It has been more than four years since then-Harvard President Lawrence Summers publicly speculated about the disproportionately few women in "high-end scientific professions." Maybe, he thought, the problem might be "some systematic differences" between boys and girls.

Maybe not. There's a buzz in academia about recent studies on boys versus girls, and it looks like the problem is cultural. For example, according to a study appearing in the June 2 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, differences between male and female performance in mathematics vary from country to country – just as cultures vary from country to country.

And the disparity in America is shrinking. Nearly one-third of all doctorates in mathematics are being awarded to women, and twice in the past four years, the top prize in computer science, the Turing Award, has gone to women. As the authors of the study commented, once all the old white men retire (and a lot of us are boomers heading out to pasture), there will be a lot more women in science departments.

Because it looks as if the gender differences were a result of cultural constraints, there is an awkward question: How much of the debate about the genetics of scientific ability was just another example of our habit of rationalizing doing nothing?

You know what I'm talking about. In 1987, developmental psychologist Harold Stevenson compared American and east Asian schools and concluded that although "Japanese and Chinese believe that people are basically the same and that the difference between success and failure lies in how hard you work," over here, "Americans give more importance to native ability, so they have less incentive to work hard in school."

Ah, native ability. The math gene. Whatever. Math teachers have seen it again and again: Students decide that math people are really fast and get the solution in 10 seconds just like in the movies, so a student who doesn't get it in 2 minutes doesn't have the math gene and there's no point …

Meanwhile, pundits from right-wing think tanks tell us that if minority students give up on math then it must be because they don't have the math gene and there's no point …

Whatever else the math gene is, it's the perfect alibi.

Actually, there doesn't seem to be a math gene. Mathematicians have different strengths and weaknesses, and neurologists have found that math skills are mediated at different neural centers scattered about both cerebral hemispheres. There must be a whole posse of math genes.

If you look at mathematical scientists who do great things, you will notice that what they have in common is that they are stubborn. And – get ready for it – they frequently got stuck on problems and made lots of stupid mistakes and even got embarrassed by getting stuck and being wrong. But they didn't give up, and that's what made the difference.

It looks as if the disparity between male and female performance was a result of culture and attitude, … and it looks like we are slowly overcoming it.

That success can be a model for attacking minority group disparities. It takes hard work, and hard work is one thing America should be able to do.

Greg McColm is an associate professor of mathematics at the University of South Florida.


Source: Tampa Tribune –