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Genetics Is Only A Red Herring

Okay, my earlier efforts to address this topic via scorn and derision are, I think, inadequate. From the right, my friend Tommy Lee points to some research purportedly backing Summers up. From the left, Professor B. observes in comments that "Men sitting around and not objecting to this shit is really infuriating." So here goes and here's the thing: Empirical research into genetics is only a red herring.

Under the circumstances, given the forum, and given Summers' role, the purpose of these remarks was clearly not to make a contribution to the field of cognitive science or genetics. Rather, the purpose of these remarks was to deflect pressure to redress purported bias or sexism in math, physical science, and engineering at Harvard and elsewhere. The relevant issue here, then, is not whether or not there is or is not some evidentiary support for the claim that, on average, women are less able at math than men. Rather, the issue here is whether or not there exists evidence of this sort that's sufficient to defeat the claim that universities and university administrators have a duty to take action to redress bias or sexism in the relevant fields.

To make this clear, let's consider the state of play in the hypothetical universe of PinkerWorld. In this delightful land, most -- but not all -- professors of physics are men. At the same time, most -- but not all -- newspaper op-ed columnists are women. Some men in the punditry business feel they've been mistreated on account of their gender, but most disagree. Similarly, some women in the field of physics complain of discrimination, but most disagree. Someone wonders: Why this disparity? At this point, it might make good sense for a university president or newspaper owner to observe that some research exists suggesting that, on average, women perform better on tests of verbal intelligence while men perform better on tests of certain aspects of mathematical intelligence. Perhaps nothing untoward is happening and this is just the way things shake out, in much the way that certain East African countries seem dramatically overrepresented among the world's elite long-distance runners. People differ, and when you're talking about performance at the very highest levels, small differences in native endowments can have major consequences.

But, obviously, we don't live in PinkerWorld and if you look at the named being bandied-about as replacements for Bill Safire it's clear that we'll continue not to live there for quite some time.

Instead, in the real world women are systematically underrepresented in leading roles at virtually all levels of American society across virtually all fields of endeavor. Women aren't underrepresented on physics faculties because they're all off being at the top of other, more verbally-oriented fields.

On the specific point about whether or not women in math/science/engineering face sexism, I can't speak from a wealth of personal knowledge or a deep familiarity with the data. I can say that the last time I was engaged in vaguely rigorous technical work was high school when I was consistently in the "difficult" math and science tracks. In all of these classes but one, the teachers were male, and, at times, it was clear that the female students were being treated in a sexist manner in all of those courses except the one taught by a woman. This was clear to me even though it wasn't something I was particularly going out of my way to watch for except insofar as I'm a liberal blue America kind of dude who'd been exposed to a lot of feminist ideas over the years. The other course was taught by a woman who was perhaps my least-favorite teacher from the high school years, while the others were mostly taught by excellent people who did mostly excellent teaching and mostly didn't do anything wrong. But nobody's perfect and occassional bouts of sexism are a pretty common flaw among basically decent, intelligent, largely well-meaning men, much as we may like to be in denial about it. Over the years, the number of female students who remained on the top track in math and science consistently dwindled. The causes of this were, no doubt, varied. But did the occassional, yet consistent, episodes of sexism from the male teachers really have nothing to do with it? Let's just say I have my doubts.

And when you have a situation like this, it tends to re-enforce itself and get worse over time. As you move up and up the scale you start moving in spheres that are more-and-more male dominated. Sexist behavior then tends to proliferate, or at least become more salient. On top of that, problems that wouldn't be a big deal if you had lots of sympathetic peers become more difficult to deal with. You're surrounded by a lot of, say, Larry Summers types who probably aren't out there actively discriminating against women, but who are also deaf to the validity of these complaints and the reality of the problem.

