminist trope for how our sexist society destroys girls’ innate abilities, invoking the infamous “talking Barbie doll [who] proclaimed that ‘math class is tough.’” Lewin implies that the new study blows Summers’ wide-ranging speculations on gender and math out of the water; all that holds women back from equal representation in MIT’s physics department, it seems, is Mattel and other patriarchal marketers of gender myths.

On the contrary, Science’s analysis of math test scores only confirms the hypothesis that cost Summers his Harvard post: that boys are found more often than girls at the outer reaches of the bell curve of abstract reasoning ability. If you’re hoping to land a job in Harvard’s math department, you’d better not show up with average math scores; in fact, you’d better present scores at the absolute top of the range. And as studies have shown for decades, there are many more boys than girls in that empyrean realm. Unless science and math faculties start practicing the most grotesque and counterproductive gender discrimination, a skew in the sex of their professors will be inevitable, given the distribution of top-level cognitive skills. Likewise, boys will be and are overrepresented among math dunces—though the feminists never complain about the male math failure rate.

Lewin claims that the “researchers looked at the average of the test scores of all students, the performance of the most gifted children and the ability to solve complex math problems. They found, in every category, that girls did as well as boys.” This statement is simply wrong. Among white 11th-graders, there were twice as many boys as girls above the 99th percentile—that is, at the very top of the curve. (Asians, however, showed a very slight skew toward females above the 99th percentile, while there were too few Hispanics and blacks scoring above even the 95th percentile to compute their gender ratios.)

The Science researchers themselves try to downplay the significance of the two-to-one ratio for whites—the vast majority of students—on the grounds that it should produce a 67 percent to 33 percent disparity in male-to-female representation in math-dependent fields. Yet Ph.D. programs for engineering, they say, contain only about 15 percent women. Therefore, the authors conclude, “gender differences in math performance, even among high scorers, are insufficient to explain lopsided gender patterns in participation in some [science and math] fields.”

This reasoning is flawed, however, because the tests used in their study are pathetically easy compared with what would be required of engineering or other rigorous math-based Ph.D.s. The researchers got their data from math tests devised by individual states to fulfill their annual testing obligations under the federal No Child Left Behind act. NCLB has produced a mad rush to the bottom, as many states crafted easier and easier reading and math tests to show their federal overseers how well their schools are doing. The Science researchers analyzed the difficulty of those tests and found that virtually none required remotely complicated problem-solving abilities. That a gender difference at the highest percentiles shows up on tests pitched to such an elementary level of knowledge and skill suggests that on truly challenging tests, the gender difference at the top end of the distribution will be even greater. Indeed, between five and ten times as many boys as girls have been found to receive near-perfect scores on the math SATs among mathematically gifted adolescents, for example. Far from raising the presumption of gender bias among schools and colleges, the Science study strengthens a competing hypothesis: that the main drivers of success in scientific fields are aptitude and knowledge, in conjunction with personal choices about career and family that feminists refuse to acknowledge.

The same reality-denying feminists are itching to subject college science and math departments to gender quotas. They have already persuaded Congress to require university scientists to perform Title IX compliance reviews—a nightmare of bean-counting paperwork—covering everything from faculty composition to lab space. Misleading reporting like Lewin’s will only strengthen the movement to select cancer researchers and atomic engineers on the basis of their sex, not their abilities.

The Wall Street Journal, it should be noted, had no difficulty grasping the two main findings of the Science study: that “girls and boys have roughly the same average scores on state math tests,” as Keith J. Winstein reported on July 25, but that “boys more often excelled or failed.” That the New York Times, in an article over twice as long as the Journal’s, couldn’t manage to squeeze in a reference to the fact that boys outperformed girls at the top end of the curve should put its readers on notice: trust nothing you read here.

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