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Debating Natural Aptitude for Math and Science: Boys or Girls—Is there a Difference?

by Anita Gurian, PhD

The debate is over, according to a review of over 40 years of research on this question published in the American Psychologist, December 2005. In the article " Sex Differences in Intrinsic Aptitude for Mathematics and Science? A Critical Review," Elizabeth Spelke of Harvard University concludes that there is no evidence to support the claim that men have a greater intrinsic aptitude for math and science—a claim bolstered by statistics which show that:

  • more men than women major in physics and engineering
  • more men than women are on university math, engineering and science faculties.

It has been assumed that these differences exist because women have less talent in math and science and that the differences have a genetic base. According to the author's review of the research on cognitive development in human infants, however, preschool children and students at all levels, the results fail to support this claim. Instead the research provides evidence that mathematical and scientific reasoning develop from a set of biologically based cognitive capacities in both males and females. In other words, Spelke does not agree with a common belief that there is a genetic predisposition for aptitude in math and science. Spelke disputes three aspects of the claim:

  1. Males and females are predisposed from birth to learn about different things. Some research suggests that male infants learn about objects and their mechanical relationships, while females learn about people, emotions and personal relationships. Therefore boys are more apt than girls to develop the knowledge and skills which underly math and science. However, according to Spelke's review of thousands of studies, there is no evidence for a male advantage in perceiving, learning or reasoning about objects, their motions, or their mechanical interactions. Rather, there are more similarities than differences. Male and female infants have common abilities to represent and learn about objects, numbers, language, and space.
  2. Boys have a better command of the specific cognitive systems that are the basis of mathematical reasoning, due to genetic differences. The author states that males and females show equal performance on tasks that tap the core foundations of mathematical thinking. Although older boys and girls show differing cognitive profiles, the differences tend to be small and stem primarily from differing strategy choices. She adds that males and females show equal abilities to learn advanced, college-level mathematics. Insofar as mathematical ability is central to progress in the sciences, males and females seem to be equally capable of learning science.
  3. Male abilities shows a greater spread, or variability, in mathematical ability, and thus more males show extreme mathematical talent. Males therefore predominate in the pool of gifted students who will become future scientists and mathematicians. This claim is based on data of the SAT-M, which underpredicts female performance. If, according to Spelke, students' talents are gauged by their successful mastery of the demanding material of college mathematics majors, one will conclude that men and women have equal aptitude for mathematics not only in the general population but in selected samples of students with high talent.

In her conclusion Spelke notes that historically gender imbalances have been found to be due to social causes and have been eliminated or reversed. She states that studies of cognitive development and its biological base will not explain the preponderance of men on academic faculties of mathematics and science, and concludes "we must look beyond cognitive ability to other aspects of human biology and society for insights into this phenomenon."

On the Other Hand

In a debate entitled "The Science of Gender and Science" between Elizabeth Spelke and Steven Pinker of Harvard University (recorded in the online publication Edge of 5/22/05) Pinker takes issue with some of Spelke's conclusions. According to Pinker, real sex differences have been proven to exist in some cognitive abilities, and disparities are due to biological differences in average temperaments and talents, interacting with socialization and bias. He cites reliable average male/female differences in areas such as life priorities (men preferring status over family), male interest in things rather than people, higher male risk-taking, and better ability in spatial transformations and mathematical reasoning. He states also that Spelke fails to consider the issue of biologically-based differences in motivation, pointing out that men and women differ in their desire for careers in math and science.

In contrast to Pinker's point of view Spelke points out that that research fails to support the claims that sex differences account for disparities in acquisition of core cognitive concepts. It is her belief that the differences are not due to differences in abilities but can be attributed to social forces, such as differences in perceptions of female and male abilities on the part of parents and societal institutions. Gender stereotypes start at birth and extend through adulthood, exerting a powerful influence on the interests and academic paths that people choose. She cites four effects of discrimination and discouragement which have affected female participation in math and science, as follows:

  1. Biased perceptions by fellow scientists weed out talented women.
  2. Unequal opportunities deter some talented women from attempting careers in science.
  3. Biased perceptions starting early in life will deter some girls from studying science.
  4. Gender disparities in science faculties will lead to some students to view higher level science as a man's world.

Is the Debate Over?

The gender gap in some fields of study, although gradually closing, still exists. In terms of college and graduate degrees, fields such as computer and information sciences, physical sciences and science technologies and engineering continue to have a larger proportion of males, but the percentages of females majoring in these areas have risen.

References

Spelke, E. (2005). Sex differences in intrinsic aptitude for mathematics and science? A critical review. American Psychologist. Vol.(5)Number 9, 950-958.

Pinker Vs. Spelke (2005) Edge: The Science of Gender and Science: A Debate. (www.edge.org)

National Center for Education Statistics (2004). Trends in Educational Equity of Girls and Women.