May 21, 2008
What if Lawrence Summers was right?Summers was the president of Harvard in 2005 when he made the impolitic suggestion that innate differences might offer some explanation of the sharp imbalance in the numbers of men and women in the fields of computer science, mathematics, and physics. He eventually lost his job after a series of contretemps following that speech.
Now, a couple of studies on gender differences in science and technology have shown that, in fact, inherent differences between the sexes may indeed account for those imbalances. Not because women are less talented with numbers and with machines, as Summers implied, but because in general they'd rather do other things with their lives, thank you very much. "If these researchers are right, then a certain amount of gender gap might be a natural artifact of a free society, where men and women finally can forge their own vocational paths," writes Elaine McArdle in The Boston Globe. The first study, by economist Joshua Rosenbloom of the University of Kansas, was based on survey of hundreds of IT professionals as well as workers in "comparable fields" where the numbers of men and women are more equal. Rosenbloom found that personal preference is "the single largest determinative factor in whether women went into IT." The other work is a longitudinal study following several thousand people who, as boys and girls, demonstrated above-average ability in the maths and sciences. Headed by two Vanderbilt University researchers, this ongoing project -- delightfully titled the "Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth" -- found that while the male numbers geeks were more likely than the females to go into engineering or the physical sciences, "Math-precocious women, by contrast, were more likely to go into careers in medicine, biological sciences, humanities, and social sciences." In other words, ability is not the issue; interest is. No amount of research, or public hand-wringing, or government-funded programs is going to force women into fields they don't prefer. My favorite line from this research: "The survey data showed a notable disparity on one point: That men, relative to women, prefer to work with inorganic materials; women, in general, prefer to work with organic or living things." In other words: I'm a guy -- give me inorganic matter any day!
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