Mars and Venus: A Cautionary Tale and Some Questions

I’ve been given the opportunity to write a couple of posts here about recent discussions of women in philosophy, in which I’ve played a role. 

A few of us women philosophers were interviewed for The Philosophers’ Magazine, for a piece on the low numbers of women in philosophy. We talked about many things: the steady drop-off at various levels in the profession, the strong and unconscious role played by such things as gender stereotypes, and an aggressive style of philosophical discussion that we all felt was bad for philosophy in general (and not just women in philosophy). We carefully distinguished between argumentation– which we were very much in favour of, even critical argumentation– and aggression. I pointed to socialisation as the likely explanation for differences in tolerance of aggression. We saw a draft of the resulting article but only had a very brief window of opportunity for comments. I was pleased to see that all of these bits had made it in. Unfortunately, so had Simon Baron-Cohen’s suggestion that women just aren’t very good at abstraction. With the very small window of opportunity available for comments, I was very pleased to be able to get the author to note just how controversial Baron-Cohen’s claims are and to include a reference to Elizabeth Spelke’s work on the subject. I felt the resulting article was not perfect, but that it did raise some important issues.

What I didn’t reckon on– much to my regret– was the power of the Men are from Mars/Women are from Venus frame. Or how the article would look read from within that frame. Even worse, how it would look when a single quote or two were pulled out of it. (As the NY Times does here.) When that happened, the claim that women may be socialised in a way that gives them a lesser tolerance for counterproductive aggression became the claim that women are naturally unaggressive. And then a slide was made from unaggressive to not able to cope with criticism/not able to argue/weak and pathetic. And then loads of people got indignant. (For examples of the indignation, see Leiter here and the comments at the NY Times here.) I’d be indignant too about an article which argued that the reason for low numbers of women in philosophy is that we’re just not good at arguing.

That’s not of course what we said. But that Mars/Venus thing is powerful… (And so is, apparently, the conflation of argumentation with aggression.)

All this, it seems to me, raises tricky tactical issues, if you think, as I do, (1) that there are a huge range of complex reasons for women’s under-representation in philosophy; (2) that philosophical discussion is often conducted with a counterproductive level of aggression; and (3) that (2) may well be ONE (but just one) of the factors contributing to (1).  A first tactical issue is whether it’s ever a good idea to mention (2) in a discussion of women in philosophy, given people’s tendency to glom onto it and ignore all else.  This worry is heightened by the worry, noted by many Times commentators, that mentioning (2) feeds the stereotype of women as lacking the attributes needed for philosophy.  (It only does so if one wrongly conflates aggression and argumentation, but clearly many do.)  Another tactical issue is whether it’s ever a good idea to mention (2) as a woman in philosophy, regardless of the subject under discussion– because, again, doing so contributes the stereotype of women as not good at philosophy.

33 thoughts on “Mars and Venus: A Cautionary Tale and Some Questions

  1. Having initiated some discussions on this blog about agressiveness and style, I’m now thinking that such discussions may be politically costly. There seems to be a distressingly strong tendency to think that the cause of the gender disparity rests with women.

    My guess for the cause of the “the women are the cause” tendency is that too many people are completely unaware of their own biases. That actually seems to me astonishing, but it also seems to be true.

  2. I agree that there may be some tactical disadvantages in pointing to an aggressive, point-scoring culture as one (among many) factors that might contribute to gender disparity in philosophy. But I don’t think those disadvantages are strong enough to merit not bringing it up at all, for two key reasons. First: if you used the threat of being misinterpreted due to Mars/Venus stereotypes as a reason to remain silent, then you’d probably never say anything about this issue at all. Ever. Some people will inevitably misconstrue what you’re saying, and probably misconstrue according to extremely unhelpful stereotypes. Second: aggressiveness in philosophy certainly isn’t the only factor that impedes gender equality, but it’s one that deserves our attention. Not only does a combative environment potentially discourage women from remaining in the profession, it also has the potential (due to entrenched and often unconscious stereotypes) to impact how we view the women already in the profession, especially those who conform to its norms. We all know the story — he’s tenacious, she just doesn’t know when to quit; he’s tough, she’s a bitch; and so on.