That's all a bit speculative and, obviously, extrapolated from a very limited experience with the American education system. But women in the physical sciences and engineering pretty consistently report that this is their experience. It's also merely commonsensical that pretty ordinary people do bad things sometimes, and that, as a special case of that, pretty ordinary men sometimes behave as sexists and that, therefore, women who make their way over the course of a life in a field where men outnumber women by a huge margin will face a lot of sexism over the years and that this will tend to push them into doing other things. Harvard's relative lack of female science professors probably isn't charged by some group of men sniggering in a back room going, "can't give her tenure -- she's only a girl!" but it is related to larger issues of sexism in the world, in the university, and in the fields of math and science. Some kind of difference in innate endowment may well be present, but to maintain that it's presence is so overwhelming as to exclude other factors is inane.

And all this is without getting into the structural issues related to work, family, social expectations, etc. I won't get into that since there's lots of good books you can read on the subject if you want and most readers probably have more personal knowledge of these issues than I do.

At any rate, this business about sexism is really pretty obvious if you think about it. On one level, I think the anathematization of sexism helps facilitate male self-deception on this topic. Lots of men who'd be happy to say about themselves, "hey, I think I'm basically a good person and I think my friends are basically good people, but at times I've been less considerate than I should have been" are weirdly unwilling to concede that they, their male friends, and, in general, men like them are at times more sexist than they should be. For a good example on a pretty different topic see Ezra Klein's classist dismissal of a recent Maureen Dowd column. He employs a form of argument I saw coming from a lot of male, liberal bloggers. Something along the lines of "well, sure, some men do that, but those are the knuckle-dragging brutes, we intellectuals are above such things." The Dowd piece had some real flaws, but one ought to think harder before constructing those sorts of self-serving theories.

To summarize a very long post:

  • Genetic, gender-linked differences in some forms of mathematical ability? My non-expert's understanding is that, yes, they're there, along with genetic, gender-linked differences in some other intelligence metrics.
  • No sexism in academia or the sciences? Not bloody likely.
Up next: Watch American Idol.

January 18, 2005 | Permalink


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Your comment about Summers is right on. A lot (I might even venture to say most) discrimination is not the concious racism or sexism we attribute to bigots of a bygone era. Current discrimination is of a more insidious kind, typified by people like Summers who are merely indifferent to claims of discrimination and are content to maintain the status quo. This calls for a vast social restructuring, not just a hunt for the most vocal opponents of equality.

Posted by: matt | Jan 18, 2005 8:09:14 PM

"Genetic, gender-linked differences in some forms of mathematical ability? My non-expert's understanding is that, yes, they're there, along with genetic, gender-linked differences in some other intelligence metrics."

I am personally, as a math major at the same Cambridge institution you once attended, more skeptical of the claim that there is a genetic distinction. In particular, it's known that until the 7th grade, women perform just as well as men on math tests and profess to like mathematics at least as much or more than men do. In between the 7th and 10th grades, however, the percentage of women who claim on surveys to enjoy mathematics and to find it easy plummets, along with the relative scores of women as compared with men. Leaving high school, women tend to be less-well prepared for mathematical or scientific careers than their male colleagues, but not drasticaly so. Then, in college, only a very small percentage of the prepared women go on to degrees in math or the sciences while a much larger percentage of their male peers do. Similarly, exiting college, the women who took the math-science route are generally as well prepared as their male counterparts (they graduate at a significantly higher rate, in fact, although not nearly so significant as to make up for the difference in choices of major), but then of those who go on to graduate school, fewer pursue degrees or choose for a Masters rather than a Ph.D. Finally, of those who get Ph.D's, a smaller percentage end up with tenured positions at universities. Those progressive stages of performing at an acceptable (or sometimes better-than-acceptable) level only to drop out of the race at some point are not at all indicative of a genetic predisposition away from a subject area but highly indicative of social pressures that weed out women who like and excell at mathematics or science but aren't willing to go through the trouble that is required to continue in those areas.

One other note -- I think you should put more emphasis on unintended systemic sexism. In other words, a group of male professors can have an entirely unintended effect of pushing women out of their subject area without any of them individually doing anything sexist or inappropriate. I personally think that this is more to blame for the general and unfortunate dearth of women than actual individual sexism of any sort, intentional or not.

