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Math and the female brain

So I used to buy into "women are better at verbal, and men at math".. and since I was always really good with logic puzzles, spatial geometry, and usually surrounded by men in my Computer Science classes.. I always thought that I was the oddball.

But then, I read the amazing story about the parents who managed to raise 3 female chess grandmasters, the polgar sisters... even though female grandmasters are thought to be rare, and women just aren't supposed to be as good as men in chess. The articles talks about how people who play chess well, have different wiring in their brains..  irregardless of gender. Basically, if you take 5 year old girls, and play chess or logic puzzles with them instead of barbies.. they'll have their brains wired differently, and find spatial/chess stuff easier as they grow up.

So two days ago, I was listening on NPR, about this female scientist who got really annoyed at the ex Harvard president's infamous gender speech. Yes, there was a previous study that showed that male/females scored the same until they hit puberty.. then females fared worse. But it was an old study. 

However, thanks to "No Child Left Behind", kids have to take standardized math tests.. And she went and looked at 7 million recent data on math and gender...and guess what? There were NO difference in the scores of male or female students, whether young or older students. Females perform comparably to males.

Her study is being published in the Science journal, and NPR said that various smart people have looked at it and declared it a solid study.

Men are not inherently better then women in math. That makes me happy. I'm not weird after all. I am thankful to the Uncle who insisted on teaching me chess when I was a little girl.


( 39 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 26th, 2008 04:00 pm (UTC)
Shopping is fun, and it's easy. Let's go shopping!
Jul. 26th, 2008 12:15 am (UTC)

"Still, while there are fewer women in science and technology, there are more women in college overall. To Hyde and her colleagues, that helps explain why girls consistently score lower on average on the SAT: More of them take the test, which is needed to get into college. The highest-performing students of both genders take the test, but more girls lower on the achievement scale take it, skewing the average.

For the class of 2007, the latest figures available, boys scored an average of 533 on the math section of the SAT, compared with 499 for girls.

On the ACT, another test on which girls lag slightly, the gender gap disappeared in Colorado and Illinois once state officials required all students to take the test."

This seems to be solid evidence for the Lawrence Summers theory that men and women have the same mean ability, but that men have higher variance. If you only look at the top half of the distribution (e.g., college-bound seniors), this causes men to appear to have a higher mean since you avoid all of the low performing men who would drive the mean down. If you look at a test in which all students are required to participate (e.g., the no child left behind test) then the truth that the means are the same is revealed.
Jul. 26th, 2008 12:50 am (UTC)
But if you read the Polgar sisters article, it talks about a family that raised 3 female grand chessmasters, which is very rare.. and supposedly impossible before one of the polgar sisters won it first.

Basically, if you raise girls to do more math, and treat them the same as boys, I bet the variance will disappear. I'm pretty sure if you raise one group of children with barbies, and the other group with legos, irregardless of gender, their brain structure will be different.
Jul. 26th, 2008 04:03 pm (UTC)
I am not arguing with your point, but I would like to point out that you are giving anecdotal evidence to support an empirical claim, which doesn't really work.
Jul. 26th, 2008 04:33 pm (UTC)
it'll. Be unethical to do an empirical study

But the polgar sister was the first female grand chessmaster after people said it was imposssible to have a femalegrandmaster

I'm using my iPhone to respond hence typos and curtness
(no subject) - medryn - Jul. 28th, 2008 03:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ripresa - Jul. 28th, 2008 03:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - medryn - Jul. 28th, 2008 04:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ripresa - Jul. 29th, 2008 02:48 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - medryn - Jul. 29th, 2008 07:05 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ripresa - Jul. 29th, 2008 01:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
Equality - dnivie - Jul. 30th, 2008 09:34 am (UTC) - Expand
Dunno - dnivie - Jul. 29th, 2008 12:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 26th, 2008 01:45 am (UTC)
This seems to be solid evidence for the Lawrence Summers theory that men and women have the same mean ability, but that men have higher variance. If you only look at the top half of the distribution (e.g., college-bound seniors), this causes men to appear to have a higher mean since you avoid all of the low performing men who would drive the mean down. If you look at a test in which all students are required to participate (e.g., the no child left behind test) then the truth that the means are the same is revealed.

The numbers I saw stated exactly that - males have higher variance than females. The boys tended to cluster in the top 25% and bottom 25% whereas the girls tended to cluster in the middle 50%. The averages come out to pretty much the same thing, but the distributions are quite different.

I was working at Harvard when Sommers made his infamous speech, and having graduated with a Mathematics degree from a women's college, I'd have to say I believe he was dumb as all hell for saying that, but that's a political commentary rather than a scientific one.