    That, and point-scoring aggressiveness is bad for philosophy, its effects on gender equity aside. So, at least in my opinion, the culture of aggressiveness is one (among many) of the things we should bring up in discussions about women in philosophy, potential disadvantages notwithstanding.

  3. To add to Elizabeth’s comment, I think it’s important for people to be very clear that the blurring of the line between ‘aggression’ and ‘criticism’ is itself an illegitimate, and sometimes self-serving, move. The practices involved are simply different, even if you confine the two to ‘aggression in argument’ and ‘heated critical exchanges’ (which we shouldn’t). Disparagement, to take just one obvious example, contributes nothing to criticism, since no one can learn anything from it but the state of mind of the disparager; it’s merely aggressive. Likewise the conflation is often used in a self-serving way by people with vested interest in making it. It may well be tactically problematic for a woman to suggest that there are problems with aggressive style; but I think it’s important for us to recognize that it is so because it has been deliberately made so — it is a sign that the conflation itself is being used as a form of aggression against women. (Also I think it’s useful to remember that much of what is being blamed when people talk about the problem of aggression is philosophy is the passive-aggressive form as well as the combative, and while not so obvious it may well be the more serious and problematic form: it doesn’t tear people down but it wears them down by little aggressions.)

  4. I think that if I had been more careful, I would have said it may be politically costly to mention aggression as a factor in the low numbers of women in philosophy.

    Notice I’m saying “may” here, and I think some discussion of the politics of rhetoric is needed for this whole issue.

    In any case, as long as the profession remains in general ignorant of its biased judgments, we have a problem much larger than that of style. If talking about style as a reason for the low numbers reinforces the assumption that the cause lies in women’s behavior, we need to think critically about doing so.

  5. My inference from Simon Baron-Cohen’s work tends in the other direction – some people may tend to be overly focused on abstraction, and this may include more men than women, to the point that their tendency to frame situations in terms of rules and systems handicaps their understanding of the necessary human element(s). In other words, if we’re going to make sweeping gender statements, women as a group may be better qualified than men to do many kinds of philosophy.

  6. lga, but isn’t Baron-Cohen’s claims about men and abstraction/systematizing largely an explanatory hypothesis about the difference in math test scores?

    What we are now seeing is that the test scores are a product of cultural factors. They do not hold for all ethnic groups nor for all countries. And in the States they are changing.

  7. @JJ: I apologize if my original comment comes off as a criticism of yours. I’d intended it as commentary on Jenny’s post. Your comment hadn’t shown up yet when I started typing mine, so I certainly wasn’t meaning to criticize what you’d just said (not having read it yet).

    Anyway, what you said makes a lot of sense — the rhetorical issue is definitely a difficult one, and one worth thinking hard about.

  8. EB, I’m not sure I took it as such, but it wouldn’t matter. It made me realize a qualification was really needed. And the point you made was needed, as I should have said.

  9. jj – my thoughts about his work are based on his papers I’ve read related to autism, not his own inferences and speculations about gender differences among “normal” people, which I am less familiar with.

    It’s my understanding that Baron-Cohen associates empathy with “female” brains and systematizing with “male” brains. That’s probably too grossly put, as a representation of his thinking. In any case, I haven’t read his papers on systematizing to know whether it’s really valid to find gender differences on this, and I’ve read elsewhere that gender differences on self-report questionnaires about empathy appear to be culturally based, so I assume that for “normal” people, measures of systematizing and empathy are mostly finding cultural differences in gender roles.

    So I’m just focusing on the empathy side of his work, and on the range beyond “normal” functioning people. Baron-Cohen’s research, for example, has found that autistic children at age 11 are less likely than “normal” children at age 4-5 to pass the false belief test that’s at the heart of attributing “mind” to others. I believe it is generally accepted that “autistic” people are less able to understand or feel the emotions of others, and that men are more likely than women to score somewhere on the autism continuum outside of “normal.” If – and it’s a big if – it is correct that the empathy deficit problem can be reliably associated with many people on the autism continuum outside the extreme group that Baron-Cohen has studied, then there would be more men with an empathy deficit than women. But I really don’t know about studies of empathy among people who could be classified as Asperger’s, for example.

