Thursday, May 31, 2007

Enough of the Biological Essentialism Arguments!

So it appears that Janet Shibley Hyde and Elizabeth Spelke have laid to rest the argument that men and women have different cogntive abilities due to genetic/biological differences. I imagine their findings will take plenty of time before they trickle down into the consciousness of my students, who still tend to agree with Larry Summers that men have higher aptitudes for math and science. For whatever reason, students and adults, who otherwise try to avoid the study of science, love to justify their sexist claims about the cognitive differences between men and women by saying that it is backed by "genetics" or "biology." If you push them, they generally cannot elucidate how, exactly, the biological differences between men and women lead to cognitive differences. But, no worry, some scientist said it somewhere so it must be true.

Not so.

The research shows not that males and females are – cognitively speaking -- separate but equal, but rather suggests that social and cultural factors influence perceived or actual performance differences. For example, in 1990, Hyde et al. concluded that there is little support for saying boys are better at math, instead revealing complex patterns in math performance that defy easy generalization. The researchers said that to explain why fewer women take college-level math courses and work in math-related occupations, “We must look to other factors, such as internalized belief systems about mathematics, external factors such as sex discrimination in education and in employment, and the mathematics curriculum at the precollege level.”

Where the sexes have differed on tests, researchers believe social context plays a role. Spelke believes that later-developing differences in career choices are due not to differing abilities but rather cultural factors, such as subtle but pervasive gender expectations that really kick in during high school and college.

Gasp! Social context actually plays a role? How surprising when little girls are taught, via popular culture, toys, and alas their parents, that math is too hard.

In a 1999 study, Steven Spencer and colleagues reported that merely telling women that a math test usually shows gender differences hurt their performance. This phenomenon of “stereotype threat” occurs when people believe they will be evaluated based on societal stereotypes about their particular group. In the study, the researchers gave a math test to men and women after telling half the women that the test had shown gender differences, and telling the rest that it found none. Women who expected gender differences did significantly worse than men. Those who were told there was no gender disparity performed equally to men. What's more, the experiment was conducted with women who were top performers in math.

Because “stereotype threat” affected women even when the researchers said the test showed no gender differences – still flagging the possibility -- Spencer et al. believe that people may be sensitized even when a stereotype is mentioned in a benign context.

And, the hopes and dreams of the reasearchers--what should we do with these findings?

If males and females are truly understood to be very much the same, things might change in schools, colleges and universities, industry and the workplace in general. As Hyde and her colleagues noted in 1990, “Where gender differences do exist, they are in critical areas. Problem solving is critical for success in many mathematics-related fields, such as engineering and physics.” They believe that well before high school, children should be taught essential problem-solving skills in conjunction with computation. They also refer to boys having more access to problem-solving experiences outside math class. The researchers also point to the quantitative portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), which may tap problem-solving skills that favor boys; resulting scores are used in college admissions and scholarship decisions. Hyde is concerned about the costs of scientifically unsound gender stereotyping to individuals and to society as a whole.