Women also opt-out of scientific and technical jobs for a lot of reasons for which men do not leave the fields.
Jul. 26th, 2008 04:39 am (UTC)
It's one of my beliefs that many of society's ills could be solved if people had a better understanding of probability and statistics. :-)
(no subject) - ripresa - Jul. 26th, 2008 05:57 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - preservationgal - Jul. 26th, 2008 01:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - indywind - Jul. 28th, 2008 01:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
compassion - dnivie - Jul. 30th, 2008 01:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 30th, 2008 09:47 pm (UTC)
Ooh, I missed this. But apparently the variance has been decreasing too!

"Although it has drawn little media coverage, dramatic changes have been occurring among these junior math wizards: the relative number of girls among them has been soaring. The ratio of boys to girls, first observed at 13 to 1 in the 1980s, has been dropping steadily and is now only about 3 to 1."

Jul. 26th, 2008 12:23 am (UTC)
Yeah, I meant to post that article on my lj. Take that nature vs. nurture! You didn't mention the 48% of math degrees being awarded to women figure, but I'm going to bring that one up the next time someone says women don't do physics or engineering because they're not smart enough (as though undergrad physics or engineering degrees are more demanding than pre-med)!

You are, however, still weird. :) (in a good way, of course!)
Jul. 26th, 2008 04:04 pm (UTC)
So I have a question - which I would genuinely like to know the answer to - why are there so few women in CS?
Jul. 26th, 2008 04:28 pm (UTC)
perception and how they were raised

I think the big reason is that women can expect to not be the primary breadwinner so they can choose subjects like art or humanities that don't pay well. As an Asian I was pressured into an occupation that paid well, if I was white and grew up here, I wouldve chose a more artisic major
(no subject) - medryn - Jul. 26th, 2008 11:09 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ripresa - Jul. 27th, 2008 01:04 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - preservationgal - Jul. 27th, 2008 01:48 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ripresa - Jul. 27th, 2008 05:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - preservationgal - Jul. 28th, 2008 01:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
Good point - dnivie - Jul. 29th, 2008 12:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - indywind - Jul. 28th, 2008 01:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ripresa - Jul. 30th, 2008 09:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re-evaluate please ? - dnivie - Jul. 29th, 2008 12:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Re-evaluate please ? - ripresa - Jul. 30th, 2008 09:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Re-evaluate please ? - dnivie - Jul. 31st, 2008 05:43 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Re-evaluate please ? - ripresa - Jul. 31st, 2008 02:38 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Re-evaluate please ? - dnivie - Aug. 1st, 2008 06:58 am (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 27th, 2008 07:26 pm (UTC)
believe it or not this is the short version (=
Kids learn by example. Most of the examples a kid will observe in the formative years will feature men as the bosses and women as the supporters. This sends a clear message about where the primary saliency is for the kid. If he's male, he should expect to prove his worth in the society by how well he interacts with the physical universe...thus he will find this the most interesting, and the type of play he'll choose will serve this end (building with legos, throwing a baseball, haXORing his dad's computer, etc.). On the other hand, if the kid is female, she'll see that her worth in society is most likely to be proven by how well she supports the men...thus the things she will find most interesting will have to do with learning the intricacies of social interaction (playing house, barbie, etc.). And since practice makes perfect...before long you'll be able to observe that the boys seem more interested and more skilled at interacting with the nonliving things in their environment, whereas the girls seem more interested and more skilled at social interaction (and related things like language).

Note that no preprogrammed difference between males and females is necessary for this argument. The only assumption is that kids are effective at gauging the relative saliency of the inputs they're getting, which seems pretty likely to be true for any learning algorithm as effective as the human brain.

So all that I've talked about up until now basically explains how you get to the point where fewer women are in CS to begin with (in addition to why "boys are dumb, girls are evil"...but i digress (= ). If you also want an explanation of why we fall out of the pipeline at faster rates than men at all stages of our career paths (high school, college, grad school, job...), here goes. The short answer is impostor syndrome.