  10. In response to jj’s first comment. I see that raising issues about aggressiveness and style are politically costly, though I wonder whether the political costliness could be minimized by giving the relevant issue a better name. “Aggressive discussion” highlights the problems with attack-style discussions. While this is a problem, a closely related and bigger problem (I think) is the fact that women’s comments and questions in discussions are more likely to get ignored, passed over, marginalized, shot down without argument etc. All these things happen in aggressive discussions. They could be called forms of aggression, but maybe there’s a better label for them, for instance, marginalization in discussion. Probably there are much better labels than the one I just suggested.

  11. Shouldn’t the fact that the mention of aggression in debate is tactically inexpedient be a red flag? A sign that what is being ascertained is subject to the rules of the feminist perception of gender relations as defined by power? That the whole frame of the discussion in a feminist forum is prejudicial to the impartial assessment of findings regarding statistically significant trends along gender lines?

    Argument is not equivalent to aggression. But aggression qua self-assertion is very much a part of passionate debate. The real mistake I think is to the conflate aggression (defending a position as a kind of intellectual territory) with violence. I would suggest that this may be a common feminist misunderstanding.

    It seems disingenuous to want to filter out the perceptions of women themselves in order to advance an agenda along gender lines (female empowerment/liberation). If a majority of women report discomfort with the perceived “aggression” of debates why not take that at face value and diagnose the symptom? Would that run the risk of confirming stereotypes about the female brain that are inconvenient to the assumption of a functional equivalence of male and female brains?

    I would recommend Pincker’s The Blank Slate to those who feel the assumption of such equivalence is either expedient or tenable. Though I can see how a movement that has striven to abolish all distinctions along gender lines might balk at having to cede territory that seems indispensable.

    Iga’s suggestions about Baron-Cohen’s systematizing vs. empathizing and the autism-Asperger’s spectrum as they may correlate with gender differences need to be seriously considered in any attempt to explain the disinclination of women to pursue the top positions in philosophy. I think it safe and even warranted to assume that the attested dearth of female philosophers is not due solely to the exclusion of women by the evil Patriarch.

    What I would like to ask the Philosopher is: how do we know which explanation is sufficient and which necessary of the culture/exclusion vs. nature/proclivity alternatives? And how could we ever satisfactorily determine which is more determinative (of over-determined human behavior)?

    Explicitly hostile forms of argument are counter-productive. Passionate emphasis is not. Having always to take into consideration other people’s feelings can be just as distracting as an obviously hostile style of communication. It’s okay to not always to feel empathically enveloped in the cocoon of love and understanding and to have one’s ego bruised because one’s argument has been shown to be specious. Is it really such a stretch that males may on average evince a higher tolerance for such aggressive play?

    Why is the element of contest not discussed in this context? The idea of a game governed by rules?

    To make this a purely political issue in need of remedial social policy is to burden the discussion with interests that might actually work against it. Mounting a campaign against the exclusion of women (politics in the ignoble sense) most definitely works against real impartiality. But impartiality is precisely what one should expect of a philosophical discussion. Even if it means giving up some of the idols of feminist ideology.

  12. Gilles, let me be perhaps clearer: The tactical problem with mentioning aggression is that it reinforces a prevailing, but exceptionally naive, view that the dearth of women is due to women’s choices and preferences, in contrast to any bias or discrimination.

    We have seriously considered Baron-Cohen’s explanation, and founding it wanting time and again in this forum. The basic data he relies on is not only culturally dependent, but also changing.

    So far this year 4 Nobel Prize’s have gone to women, 3 in science. The idea that women cannot be among the very highest achievers in systematizing disciplines is being disproven.

    Your “how do we know” question is important; you need to know that the last nine years or so have been a time of intense study of women in the sciences, which the National Science Foundation has been funding with millions and millions. To simplify: the exclusion of women from the sciences has meant that half the population cannot contribute to an area vital to the US economy, so there’s something of a national crisis. Widespread exclusionary, biased behavior is one serious factor, along with the difficulty of combining childbirth and the demands of an early career in science.