Posted by: JBL | Jan 18, 2005 8:13:39 PM

"Some kind of difference in innate endowment may well be present, but to maintain that it's presence is so overwhelming as to exclude other factors is inane."

Summers raised the issue as a possible contribution. Rather, it is the utopian blank slaters who deny that any innate ability could have a real world effect.

It is astounding that so many people deny that innate differences may exist among the sexes. Just for example, having a child is still unalterably a woman's capability, and there is no convincing argument or evidence that having a child does not remove energy, both physically and mentally, from one's career.

As for opening public discourse on this topic as a way to deflect efforts to redress sexism or bias, perhaps this is a good thing. This incessant focus on redressing what may not be a social ill deflects efforts to recruit the best and the brightest. On the other hand, redress may need to be more heavy-handed, acknowledging a disadvantage for women.

Posted by: eudoxis | Jan 18, 2005 8:18:15 PM

"In particular, it's known that until the 7th grade, women perform just as well as men on math tests and profess to like mathematics at least as much or more than men do."

In other words, untl puberty. Oh, gee, no reason THERE to think there might be a sex linked difference... LOL

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jan 18, 2005 8:23:28 PM

I appreciate your comments, Brett, rude as they may be. However, you neglect (1) to respond in any way whatsoever to the continuation of that process after the high school (2) to make any reasonable claim about why puberty should affect enjoyment of mathematics and science. Granted, it comes along with significant biological changes -- but nothing that has any direct effect on cognitive abilities. Correlation is not causation -- you've got a correlation, it's still on you to show it's causal.

Posted by: JBL | Jan 18, 2005 8:30:46 PM

When I was in grad school, TA-ing undergrad physics classes, I noticed something very interesting: the percentage of female students was quite small, but on average they were much better at physics than the male students. It was quite striking. Of, say, the top ten students in my classes (we're talking introductory undergrad classes for physics majors), half of them were women---and that accounted for almost all the women in my class. If a woman was taking this class at all, it usually meant she was very good at it.

So it was very clear to me that I wasn't seeing a gaussian distribution in ability. With the male students I was; there was the usual distribution of abilities, ranging from abyssmal to excellent, with most of the male students somewhere in the middle. With the female students I very obviously wasn't. I was only seeing the rightmost tail of the bell curve.

And that, to me, is a very obvious sign of discrimination. It's a sign that there are barriers, subtle or unsubtle, and that the people who have the ability and motivation to overcome those barriers are the ones who are exceptional. An undistinguished male student saw no reason not to take physics, while an undistinguished female student went off and did something else instead.

Defending the mediocrities of the world may not sound very inspiring, but that's really what equality means. The fact that the occasional exceptional woman can get tenure isn't a sign of equality; it's just a sign that whatever barriers exist aren't absolute. Equality means that male mediocrities and female mediocrities have the same chances. It was very obvious to me from my TAing experience that, at least as far as physics goes, we aren't there yet.

Posted by: Matt Austern | Jan 18, 2005 8:36:20 PM

Male self-deception about sexism probably occurs. Dowd's column hit a nerve with a lot of men. The reaction is harsher than she deserves. I see from Ezra Klein's comments that Dowd gets the word 'bitch' tossed at her alot more than I am comfortable with.

Posted by: joe o | Jan 18, 2005 9:05:48 PM

having a child is still unalterably a woman's capability, and there is no convincing argument or evidence that having a child does not remove energy, both physically and mentally, from one's career.

Gestation & recovery from birth lasts, at most, one year, and there are certainly indications that male partners, when present, are at least affected by the process and therefore are likely to divert some amount of their energy from career pursuits. However, good parenting usually demands that both parents invest a considerable amount of physical & mental energy, so I would say that the relative biological distraction is negligible after six or eight weeks postpartum. Cultural constructs, of course, tend to demand that women divide their energies more than men, but that's certainly not an argument based on absolute differences.

