[Paleopsych] NYT: For Some Girls, the Problem With Math Is That They're Good at It

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Tue Feb 1 16:07:02 UTC 2005

The New York Times > Science > Essay: For Some Girls,
the Problem With Math Is That They're Good at It


For Some Girls, the Problem With Math Is That They're Good at It


    A few years ago, I told Donald Kennedy, editor of the journal Science,
    that I wanted to write an essay for his publication. It would say,
    "Anyone who thinks that sexism is no longer a problem in science has
    never been the first woman science editor of The New York Times."

    I never wrote the essay. But the continuing furor over Dr. Lawrence H.
    Summers's remarks on women and science reminds me why I thought of it.

    For those who missed it, Dr. Summers, the president of Harvard, told a
    conference last month on women and science that people worried about
    the relative dearth of women in the upper ranks of science should
    consider the possibility that women simply cannot hack it, that their
    genes or the wiring of their brains somehow leave them less fit than
    men for math, and therefore for science.

    Dr. Summers has since said clearly that he does not believe that girls
    are intellectually less able than boys. But maybe his original
    suggestion was right. If we ever figure out exactly what goes on
    inside the brain, or how our genes shape our abilities, we may find
    out that men and women do indeed differ in fundamental ways.

    But there are other possibilities we should consider first. One of
    them is the damage done by the idea that there is something wrong
    about a girl or woman who is really good at math.

    I first encountered this thinking as a seventh grader who was scarred
    for life when my class in an experimental state school for brainiacs
    was given a mathematics aptitude test. The results were posted and
    everyone found out I had scored several years ahead of the next
    brightest kid. A girl really good in math! What a freak! I resolved
    then and there on a career in journalism.

    I encountered the attitude again shortly after I became science
    editor, taking up a position I was to hold from 1997 to 2003. I went
    to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement
    of Science, a convention that attracts thousands of researchers and
    teachers. My name tag listed my new position, and the scientists at
    the meeting all seemed to have the same reaction when they read it:
    "You're the new science editor of The New York Times!?"

    At first I was deluded enough to think they meant I was much too
    delightful a person for such a heavy-duty job. In fact, they were
    shocked it had been given to a woman.

    This point was driven home a few weeks later when, at a dinner for
    scientific eminences, a colleague introduced me to one of the nation's
    leading neuroscientists. "Oh yes," the scientist murmured, as he
    scanned the room clearly ignoring me. "Who is the new science editor
    of The New York Times, that twerpy little girl in short skirts?"

    Dumbfounded, I replied, "That would be me."

    A few weeks after that I was in another group of scientific eminences,
    this one at a luncheon at the Waldorf. The spokeswoman for the group
    that organized the event introduced me to one of the group's most
    eminent guests, a leading figure in American science policy.

    "Oh," he said kindly but abstractedly, "you work for The New York
    Times. How nice." The spokeswoman explained, again, that I was the
    newspaper's science editor. "An editor," he said. "How nice." The
    woman explained again, but again he could not take it in. "Oh,
    science," he said, "How nice." At this point the spokeswoman lost
    patience. She grabbed the honored guest by both shoulders, put her
    face a few inches away from his and shouted at him - "She's it!"

    Not long after, I answered the office telephone, and the caller, a
    (male) scientist, asked to speak to several of my colleagues, all male
    and all out. "May I help you?" I inquired. "No, no, no," he replied.
    "I don't want to talk to you, I want to talk to someone important!"

    Even at the time, I could laugh at these experiences. After all, I was
    a grown-up person who could take care of herself. (I informed the
    caller that all the men he wanted to talk to worked for me, and then I
    hung up. As for Dr. Twerpy, he should know that he was not the first
    man to refer to me professionally as "that little girl." I reported on
    the doings of the other one until he was indicted.)

    But the memories of the seventh grader are still not funny. Neither is
    it amusing to reflect on what happened to a college friend who was the
    only student in her section to pass linear algebra, the course the
    math department typically used to separate the sheep from the
    mathematical goats. Talk about stigma! She changed her major to
    American civilization.

    Another friend, graduating as a math major, was advised not to bother
    applying for a graduate research assistantship because they were not
    given to women. She eventually earned a doctorate in math, but one of
    her early forays into the job market ended abruptly when she was told
    she should stay home with her husband rather than seek employment out
    of town.

    Experiences like hers - the outright, out-loud dashing of a promising
    mathematician's hopes simply because of her sex - are no longer the
    norm. At least I hope not. But they are enough, by themselves, to tell
    us why there are relatively few women in the upper ranks of science
    and mathematics today.

    Meanwhile, as researchers have abundantly documented, women continue
    to suffer little slights and little disadvantages, everything from
    ridicule in high school to problems with child care, to a much greater
    degree than their male cohorts. After 10 or 15 years, these little
    things can add up to real roadblocks.

    So if I wanted to address the relative lack of women in the upper
    reaches of science, here is where I would start. By the time these
    problems are eliminated, maybe we'll know what really goes on inside
    the brain and inside the chromosomes. Then it will be time to wonder
    if women are inherently less fit for math and science.

More information about the paleopsych mailing list