    There is no evidence that philosophers are different from scientists in their social attitudes. The evidence from the other humanities suggests that women do manage the biological demands made more difficult in the sciences, even though that is often still exceptionally hard.

    (There is also a lot of work on the death of women in some academic fields that was done independently of the NSF program, some of it, like Athena Unbound, which was done before the program started. Other work includes the detailed case study of Unlocking the Clubhouse.)

  13. “So far this year 4 Nobel Prize’s have gone to women, 3 in science. The idea that women cannot be among the very highest achievers in systematizing disciplines is being disproven.”

    I don’t think anybody still thinks that women are categorically unable to be among the very highest achievers in “systematizing” disciplines, since that has clearly been shown to be false, as you say. A more reasonable hypothesis is rather that certain traits may be distributed differently between men and women. For instance, the variation in mathematical/logical ability among men may be larger than it is among women (this is what Larry Summers suggested in his infamous talk).

  14. The stuff about the aggressive culture of philosophy being off-putting to women vexes me because one of the things that got me into philosophy was that it was, for me as a woman, one of the few places where I was allowed to be aggressive. I was rewarded for behavior I couldn’t get away with in the outside world. I picked this up in my very first philosophy class and it was immeasurably liberating!

  15. One of my students thought it was funny that this is a hypothesis about why women don’t like or fit into philosophy. She noted that based on reality TV it is plain that women love being aggressive.

  16. Richard Zack: could you provide me with some references or at least some reason for why you say Larry Summers’ hypothesis has been disproven? As far as I know, the empirical evidence seems to support his hypothesis pretty well. If you look at the old SAT, for instance, the proportion of men to women attaining any given score becomes greater the higher up the scale you go (I think Summers himself noted this in his talk).

    The same is the the case with most other ability tests, and indeed the male-female discrepancy follows a clear mathematical pattern. If the discrepancy were only due to bias (for instance), then this would be a very mysterious phenomenon. However, if we hypothesize that *real ability* is distributed differently among men and women (i.e. that the variation in ability is greater among men than among women), then the mystery vanishes and we get a beautiful, parsimonious explanation.

    But if you know of any decisive refutation of the above hypothesis, I’d be happy to hear it.

  17. Even if this is true it shouldn’t threaten feminists. Regardless of what the distribution looks like the issue is that men and women in that broad midrange of the distribution, who are comparable in their native abilities, are not getting the same results.

    Forget about the preponderance of men in the top and bottom “tails” of the distribution–the Nobel laureates and Harvard econ faculty at one end and the guys in jail at the other end. In that broad midrange, where most of us are, women are not doing as well as men. There is still not only vertical sex segregation there–there, and even more so at the low end of the job market, there is substantial horizontal sex segregation.

    I’m not out to refute the hypothesis that there is greater variability amongst males. But if you don’t believe that there are any non-genetic factors at work, consider this. This is old data but it serves the purpose. In the former Soviet Union, just before it imploded, something like 47% of engineers were women. In the US at the same time the figure for women in engineering was something like 7%. Unless there’s some crazy racial/ethnic anomaly to account for this, it seems highly likely that social/cultural factors were at work.

    It seems to me folly to worry about that 4% discrepancy in the Soviet Union–assuming women represent approximately 51% of the population. Maybe it’s genetic but who cares. What matters is that 40% discrepancy between the 47% in the Soviet Union and the 7% in the US that matters. Things have improved now, but there are still significant discrepancies in a number of occupations at the midrange which is what should concern us.

    I find the idea that women are in the aggregate mediocre pretty depressing. But if this is how it is, so be it. The aim of feminism, at least as I see it, is not to prove in the teeth of all empirical evidence that there are no innate statistical differences between men and women when it comes to ability, temperament or whatever. It is to note that in a range of cases where there is no compelling evidence for such differences men and women are still differently off. There is lots of empirical data strongly suggests that there is lots of implicit bias at work.