Posted by: latts | Jan 18, 2005 9:08:13 PM

I'm a male physicist, so I suppose I could be part of the problem (I hope not). I went to a little liberal arts college in the midwest which had a relatively large number of female physics majors (maybe 25%) and a few female profs. Once I spent a week at Princeton for this summer research thing, along with maybe fifty other undergrads from around the country, two of whom were girls. I was appalled at the amount of posturing that went on. It wasn't the guys being overtly sexist (that I could tell), but trying to intimidate one another with how smart they were. It made me wonder, is this what grad school is going to be like? Do I want to be around assholes like this for the rest of my life?

It turns out that that was a particularly bad group, but I've since noticed similar behavior when the wrong kind of young male nerds get together in the absence or near absence of females. I'll bet it is one factor that drives girls out of science. When there are more female professors and role models (and there will be, eventually), I think things will improve.

Posted by: Anonymous Nerd | Jan 18, 2005 9:11:44 PM

Points about systemic sexism are reasonable, but what about those junior-high or high school math exams that are taken around the country? AHSME and so on. It's my impression that boys do better, and it's hard to see why girls' self-images could have a major effect there. It's not like choosing whether or not to take a class, where the environment and social pressures could be dispositive.

Posted by: nougaro | Jan 18, 2005 9:15:07 PM

In other words, untl puberty. Oh, gee, no reason THERE to think there might be a sex linked difference... LOL

Haven't there been some studies showing that many teenage girls suffer from mild (menstrual-related) anemia, but when treated, they do better in math?


Brett, if the sex-linked differences were primarily based on estrogen/testosterone levels in the brain, we'd start seeing a difference around grade 5 or 6. The fact that it coincides almost precisely with the midpoint for menarche is too much of a coincidence.

Posted by: Maureen | Jan 18, 2005 9:15:31 PM

Genetic, gender-linked differences in some forms of mathematical ability? My non-expert's understanding is that, yes, they're there, along with genetic, gender-linked differences in some other intelligence metrics.

uh, i have to pipe in here. the "genetic" element is probably that males have a Y and females have an X, so it is really more of a developmental issue.

so, i grant some sort of sexism, mostly of the subtle kind, and partially a creation of male culture.

solutions? how do you guys feel about gender segregated education at very high levels? i don't favor it myself, but i enjoyed the shark-tank egocentric i'm-smarter-than-you atmosphere of the science geeks i hung out with in college. the girls, a minority, were of the same mindset. if this is some sort of sexism (it certainly makes a lot of people, male and female, uncomfortable), i think a lot of guys might just want to opt out of mixed gender education. if stereotype threat is such an issue, let's separate women and men, blacks and whites, etc. etc.

life is about trade offs. or is it? do you think there's a free lunch out there in battling covert discrimination?

Posted by: razib | Jan 18, 2005 9:23:28 PM

Some kind of difference in innate endowment may well be present, but to maintain that it's presence is so overwhelming as to exclude other factors is inane.

But Matt, nobody's maintaining that -- not even Summers! The NYT article quotes him as saying, "[I] believe that raising questions, discussing multiple factors that may explain a difficult problem, and seeking to understand how they interrelate is vitally important." There's no transcript of his remarks at the conference itself, so we're all putting words into Summers' mouth, but I suspect his position is being pretty badly caricatured.

Is sexism in math and science a problem worth addressing? I don't doubt you're right when you say it is (although I will note that my anecdotal high school evidence is very different from yours, with the girls I knew holding their own perfectly well in science classes). But it seems like a stretch to deny any role for biological differences in shaping the proportion of women in science, which is what the anti-Summers position actually entails. I guess you're right that sexism in Harvard's hiring practices is the germane issue, but it's not the one around which this argument started.

I doubt aptitude plays as big a role as biologically-informed predispositions -- toy guns versus dollhouses, if you want. But anyone who wants to maintain that sex differences stop at the blood/brain barrier would do well to read The Case Of John/Joan.

