Friday, December 02, 2005

Gender and Giftedness

Charles Murray wades into the waters Harvard president Larry Summers stirred last spring with a fascinating piece on the American Enterprise Institute’s website called Where are the Female Einsteins?

His thesis: For evolutionary reasons, men’s brains developed neurological pathways that elevate their abstract spatial reasoning capacities, relative to women. Consequently, men are more represented on the extreme ends of the spectrum in abstract fields. Math is abstract, hence there are more eminent male mathematicians. Musical composition is more abstract, hence there are more imminent male composers. Literature, on the other hand, is less abstract, and so even in times much more patriarchal than our own, women writers have been decently represented among important authors of the day.

He also hints at social reasons for the lack of women at the top of many fields, of course. As he says, “To put it in a way that most readers with children will recognize, a father can go to work and forget about his children for the whole day. Hardly any mother can do this, no matter how good her day-care arrangement or full-time nanny may be. My point is not that women must choose between a career and children, but that accomplishment at the extremes commonly comes from a single-minded focus that leaves no room for anything but the task at hand.”

I like much of Murray’s writing. It’s usually thought-provoking. But this is rather a dreary explanation. For starters, writing fiction is quite abstract. You have to imagine a world that doesn’t exist; why this involves such different abilities than imagining a sonata that doesn’t exist isn’t clear. And second, Murray is basically saying that extremely accomplished men must, by definition, be lousy fathers.

But there’s another way of looking at gifted girls’ choices that doesn’t even go into the abstraction or motherhood bit.

Gifted girls are finally pretty much free these days, encouraged even, to go into mathematical and scientific fields if they so desire. And they are. But the funny thing is, they’re going into “biophysics” over physics, biostatistics over statistics, etc.

Gifted girls are more likely to be talented in many areas than “spiky” in one. They also tend to rank “helping people” and being around other people as high on their priority lists. As these girls become women, they seek careers that use all their gifts. Since the cultural image we have of an abstract mathematician is a man sitting by himself in a turret dreaming up stuff that is of no use to humanity, it’s no wonder that highly gifted girls prefer to choose other jobs. Biophysics sounds like it’s the human side of physics, and may involve more than just mathematical talent.

This is a personal interest of mine… I scored an 800 on the SAT math section in 8th grade, and thought maybe I should be a mathematician. But it later occurred to me that while I liked math, I always felt if I chose that as a career I’d be missing out on something. I preferred writing – especially since it allowed me to dabble in many interests (writing about science, medicine, engineering and math is thrilling to me). That has little to do with my spatial reasoning abilities or any plans for future children. I just like the varied life.


elizabeth said...

Don't you mean "eminent" rather than "Imminent"?
I agree that many girls who are talented in math gravitate instead toward their equal talents in other areas. Yet there is evidence that girls tend to be weaker in spatial visualization and reasoning skills, and that these skills are correlated with performance on some kinds of tests of higher math. What I don't know is whether this difference holds for girls and boys at the upper levels of performance. There are some who believe the difference can be attributed in part to boys' greater experience with tools and building things (an advantage that may be decreasing as boys and others spend more time in the 2-dimensional graphic world of computers and less in the 3-dimensional world of actual tinkering). How much spatial reasoning can be taught and whether such training makes a difference in higheer math performance have not been well studied.

Laura Vanderkam said...

Yep, I did. Thanks for catching me. That's trouble!

MrsPeel said...

I must admit I've been grinning ever since Larry Summers made those ill thought out remarks because I have a YS daughter that disproves everything he said. He's become quite a joke in our local circle of folks who know her.

katerina said...

Yet there is evidence that girls tend to be weaker in spatial visualization and reasoning skills

I'm not sure that this is really such a given. In fact, I recall reading an article that came out that claimed that the difference in girls' spatial visualization and boys' was actually relatively slight, and less than the difference between children whose abilities were "trained" by several months playing Tetris versus those not so "trained." In the same article they described how in Iceland girls routinely do better in math and science than boys do -- indeed, to such an extent that all-boy academies were tried to help the boys catch up. Alas, the boys did not do well without the civilizing influence of girls and the academies were disbanded due to poor behavior in class.

I think that the gender differences mentioned above about preferring biological sciences over the "hard" sciences and the fact that women have culturally not been trained to be competitive academically in the way that men have are actually more important issues. Again, like spatial visualization, there may be some inborn differences, but the question is whether these differences are significant on their own or only after they have been magnified by cultural reenforcement.