    I don’t worry about who gets Nobel Prizes or how many women there are on the Harvard econ faculty. I worry about who gets to be store managers at Walmart.

  18. HEB, but it turns out that women are not in the aggregate mediocre, or at least not more so than men.

    Your comments remind me that behind the Baron Cohen conclusion is a pretty astounding inference:

    There are more men at the extremes
    Therefore, men have different brains (of the systematizing kind).

    It turns out, furthermore, that it isn’t different brains that explan the data; rather, it’s difference in cultural attitudes.

  19. I didn’t say that women are in the aggregate mediocre but that IF that were to turn out to be the case it still wouldn’t undermine well-founded claims about bias. It’s a matter of choosing one’s battles. IMHO the important battle isn’t over who gets Nobel prizes or ultra-prestigeous academic appointments but who gets tenure-track jobs at mid-range colleges and who gets opportunities to move up into management at large retail chains.

    Fairness for the mediocre is more important than these worries about under-representation at the top because there are lots more mediocre men and women, like me, than men and women in the upper tail of the distribution.

  20. HEB, I’m just not sure the problems are separate, and I’m been thinking they aren’t. That is, as far as I can tell, who is visible in position X affects our schemas about X-ers and so affects hiring way down the line.

  21. JJ: I appreciate your insightful response. If you’re like me, the more you reflect the more problematical an issue may become. The matter far exceeds my capacity to encompass it. So it will come as no surprise if I unwittingly provide arguments for both sides or contradict myself. I have and can have no final position, only questions. “On principle!” my vanity declares, making a virtue of necessity. But we know better…

    In what sense is it “naive” to believe that discriminatory policies are no more determinative [of the dearth of women in the “systematizing” sciences] than their avowed disinclination (“choice & preference”) to enter those fields? It would seem that the burden is on you to substantiate the claim that social bias is the overwhelming factor and that women pounding on the doors of higher learning are being turned away by the self-appointed gate-keepers of the exclusive club of theoretical über-intellects). The problem seems to be that only the self-reports of women furnish (or fail to furnish) the data needed to corroborate that hypothesis. That carries the risk, as you point out, of confirming the very stereotypes feminists see as the root-cause of gender disparity (fear of “aggression”). In other words, women might not accurately understand the nature of their oppression, mistaking professed preferences for the cause of their non-participation.

    This reminds me of the problem of the proletariat’s lagging self-consciousness in Marxism: as the chosen vehicle he can only bring about the revolution if he has the correct (viz. Marxist) perspective on his socio-economic exploitation. But only the intelligentsia seems capable of such consciousness. Whence the need for constant indoctrination (“enlightenment”) and the effective replacement of revolutionary uprising by the theory of revolution.

    How does one weigh the relative importance of a) perceived bias and b) the individual’s resolve to pursue the highest academic levels in these fields? Given that all human behavior is over-determined, how could we ever get past the attestation of various ‘factors’ to stating categorically that cultural bias is the determinate deterrent? How does one separate bias from preference?

    By suggesting that women do not understand their own motivations and the role of discouragement (“bias”) in their choices you imply that the researcher is in a better position to understand their behavior (a reasonable and even unavoidable position for a researcher). Their self-understanding is, after all, just opinion (appearance), while the scientist is after real knowledge (reality). How could their self-understanding possibly escape “cultural bias?” (Even the feminist variety of that understanding is biased or ‘interested.’) If the self-reports of women are not the hard data, what is? And what is to count as an explanatory paradigm, given the feminist’s interests (emancipation/integration)?

    Invocation of non-voluntary factors is one necessary consequence of not taking women’s answers at face value: their self-understanding is seen as inhabiting a behavioral environment that only the social scientist can situate into a ‘geographical’ one (in the Gestalt sense). The problem is that this geographical environment is not the objective physical landscape in which behaviors occur, but is coeval with the theoretical framework of all possible explanations of which the individual is not ‘aware.’ The ‘scientific’ explanation of behavior requires us to disregard the subjective reports of the subjects. Nonetheless, biases are in play–in the form our own emancipatory cognitive interests (Habermas).