Posted by: tom lee | Jan 18, 2005 9:37:06 PM

FWIW: sex differences in the mentioned direction do exist, no one knows for sure how much they account for, especially not when we're discussing only one career choice, where we don't even have an educated guess as to how important inherent aptitude is for that particular career. Your guess is as good as mine obviously, but I find it not at all unreasonable to suggest that "willingness to work long hours on possible useless projects and being able to bear self-aggrandising fools in return for lots of leeway and un-equaled room for personal interests and pet peeves" easily surpass mathematical (or whatever) ability when it comes to choosing that career and getting promoted in it.
Just as verbal skills like e.g. proper spelling are obviously not crucial factors in determining who becomes a journalist.

That said, girls do better at maths if they're not co-educated and the best explanation for this fact I've heard so far is that in co-ed classes the social role of the math crack is usually filled by boys and so girls rarely get onto the high performance-high reward/praise circle. The nice thing about that is of course that there needn't be any overt or structural sexism for this effect to happen. If the scientific consensus is correct, and men have higher aptitude for maths, then it's perfectly natural for everyone, boys, girls, teachers, parents and society as a whole, to expect that _on average_ boys will fill that role more often.
No idea how to get around this.

Posted by: markus | Jan 18, 2005 9:39:45 PM

Thank you, Matthew. Yes, I was offended by Lawrence Summers.

Posted by: anne | Jan 18, 2005 9:55:39 PM

It's not hard to prove white people are smarter than black people

Just look at how much better white people do in tests as compared to black people in South Africa.

Therefore white people are inherently smarter than black people. QED.

Posted by: Dan the Man | Jan 18, 2005 10:03:30 PM

Interesting issue, but we should remember that there are many other fields where a particular group is dramatically overrepresented, and most of us have discarded genetic explanations of the phenomenon. African-americans in basketball, let's say; some people has tried to prove that they are physically superior but we don't take that seriously. On another field, we can note that most male ballet dancers are gay but we don't hear many people saying that homosexual men have better coordination and sense of rythm than straight men. Part of the phenomenon may be that we do better at the things that we have been told we should be good at, and we do worse at the things we believe we should be bad at. If there is a wide perception that sciences and math are "male" fields, girls may unconsciously do worse in them, since doing well would mean being less feminine (something similar could happen with men and dance, for example).

Posted by: Carlos | Jan 18, 2005 10:10:43 PM

At my relatively (to Harvard) undistinguished university here in southern Alabama, I have to say sexism in computer science and mathematics does not seem to be much of a problem. I'm not sure it has as much to do with enlightened attitudes regarding gender as it does with a natural affinity geeks display for others who share the same interests. In any case, women are well represented in software engineering classes, which are a sort of oasis of equality in an otherwise typically Southern state.

Posted by: Kiril | Jan 18, 2005 10:11:52 PM

I knew a trumpet player who urged herself to get up early and practice with the mantra "Twice as good" (i.e. she felt she'd have to be twice as good as a guy to succeed). And in Gladwell's book I think there's an anecdote about female representation in orchestras spiking once they started having auditions behind a screen.

There's a Neil LaBute play somewhere in this thread, I think.

Posted by: Delicious Pundit | Jan 18, 2005 10:19:18 PM

A little more information would shed some light on the issue, as for example whether the proportion of women undergraduates in the sciences is increasing, and what the proportions are in different countries.

I thought Matt Austern's comment was quite suggestive. JBL's was less so, because it left open the possibility that the girls were stymied by the more challenging subject matter presented in middle school.

