Sex, math, and scientific achievement

Scientific American have an interesting article about gender balance, bias, and abilities. The danger in talking about whether ability is sex-linked is that people want to simplify the science and your position down to “girls’ brains can’t do this stuff” but reality is more complex and inoffensive than this. (update: changed some of what I said about the distribution to reflect the comments)

I’m taking two things away from the Scientific American article: (1) on average, abilities have different distributions across the two sexes; and (2) although these tendencies are probably influenced by hormones, targeted training can lift skills. The distributions are the important bits here: mathematical ability in girls tends to be quite tightly clustered, whereas boys tend to divide into either are more extreme, including the very good and the very poor. The bimodal (correction: broader) distribution of boy math talent puts the lie to “boys are better at math”, a misconception that came from the way we select the best at math. The very good boys have, on average, better skills than the tightly-clustered girls, so when we select “the best at math”, we get mostly boys even though there are huge numbers of girls not very far below them and a huge reservoir of more unskilled boys (correction: than girls) at the bottom end of the distribution.

And we do select “the best at math”—the article talks about kids choosing disciplines based on what they’re best at. In general, boys and girls look at their abilities and if they’re better at numbers go into sciences and if they’re better at words go into arts. So there are girls going into the arts that have better math skills than the boys going into sciences (the girls just happened to have even better verbal skills). This will always be true in individual cases, but the studies show this is an overall tendency rather than anecdotal evidence from specific cases.

What does this mean? I think it shows we need to do a better job of emphasizing that science and technology can be verbal as well as numerical: Larry Wall, the creator of Perl, is a linguist by training, and there’s a similar elegance in great code as in great poetry. If we finally acknowledged that science and technology are fields where words are critical and a keen mind for meaning can go far, rather than pretending it’s all math with syntactic sugar, we might get better computer programmers not to mention a better gender balance. And finally, first year classes should have catch-up skills-building options for those boys and girls who weren’t at the top of the curve. Do readers know of computer science departments (or senior high schools) that test for specific aptitudes and offer remedial courses for those lacking? Drop me a note in the comments if you do.