Jennifer Roback Morse

All societies must have their myths and superstitions, I suppose. Society enforces belief in the Myth, even though intelligent people know it isn’t true. All for the greater social good, naturally. See if you can guess which modern myth I am thinking of.

Larry Summers famously lost his job for denying it. MIT professor Nancy Hopkins practically swooned at the mere mention of a challenge to this Myth. And now, Bush administration officials are contemplating new attempts to enforce the Myth.

The Myth of course, is that men and women have identical aptitudes for math and science, and the gender disparities in these fields reflect discrimination. The modern superstition is that if the government could just have enough enforcement power in enough different areas, we could wipe out the differences in male and female participation in math and hard sciences. The further superstition is that eliminating these disparities would improve the quality of women’s lives.

Stephanie Monroe, the Assistant Education Secretary for Civil Rights, has announced that her office is investigating colleges and universities that have too few women in math and sciences. These investigations determine whether schools are in compliance with Title IX, which guarantees gender equality in higher education. (You remember Title IX: the law responsible for rooting out illegal men’s wrestling programs.) Conservative bloggers got wind of Monroe’s comments and created a brief but intense uproar. The White House issued a retraction.

But this back-pedaling doesn’t change the basic fact: Title IX regulations are still lying in wait for a more sympathetic administration. The federal government may, if it chooses, interpret Title IX to require equal numbers of participants in university math and science departments. Politicians are not ready to deny the Myth that these disparities indicate discrimination against women.

Cambridge professor of Psychology and Psychiatrist Simon Baron-Cohen reports on numerous studies that have found differences in skill levels between men and women. In his book, The Essential Difference: the Truth about the Male and Female Brain, Dr. Baron-Cohen explains that sex differences in math have been documented in children as young as seven years old. And when you look at the different aspects of math, an even more interesting fact emerges. There is no difference in the ability to calculate, or the "primary mathematical abilities." The difference shows up in the "secondary abilities," such as geometry, spatial relationships and problem-solving.


Jennifer Roback Morse

Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D., is the author of Smart Sex: Finding Life-long Love In A Hook-up World. She blogs at jennifer-roback-morse.blogspot.com

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