The long answer is that women are very likely to have internalized the idea as girls that being "good" equates roughly to being Martha Stewart. Not only this, but they are also likely to have noticed and internalized early on that they are second-class citizens, less important and worthy of attention then males (short version of support for this claim is the thing about how much less attention gets paid to the girls in elementary school classrooms). So here they are, in some situation (maybe their first programming class, maybe their first attempt at grad school research, maybe their first full-time technical job, etc.) where they are likely to be grossly outnumbered by men who are far more sure of themselves (after all, they weren't given the steady message all their lives that they were in some way inferior to half the population). And if they aren't intimidated by this, there's always that lurking suspicion that they're failing in some fundamental way no matter how much they get the highest test score or the biggest bonus at work -- because remember that thing about Martha Stewart?
Jul. 26th, 2008 09:39 pm (UTC)
I remember in highschool, in psych we spent some time discussing out the brain develops. There are certain points during development, where the brain is best setup to learn the basics for various things like language, math, geometry, logic, etc.

Once we get past that point, we don't learn those skills as easily or as well. One example, is geometry. In high school, statistically the boys are better at geometry. However, the brain is best setup to learn the basics for spatial reasoning around the time we are 8-10ish, I believe. Around this time, people tend to give boys toys like gear sets, legos, some sort of building block set, etc. Girls tend to be given things more like dolls. Playing with legos, etc, lay down a stronger foundation for spatial reasoning, that helps with geometry later in high school.

If our brains do develop this way, this might be one reason there are less women in computer science and engineering. If they are not doing activities that set up the foundation for the skills that math and science need at the younger age, they might find math and science harder and more frustrating later. This could deter them from these subjects in college.
Jul. 31st, 2008 06:50 am (UTC)
Interesting quote
"while the public world has changed, albeit imperfectly, to accommodate women among the elite, private lives have hardly budged. The real glass ceiling is at home."

Hirshman is right about this; though I find the choice of words somewhat provocative. "glass-ceiling" in my world, implies that you're being held-down by external forces that prevent you from raising past a certain level.

Men still generally have the upper hand in the workplace. However the oposite is true at home. Just as males are to some degree expected to provide for their families, females are expected to dominate family-matters.

So to some degree it's not just a glass-ceiling, but also a question of being willing to give up power. Females cannot be expected to have equal parts of the hard work at home until they are also prepared to give men half the power at home.

Reproductive rights are the strongest example. I'll use Norway here, but I imagine most of it is the same in USA.

If a unmarried woman gets pregnant, the mother alone decides if she wants to have an abortion or not. (makes sense, it's her body afterall!)

But she -also- alone decides if the kid is given up for adoption, or if she wants to raise it herself. If -she- opts to keep it, the man has no choice but to pony up the dough. He has no say whatsoever -- he cannot, for example, say that if -she- doesn't want to raise the child, HE will and she should then pay child-support to him. (in my opinion adoption should only be possible when BOTH parents wish it, if one of them is prepared to raise the child, that should be the end-result.)

Homosexual and heterosexual partnerships are completely legally equal here, the rules for marrying, adopting and so on are identical. With one important difference: A lesbian can get impregnated artificially, whereas using a surrogate mother is illegal. (infact in general sperm-donation is legal and reasonably common whereas egg-donation is illegal)

Furthermore, if a lesbian gets pregnant the natural way, she alone can decide to raise the child together with her female partner. The father is allowed to -pay- for the child offcourse !

If a mother -claims- a certain man is the father of a child, he can be compelled to give a DNA-sample for testing. (by force if nessecary). If, on the reverse, a *male* claims to be the father of a child, the child can NOT be compelled to give a DNA-sample for testing. (and any sample obtained secretly would be inadmissable as evidence)

Not paying child-support is a crime. You can and will ultimately be imprisoned if you don't pay. (and the state guarantees for the money anyway; if a father does not pay, the mother receives the money from the state -- the state then sues the father to recover their cost)

Refusing to actually allow a father to visit his children when a court has ordered that he -does- infact have visitation-rights is, on the other hand, not a crime so the worst that could happen would be a fine. In practice such mothers do not even get fines, because such would unjustly harm also the children (so it's claimed, apparently being barred from even knowing your own father is not "harm" in some peoples vocabulary)

But illegally withholding the children from the MOTHER, say as in keeping the children for a day -longer- than agreed on such a visitation IS a crime -- infact it's kidnapping and the punishment is severe.

The end result is that any female with children are in a position where they can legally essentially blackmail the male. She can walk out tomorrow, taking your shared children with her, and you won't see them again, outside of a few short visits. You'll still be paying for them though.

In a fair world, if a court orders child-support should be paid, and visits should happen; both halves of that order would have equal weight. Violating one half of that would have the same consequences as violating the other half.

There's a lack of balance here that is very very obvious, to all but a very few feminists who aren't actually concerned with equal rights at all, but with a "battle of the sexes" of sorts, where IMHO everyone is a loser.
( 39 comments — Leave a comment )


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