The Unapologetic Mathematician

Mathematics for the interested outsider

Open Gap Thread

I’m preparing for my drive tomorrow. I’m heading down to New Orleans for the final move-out. As such, I think I’ll throw this one out to discuss the (non)existence of the math gender gap. Also, feel free to weigh in about Title IX applying to math and science departments. The latter I heard about through Jesse Johnson, so here’s a tam-tip to him.

Talk amongst yourselves.

July 25, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. I attended the Maine School of Science and Math from 1999-2001, it’s Maine’s only magnet school. Girls slightly outnumbered boys when I was there with the lowest math class offered at the time being pre-calculus. I never saw the boys as being more capable in science and math as myself or the other girls.

    Comment by Noadi | July 25, 2008 | Reply

  2. As someone who has run summer camps decicated to introducing ninth grade girls on Long Island, NY, to the Joy of Science in order to encourage them to enter studies and then careers in science, I hasten to warn against pulling back from the Title IX program whose tremendous support has allowed many similar endeavors to attempt to expunge the well-meaning, but wrong, counsel to young girls to only attempt home economics. Getting of the horse before the completion of the journey makes no sense whatsoever.

    Comment by Bill Watson | July 25, 2008 | Reply

  3. But do we need to mandate a quota? There must be as many female as male math professors at any given school, even if that means cutting departments down to female interest levels?

    Comment by John Armstrong | July 25, 2008 | Reply

  4. “…cutting depts down to female interest levels?”

    I mentioned this in Jesse Johnson’s thread as well, but just becuase women may not be *choosing* to pursue science does not mean that the *interest* is not there. There are many factors that go into choosing a career, interest is only one, along with ability, family and peer influence, professional support, etc.

    Personally, I’m not sure that quotas are the right answer. The statistical gender gap is a symptom of gender bias, not the cause or even the problem itself. Such a mandatory quota may even end up backfiring by making the (current) gender difference even more apparent, perhaps sparking animosity, or the feeling that women “need” help in science.

    On the other hand, even though hiring practice or technical ability seem to be nearly as unbiased as they can be, perhaps this sort of quota incentive is an acceptable way to cancel out more subtle social pressures. I certainly would consider it a temporary solution at best, however, only as a crutch to help the leg heal, so to speak.

    Comment by J Chang | July 25, 2008 | Reply

  5. J Chang: I don’t think anyone can tell one way or another whether women and men would have equal interest levels in an absolutely option-egalitarian society. In practice, fewer women choose to pursue careers in academic mathematics. This shows that in this society as it exists today the interest levels are different.

    Why do I emphasize “as it exists today”? Because it’s the here-and-now that we can affect by policy. We’re talking about making a policy change in the actual world, not in the ideal world. And Title IX is just such a policy mandate. When applied to athletic programs it did result in cutting male athletic programs to achieve parity. Are you willing to risk that real-world potential consequence?

    Comment by John Armstrong | July 25, 2008 | Reply

  6. I definitely agree that as it exists today fewer women than men choose to pursue scientific careers of their own volition; I’m not arguing with you on that point.

    I simply take issue with your use of the word “interest”. To me “interest” implies personal desire in an ideal situation. I have personally known *many* individuals who were full of interest and desire for a particular career path (perhaps even moreso than others who actually ended up choosing that path) but yet chose another career path that they were less enthusiastic about, not due to discrimination or innate ability, but familial pressures, financial stresses, or (as they usually phrase it) other “practical” reasons. Not to point fingers, but it seems to happen a lot with med school and the finance track; I would say there are a great many individuals in those fields whose true *interest* lies elsewhere. Very similar pressures undoubtedly exists for females pursuing science; perhaps the *interest* is great, but they *choose* to pursue a different tack because their family may pressure them against it because I would be “hard to raise a family like that” or other such nonsense. And yes, I’ve heard that one before.

    It’s hard to measure interest with statistics; choice is the only thing that is being recorded. I don’t believe the two are the same.

    Secondly, I think that applying titleIX to athletic programs and applying titleIX to scientific programs are not entirely parallel. When titleIX was proposed and implemented for athletic programs there was blatant, and overt discrimination at work. It’s not that women were not choosing to enter sports programs, they were simply barred from admittance. The statistical gender gap among science careers appears to be of a different nature. TitleIX would certainly even out the statistics, but I’m not sure it does enough to address the underlying issue of gender bias.

    Comment by J Chang | July 25, 2008 | Reply

  7. The article on math scores gap is not entirely clear on what the results of the study were, but I get the feeling that they were about (lack of) differences in the means of the scores. If so, the initial reference to Larry Summers is (once again) entirely misleading: if the NYT had bothered reading the text of the speech that got Summers into trouble, it would have noticed that he assumed that there were no gender difference in AVERAGE test scores, but there was a difference in VARIANCE (there are relatively more boys who have terrible test scores and relatively more boys who have terrific test scores and only those with terrific IQ can become Harvard professors :-).

