Saturday, May 31, 2008

Culture, Gender and Math

Former Harvard University President Lawrence Summers stirred up a major controversy in 2005 with his remarks that ‘innate differences in sex may explain why fewer women succeed in science and math careers’ (a detailed report from the time is available in Frontline). His remarks were widely criticized both within the university and elsewhere. The Indian media reported extensively on the events at the time and also sharply criticized Summers for airing such sentiments with even an editorial in the Indian Express upon the subject (I could not find the link today). Evidence at the time however seemed to favor his views – studies had consistently shown a superiority of boys in spatial learning and girls in verbal skills.

A new paper in Science today challenges this belief. Comparing levels of gender equality in different countries (using several different but overlapping measures of gender equality) with test score differences between girls and boys, the authors find that in more gender-neutral cultures, the math gender gap disappears and the reading gender gap becomes even larger in favor of girls. This effect remains when economic growth is factored into the calculus. To eliminate the possibility of biological differences accounting for this, they also examined the results in two genetically distinct (relatively) subpopulations only to find their results ‘substantially unchanged’.

They conclude that ‘in more gender-equal societies, girls perform as well as boys in mathematics and much better than them in reading. .. The improvement in math scores is not just related to economic development, but to the improvement of the role of women in society.’

I found their analysis and results compelling. It also throws into question many of the explanations offered to account for the paucity of women in certain branches of higher education. Coupled with the findings of the recent study by Bertrand et al. which showed an increased gender disparity in admissions to engineering colleges as a result of the current reservation policy, it may be worthwhile to consider a sub-quota for women within the larger backward class quota in education.
[PS: A subscription is required to access this article. You can email me for a copy]
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