Posted by: bad Jim | Jan 18, 2005 10:25:25 PM

you say:
African-americans in basketball, let's say; some people has tried to prove that they are physically superior but we don't take that seriously.

matt says:

Perhaps nothing untoward is happening and this is just the way things shake out, in much the way that certain East African countries seem dramatically overrepresented among the world's elite long-distance runners. People differ, and when you're talking about performance at the very highest levels, small differences in native endowments can have major consequences.

i am curious about what matt means by "the way things shake out." i suspect some of the kalenjin dominance of long distance running is due to the fact that recruiters target kalenjin youth, but the reason they target kalenjin youth is that kalenjin seem to be great long distance runners. i suspect that one reason serbo-croats and lithuanians are overrepresented in elite european basketball players is that they have decent basketball traditions, but one reason they have decent basketball traditions is that they are, on average, tall peoples, so they produce more than their share of *very* tall peoples.

anyway, it's off topic.

back to the main topic, assume that being a great physicist requires:

a) 140+ IQ
b) monomaniacal focus
c) super long work weeks

small mean differences in the distribution of all these factors can result in larger differences in the tails, and assuming they are not interdependent (which is not true, but let's assume), and you multiply the three to find the intersection, you end up with a more lopsided imbalance than casual inspection of the three means would tell you. now, i said they were interdependent, and i also happen to think c) is possibly outsized in importance, and i think sexism and other complex factors play a role, so you see, i'm a genetic determinist (if .5% of men score above 140, .5% of men are monomaniacs and .5% of men are willing to put in 80 hour work weeks, assuming that women in all these categories are represented at .45%, if you state all three conditions need to hold for a potential great physicist, there are 1.37 times more men than females that meet all the criteria [multiply .5 and .45 times 3, since i stated there was independence])....

Posted by: razib | Jan 18, 2005 10:32:46 PM

I can also personally attest to another factor that happens around puberty for girls. When I was in 7th grade my math teacher, a man, actually told our class that girls didn't need to worry about math, that we wouldn't need it as much and that we weren't as good at it either.

Needless to say, my career in math screeched to a halt. However, once I went to college, and had to take all the required math courses, I did just fine, in fact got A's in all of them. Just one woman's story, here. But one has to wonder if some teachers were/are saying the same thing, but perhaps in a little more subtle way if they are even aware that they are doing it...

Posted by: Anne | Jan 18, 2005 10:34:56 PM

We know which genes probably determine IQ. The reason we don't which genes those ate when we provide quotes like this is that we don't feel like it. And you wouldn't understand.

Posted by: Geneticist | Jan 18, 2005 10:55:07 PM

I'm a male mathematician, as well as a member of a minority ethnic group within my field. I have two different problems with the hypothesis that women are genetically inferior to men at math. One is that the argument in favor of such a statement has as much intellectual merit as any number of racist arguments heard many times before: that is to say, the poverty of the argument is astounding. The other is that it is an incredibly bold hypothesis, in the light of the profound effects that social circumstance and culture can have on the lives of people, particularly people whose identity is forged along the lines of discourses of inclusion and exclusion informed by statements like the one in question.

So, we have evidence that women gravitate towards certain fields more than towards others. Note that conservatives don't seem to be proportionally represented in any academic discipline, including the basic sciences. Because there is no simple phenotypical distinction between conservatives and liberals in this country, the idea that there may be an essential, biological shortcoming that makes it difficult for conservatives to triumph in mathematics and the sciences doesn't even enter public discourse. By contrast, the idea that there are a set of cultural and social circumstances that play a role in the phenomenon seem rather reasonable, even if nobody has a precise theory of why conservatives do not abound in the academy.

Any sensible person would argue that it is by and large cultural and social reasons that underlie the scarcity of women in the basic sciences and in mathematics, even if sex-linked genetics may play a role. After all, there is little biologically sound evidence for anything genetic going on, and all circumstancial evidence is the kind of evidence that wouldn't compel us to change our minds about the relative intellectual abilities of, say, republicans vs. democrats. The celerity with which certain types turn to genetics to explain disparities in intelligence among phenotypically different peoples is very disturbing. Don't people know that the field of evolutionary psychology has earned its dismal reputation in scientific circles?

Posted by: vidal_olmos | Jan 18, 2005 10:55:09 PM

Yes, Anne, in the discussions at P.Z. Meyers and BitchPhD to which Yglesias links there are many, many such stories related.

Posted by: bad Jim | Jan 18, 2005 10:55:38 PM

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