No evidence of innate gender differences in math and science, scholars assert

L.A. Cicero Ruth O'Hara

"The bottom line is we are still very much in the state of mixed findings when it comes to gender and brain processing," said Ruth O'Hara, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

L.A. Cicero Schiebinger

Londa Schiebinger said marital patterns may discourage women from staying on a career track.

Walk into any American high school classroom, and you're likely to hear a familiar refrain: Boys are innately better at math and science, while girls tend to excel in subjects that require verbal skills. But is there any solid evidence to support that thinking?

Not according to four Stanford scholars who took part Friday in a campus forum on the role of gender in math, science and engineering education. The subject made headlines in January after Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers mused that innate differences between men and women might be one reason fewer women succeed in science and math careers.

In fact, differences in performance between males and females have shrunk to nearly insignificant levels on most standardized tests, said Jo Boaler, an associate professor of mathematics education at the School of Education. "There is a huge belief that boys are better at math which is vastly out of proportion to any data that we have," Boaler told the audience of about 100, mostly women. "And yet people believe it. You go into schools and the children will tell you that."

Citing data from England, Boaler noted that in the 1970s boys did pass national high school exams at higher rates and tended to achieve the highest grades. But thanks to improvements in English textbooks and teaching approaches, girls there were outperforming boys on every level and in every subject area by the year 2000.

Girls have made similar gains on most standardized tests in the United States, she said. "Are there differences in achievement in math and science for high school girls? I would say no there aren't. And where they are, they vary across cultures, so clearly they're not genetic," Boaler said. When teaching approaches are changed, she added, "you get much higher rates of achievement and participation among girls and women."

One notable exception to the general increase in girls' achievement is their performance on the math portion of the SAT. (Boys' scores averaged 537 on the math portion in 2004, compared with 501 for girls.) Boaler suggested that the test's timed, multiple-choice format—very different from European tests—might be partly to blame for the gender gap. She also pointed to persistent cultural pressures that deter girls from enrolling in tough high school math courses.

"When boys are more successful than girls in math and science, everybody says it's because boys are genetically suited to math and science. But when girls are doing better, people say it's because they work hard," she said to laughter.

Such comments are damaging for a number of reasons, Boaler continued. If people think the differences between boys and girls are innate, they assume nothing can be done to improve the situation. Negative stereotyping also can have a direct effect on performance, she said. Studies have shown that if people are told beforehand that members of their ethnic group or gender don't do well on a particular test, they tend to choke. But if they go into a test without the so-called "stereotype threat," they do better.

Ruth O'Hara, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, said her area of research doesn't support the notion of innate male math superiority either. While it is true that male brains are 6 to 8 percent larger than those of females, she said, "that may have no more impact on cognitive processing than differences in height."

Several years ago, she noted, brain-imaging studies suggested that there might be significant differences in the way men and women process information. Women were thought to have greater neural density in the language centers of their brains, for example, while men seemed to have an advantage in visuospatial ability—the ability to rotate objects in their heads.

However, O'Hara said, most of those widely publicized studies haven't been replicated with larger data samples. Nor have different patterns of brain activation shown anything to do with performance. "The bottom line," she said, "is we are still very much in the state of mixed findings when it comes to gender and brain processing," and those findings "really have given us no definite answers."

Why else might there be a dearth of female scientists and engineers in higher education? Sheri Sheppard, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, pointed to a 1997 study that looked at why undergraduates drop out of engineering majors. It wasn't a matter of poor grades—males and females in the study had similar grade-point averages. Instead, the top reason women switched majors was because they simply lost interest. The second most cited factor was curriculum overload, followed by poor teaching.

Londa Schiebinger, the Barbara D. Finberg Director of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender and professor of the history of science, suggested that marital patterns also may discourage women from staying the course in science and engineering careers.

Schiebinger, an international expert on gender and science, noted that high-achieving women have a tendency to marry high-achieving men and this holds consequences for their own geographic mobility and advancement.

For example, 43 percent of married female physicists are married to other physicists, whereas only 6 percent of male physicists have physicist spouses. "Where there are two professionals in a family," she said, "it's hard for each to pursue opportunities for advancement when they come by."

The forum was co-hosted by the Institute for Research on Women and Gender and the Faculty Women's Forum. A related conference—on ways gender analysis can contribute to research in science and engineering—is scheduled for April 15-16 on campus.