    I’m having problems with the idea of cultural bias. If it’s all cultural, isn’t the burden on the ‘nurture’ contingent (and by extension the cultural relativists) to provide an example of at least one culture in which no disparity exists?
    If all the cultures of the world evinced comparable degrees of disparity along gender lines, the ascertainment of the influence of cultural factors would implode. It seems there must be some degree of cultural variation if the feminist argument is to be coherent and avoid the dreaded dialectic of innate vs. learned.

    (If this variation were demonstrable, in what sense would the exception not prove the rule? After all, it is only statistical probability that is being established.)

    Cultural bias interfaces with a) the idea of innate endowment, b) cross-cultural variations, and c) intra-cultural or psychological motivation (how bias influences behavior). A satisfactory explanation would have to weigh the relative merits of all these dimensions. (This perfectly illustrates the over-determined nature of human behavior.)

    The nature-nurture divide seems a variation of the Socratic distinction between nature vs. convention and Aristotle’s matter-form polarity. The feminist seems to be committed to the denial that there exists something like a gender-specific matter as the raw material of culture. That is, “male” and “female” emerge only at the level of social engineering (formation/cultivation/convention). The real import of the invocation of cultural bias is the cultural relativism argument: one society’s nature is another’s convention. The feminist invokes the innate too, but only as the blank slate of functional interchangeability that gets variously molded by different cultures. The idea of a pre-cultural endowment thus functions like a theoretical promised land; a blank check that can’t be exchanged for real currency. It remains symbolic (rhetorical).

    The feminist, not interested in pursuing this promised land (of the innate), is content to let it function as a constantly receding conceptual horizon or counter-factual. To him/her it is just a giant trap to be avoided at all costs. Only the failure to demonstrate cultural variation could induce the feminist to take seriously the idea of innately heterogeneous endowment along gender lines. So long as the argument for cultural relativity is invoked, there is no requirement to reexamine his/her skepticism regarding findings on gender differences. The fact of cultural variability is enough to make culture the determinant factor.

    I’m not arguing for anything beyond the probability of statistically significant cognitive trends along gender lines such as the distinction between ‘empathic’ vs. ‘abstractive/systematizing’ as suggested by quantifiable neurological differences. What is so far-fetched about a heterogeneous but complementary disposition of male and female endowments? about the possibility that the biological division of labor (a kind of natural convention if you will) inclines male and female brains to develop in ways that reflect that division for the sake of propagation and the raising off-spring?

    @ The author of the Cautionary Tale: Why is socialization only a “likely” explanation for the different degree of tolerance for aggression? (It seems aggression is always sneaking back in after it has been banished from the argument!). Answer: because there can be no single explanation. The author herself seems to accept the discrepancy regarding tolerance of aggression. He/she has to go with socialization as the probable cause. The only alternative would be the assumption of some innate difference as the epi-genetic bedrock of behavior, which would effectively end the debate. With motivation resolved into the involuntary determinants of behavior, weighing ‘contributing factors’ would be superfluous, psychological explanation eclipsed.

    If a movement such as feminism were to embrace the idea of innate differences it would argue itself out of existence. So it has to keep invoking the social as the main determinate. That’s legitimate enough, given its political (partial) interests. It has to accept as self-evident that man and women are innately equal and interchangeable. That position alone serves emancipation and integration.

    Clearly, this process of weighing variables is not science in the hard sense. If we cannot separate explicanda from explicandum–how can we establish any kind of causality? Or make prognostications that are not specious? Everything interpenetrates, everything is everything else in the life-sciences (biology, psychology, sociology, history, etc.). That’s why there are no laws in these disciplines equivalent to those in physics, but only law-like regularities.

    Bias is only a check on behavior if it is internalized, at which point it becomes inhibition. Inhibition is anxiety, anxiety a function of the sympathetic nervous system, which manifests as ‘fight-or-flight’ response and is a component of an organism’s arsenal of drives and reflexes. At each level explanation becomes less precise as the variables increase. By its very nature Science–the search for consequences [Hobbes]–is reductive. All explanation is necessarily an exercise in eliminating (catabolism) the extraneous.

