Gender Equality

Are women finally getting smarter?

There are far fewer women than men working as professors in the natural sciences. To decide how we can change that, we need to know why it happens. In fact, to decide if we can change it, we need to know why it happens because if it reflects something innate, there might not be so much we can do.

New research adds important evidence to the debate about the cause of this imbalance. It shows us that women are getting smarter.

The new study responds to the suggestion that men have an innate cognitive advantage. Larry Summers became the poster boy for this perspective when he floated the argument in a speech a few years back — just before he was drummed out of office as president of Harvard.

Summers didn’t claim that men on average are better at math than women. But he did point out that just looking at averages hides something important, namely the imbalance at the extreme ends of the scale. At the top, and at the bottom, there are more men than women.

Instead of trying to justify the status quo with a weak deterministic argument, we should instead use our resources to give everyone a fair shake.

This could explain why men predominate in elite research positions in science and engineering, he argued. Research at the highest levels of the best institutions draws from a very small population at the extreme top, and if that space is over-populated by men, then those groups of employees will be, too.

Nature vs. nurture

Larry Summers was clear about the source of this divergence, noting that these skills “are not plausibly culturally determined.” On the contrary, there is a biological explanation for the skewing since “in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of instrinsic … variability of aptitude.”

As the body of research on this topic grows, however, that claim becomes more dubious. Culture does play a role; variability is not intrinsic. There is variation based on ethnicity and there is variation based on a society’s degree of gender equality. In some ethnic groups and some egalitarian countries, there is no math gender gap among the schoolchildren being tested. In others, girls dominate at the top. And, yes, in some, boys are over-represented there.

This variation suggests that nurture probably plays a bigger role than what chaps like Larry Summers think. And a new scientific publication provides even more evidence that cultural factors in fact are central.

We’re smarter than we used to be

In The changing face of cognitive gender differences in Europe, cognitive variation in men and women is studied in three different European regions. In all of these regions, the standard of living has steadily increased and the younger adults perform better than the older ones of the same sex. That’s good news; it means we’re all getting smarter.

When we compare the sexes, however, the men consistently did better than the women in the numeracy test, which is the one that is relevant for the debate about the underrepresentation of women in science.

The important discovery in this research is that the women are gaining on the men. As the standard of living improves, performance improves for everyone, but it improves more for women. The researchers put it like this:

In numeracy, lower educational gender differences are associated with a reduction in the male advantage.

They speculate that societal improvements have a greater benefit for women because they have a weaker starting point. If girls lack access to schooling in greater number than boys, then delivering education to everyone gives the girls room to catch up. And that’s just what they do.

Balance is possible

This is what the newest research says, and it doesn’t look good for the “nature” argument about the underrepresentation of women in science fields. Even if this new study doesn’t specifically address the claim that men are spread out across the skills scale more than women, it shows that performance can be changed by improving access to education. That can affect the proportions at the top of the scale, too.

Research shows us that nurture is significant. Having few women professors is not a simple consequence of innate differences.

Instead of trying to justify the status quo with a weak deterministic argument, we should instead use our resources to give everyone a fair shake. That way, cultural inequalities won’t lead society to lose out on the contributions of those who start life with the potential to reach the top.

Appeared in The Guardian under the title Watch out boys, women are getting smarter, faster.

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My interest in moving universities towards balance encompasses gender equality, the communication of scientific results, promoting research-based education and leadership development more generally. Read more



  • Kaare Fog says:

    What you write, is not true. Women are not getting smarter in the countries where the genders are most equal. What has happened in the Scandinavian countries, especially Sweden, where the gender equality is at a maximum and male advantage at a minimum, is something else. When you study the PISA investigation, you will see that during recent decades, boys have become more and more stupid. Girls have only become a little more stupid. So girls have not risen to the level of boys. On the contrary, boys have dropped to the level of girls. This form of gender equality is thus just a sign of something bad, not something good.
    Please notice that the sexes have not become more equal overall. The advantage of girls in the linguistic field is preserved or even increased.
    What has happened is simply that schools have become less suitable for boys.

  • Curt Rice says:

    Thanks for your comment, Kaare. The research article that I write about in this blog entry, and that I link to in the text, includes northern Europe in its study, and finds that there, too, everyone is getting smarter. This can be read most straightforwardly from figure 1. The methodological problems of PISA are too great to go into here, but it’s not a measure of intelligence, but rather of school performance, so I think you’re over-interpretting those admittedly quite depressing results. I do agree, however, that achieving gender equality by lowering the level of the higher group would be a silly strategy. I just don’t see evidence for this, extensive problems with the school system notwithstanding.

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