Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Debunking Myths about Gender and Mathematics Performance

AMS | Gender differences in mathematics participation rate, mean and high-end performance, and variance in distribution of performance have been reported on numerous occasions. The
reasons for these findings have been the subject of much debate. For example, the greater male
variability hypothesis, originally proposed by Ellis in 1894 and reiterated in 2005 by Lawrence Summers when he was president of Harvard University, states that variability in intellectual
abilities is intrinsically greater among males. If true, it could account for the fact that all Fields
medalists have been male. If gender differences in means and variances are primarily a consequence of innate, biologically determined differences between the sexes, one would expect these differences to be similar among countries regardless of their culture and to remain fairly constant across time. Such a finding would suggest that little can be done to diminish these differences. In support of this hypothesis, Machin and Pekkarinen claimed that greater male variance in mathematics performance was a “robust phenomenon”, that is, observed among fifteen-year-olds in thirty-five out of the forty countries that participated in the 2003 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). In addition, women’s nature might include a tendency to prefer the more nurturing fields, such as nursing and teaching young children, to the more quantitative ones, such as mathematics, physics, and engineering. If so, it might not make sense to encourage and direct any but the unusual female toward studying and seeking employment in these latter fields. This viewpoint has led some folks to propose that it may be a waste of time and money to expend resources directed toward trying to increase participation of women in these mathematics-intensive fields. Fist tap Dale.