    Do those who reject cultural factors qua superimposed biases not unwittingly take the discussion in the direction of the involuntary determinants of behavior? (An absurd conflation of the sufficient and the necessary.)

    I expect the answer would be that feminists see discrimination (the power of exclusion) as precisely such an involuntary external determinant. Thus one power (exclusion) is answered by another (counter-attack/empowerment). The problem seems to be to convince enough women that their perception of analytically focused debates as “abstract” and “hostile” is counter-revolutionary…

  22. Thanks Richard! The Pisa results are interesting, but I’m not sure how relevant they are. The Pisa test is billed as being a math *literacy* test, and as the authors of the article you linked themselves note, previous studies have shown that there doesn’t seem to be a difference between men and women when it comes to math literacy (actually, the Pisa test results suggest that math literacy might indeed be culture-dependent). The really interesting gender differences only come out on tests that gauge problem solving skills. *Perhaps* the Pisa test does this, in which case it would be a refutation of Summers’ hypothesis, but it’s not supposed to, and from sample content I’ve seen, it certainly doesn’t seem to. Only a factor analysis of the test could tell us for sure though, but unfortunately I can’t find one online.

    Since I’m not sure what the Pisa test is measuring, I think the data for the International Mathematical Olympiad are more interesting. Olympiad tests certainly place great demands on problem solving skills, and the data presented here seem to strengthen Summers’ hypothesis. Overall, there is no consistent discernible pattern, except that the percentage of women competing for each country is always pretty low. The percentage differences between different countries is kind of interesting, maybe, but the absolute numbers are really too low for it to make sense to draw any conclusions; these differences can probably be attributed to chance.

    The data from the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth are also interesting, and they too seem to bear out Summers’ hypothesis. According to the article, the ratio of boys to girls getting a score above 700 was 13 to 1 in 1982, whereas in 2005 it was about 3 to 1. I haven’t had time to do the calculation, but these numbers seem to be about what you would expect when you take into account the re-centering of the SAT in 1996. When I get time, I might do the actual calculation and report back.

  23. “actually, the Pisa test results suggest that math literacy might indeed be culture-dependent”

    I mean *gender-differences* in math literacy, of course.

  24. I’d also like to see someone competent figure out if the observed variance in mathematics ability in fact matches the data. If the trends reported in the linked piece hold, I’m guessing it won’t match much longer, if it does. And it might already not match in other countries/cultures/etc, so the variance itself is not due to innate differences but to socialization. Anyway, here’s what I mean: It might be true that the larger variance matches the gender distribution among physics Nobel laureates and Fields medalists. But does it “explain” the gender distribution among the 2500 or so PhD recipients in math and physics per year? The 30,000 college faculty teaching physical and mathematical sciences?

  25. There’s other research that is showing a cultural link. Here’s one using TIMMS, which googling suggests is principally problem solving:

    I’m puzzled by Ben’s take on the PNAS article. I’m going to have to reread it, but the NYTimes quotes the researchers (in the article?) as saying this:

    “U.S. girls have now reached parity with boys, even in high school and even for measures requiring complex problem solving,” the Wisconsin researchers said. Although girls are still underrepresented in the ranks of young math prodigies, they said, that gap is narrowing, which undermines claims that a greater prevalence of profound mathematical talent in males is biologically determined. The researchers said this and other phenomena “provide abundant evidence for the impact of sociocultural and other environmental factors on the development of mathematical skills and talent and the size, if any, of math gender gaps.”

  26. I was wondering if anyone here can contextualize the dearth of female philosophers given that A) More women are attending university, and if A, then two questions… What are most women doing with their college education? Where do these women go if they go to graduate school? Or maybe more to the point, what is the gender representation of women within the last few years in relation to pursuing postgraduate programs in the sciences, social sciences and humanities respectively?

    I know this question is in relation to philosophy. I was just curious if we could explain why other fields versus our own (philosophy) have greater or lesser gender representation. Such an insight would prove an invaluable contrast to the dearth of women in philosophy.



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