Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Girls Sweep Seimens Competition

This year, young women won both the individual and team divisions in the annual Siemens Competition. This prestigious high school science competition awards scholarships to young people who undertake compelling research. Isha Himani Jain of Bethlahem, PA, won the individual grand prize for her research on bone growth. Janelle Schlossberger and Amanda Marinoff of Plainview, NY, won the team competition for their research on tuberculosis. You can read more about the competition here.

It's always good to read about young people doing amazing things in science, period. But I found the news about the female sweep of the top awards particularly heartening, given the ongoing controversy about women's achievements in science.

A few years ago, former Harvard President Larry Summers made headlines with his statement that women were unlikely to be proportionally represented in the "most prestigious jobs" in math and science in the near future for three key reasons. First, Summers claimed that all prestigious jobs require complete devotion during one's younger years, and until women are willing to put in the hours (to the exclusion of all else) they won't gain tenure at the same rates, publish at the same rates, etc. Second, women may not be as well represented on the extremes of mathematical intelligence. This doesn't mean any one given woman is worse at math than any given man. But perhaps on the margins there's a difference which then results in low representation at the top universities. And finally, there may be discrimination. But he made very clear that he thought the first two were bigger factors than the latter.

There is definitely a problem in academia and elsewhere with the perception that getting anywhere in math and science requires devoting oneself, monk-like, to the lab. Many corporations are plagued by this same idea that people who have outside interests aren't "serious." Both men and women have outside interests. But women are more likely to put a premium on having balanced lives. Larry Summers seemed to think this inevitably meant women wouldn't be well-represented at the top. Personally, I think the institutions will change. After all, we have a female Speaker of the House who started her political career after her kids grew up. But anyway...

What the Siemens competition results are doing is putting the nail in the coffin on Summers' second point. When young men and women are given equal opportunities, and are equally encouraged to excel in scientific pursuits, young women are just as likely to achieve great results.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I do not believe Summers second point is in any way countered by the fact that girls have swept the Seimens competition. If it is true that women are not as well represented on the extremes of mathematical intelligence, that doesn't imply that they will never sweep such a competition. It simply decreases the likelihood that it will happen.

I have tried to research this issue myself and what I have found seems to be adequately summed up in this quote from Wikipedia:

"Most studies show no significant difference in the average IQ for men and women. However, on average men perform better on tests of spatial and mathematical ability, while women perform better on tests of verbal ability and memory. Also, men's IQ has greater variance, that is, there are more men than women in the very high and very low IQ groups, with women's scores more concentrated around the average."

Should it be controversial that men may have an advantage in math while it passes, unremarked on, that women may have the advantage in other areas of mental acuity? We often lament the lack of interest in cognitive achievement while physical prowess earns admiration and cold, hard cash. Let's not then avoid the obvious comparison. Women and men compete separately at all levels of sports because of their differences and it happens without a second thought. Should it be so offensive that there might be differences mentally? (Do not think that I am implying we should have gender-based tracks for mental development. I see absolutely no reason for that.)

I don't know for sure whether these differences exist. I don't think it's particularly important either. What's important is that those who have the ability should be given encouragement and opportunities commiserate with those abilities.

Finally, given that gifted discussions often revolve around this fact that abilities are not uniform, I am surprised you did not include the phrase "...of equal ability..." in your last sentence. That is something with which I wholeheartedly agree.

Joseph Richardson