    And that was only one of the three potential explanations he gave for the relative scarcity of female science profs (he also mentioned differences in preferences over lifestyle choice and, hear hear, the possibility of discrimination).

    Comment by Valter | July 26, 2008 | Reply

  8. Valter: to be more explicit he guessed there might be, and said it was a fair question worth looking into.

    As one LitCritter told me back at Yale, there are questions you aren’t allowed to ask. Otherwise you’re just as bad as the Nazis. True story.

    Comment by John Armstrong | July 26, 2008 | Reply

  9. Let me ask something, though: suppose it was blacks instead of women. Still a fair question? Would you feel any differently about people’s being outraged about by the suggestion?

    (I’m not trying to give anyone a hard time; I’m genuinely curious.)

    Comment by Todd Trimble | July 26, 2008 | Reply

  10. Regardless of the causes of women being in science in fewer numbers, destroying science departments is not the answer. I can’t believe this is even being considered.

    Comment by Norbert Wiener | July 27, 2008 | Reply

  11. I don’t see any evidence it is being considered. That New York Times article is almost contentless speculation.

    Comment by Walt | July 27, 2008 | Reply

  12. Todd, my position would be more or less the same. Admittedly, I haven’t seen studies to the effect that there is effective parity-in-conditional-probability in the track from bachelor’s degree to academic position in that case.

    I know this is a break from my usual stance, but this seems to be pretty clearly a supply-side problem, and demand-side fixes can only be band-aids.

    Comment by John Armstrong | July 27, 2008 | Reply

  13. Whether American universities should practice “affirmative action” is a meta-question which I’m not so interested in. But as a job-searching postdoc, I get very annoyed when I have to decide whether or not I belong to a visible minority for example for some university’s compulsory equality survey. Moreover, as a result of this being such a highlighted issue, I am likely to feel bitter when I’m not hired, because I’m more likely to attribute some of the reason for rejection to quota issues. If only I were a black woman, I would get hired everywhere…
    I don’t think this is a healthy message to be sending, whether or not it is factually true (which one has no way of knowing). Gender, race, etc. should be don’t ask don’t tell issues in universities IMHO.

    Comment by Daniel Moskovich | July 29, 2008 | Reply

  14. Actually, just to clarify, my question at #9 was directed not so much toward quotas, affirmative action, etc., but more toward the debate promoted by Larry Summers a few years ago about gender differences in mathematical ability and the like (according to what I read in the NY Times Sunday Magazine a few years ago on Summers). So my question was: if Summers claimed that alleged differences in ability according to race or color merited serious consideration, what would have been your (plural “your” if you prefer) reaction?

    My own sense is that more people would have treated this as scandalous than for the corresponding question for differences along gender lines. Which just makes me wonder.

    Comment by Todd Trimble | July 29, 2008 | Reply

  15. Todd: My position is that any question merits rigorous, scientific investigation. How do you draw the line between “you can’t question whether racial groups perform differently on cognitive tasks” and “you can’t question whether humans descended from apes”?

    Reality is not up for a vote.

    Comment by John Armstrong | July 29, 2008 | Reply

  16. John: sure, that’s fine. As a general guiding principle, I wouldn’t want to put a priori limits on intellectual inquiry either. That said, note that I said *serious* consideration: some questions are more frivolous or of more dubious provenance than others, and one is also allowed to question the questions themselves.

    My own sense, rightly or wrongly, is that cognitive science is *nowhere near* the point where meaningful/satisfactory conclusions or explanations could be given one way or the other. So in that sense such inquiries would be frivolous in the sense of being mere intellectual parlor games, and insofar as such questions do not occur within a social or political vacuum, one is also permitted to question their provenance. In other words: sure, you can ask, but meaningful answers are nowhere close to hand (I don’t think), so *why* do you ask? Can’t one ask that question too?

    My real point above was to entertain a kind of thought experiment: if Summers were posing such questions along racial lines, what would have been the likely reaction? I personally think the reaction in the intellectual and even general community would have been one of outrage, and (at least in part) for some very compelling reasons. So why would or should asking the same question along gender lines provoke a *different* reaction?

    Comment by Todd Trimble | July 29, 2008 | Reply

  17. I personally think the reaction in the intellectual and even general community would have been one of outrage

    Maybe more so, but as I recall people were outraged as it was. The man did lose his job over it in the end.

    Comment by John Armstrong | July 29, 2008 | Reply

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