The president of Harvard University is the last person you'd expect to venture politically incorrect opinions on gender and intelligence, but then Lawrence H. Summers is no ordinary Ivy League president. Last week, at a conference organized by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), Summers questioned whether discrimination is entirely responsible for the dearth of female professors in science and engineering at America's elite universities. According to some participants at the conference, Summers suggested that innate differences in math and science aptitude between men and women might be partly responsible. The remarks caused one participant, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) biologist Nancy Hopkins, to walk out, later telling reporters that she would have "either blacked out or thrown up" if she had remained to listen to Summers. So much for rigorous intellectual debate.
But as uncomfortable as it might make feminists, the empirical evidence points to small but important differences in scientific and mathematical abilities between men and women. On average, women perform better on verbal tests, while men demonstrate greater visual-spatial capabilities, and these differences are more striking at both the lower and upper extremes of intellectual ability. Boys outnumber girls in remedial reading classes -- by large ratios, in most studies -- but they are even more likely to outnumber girls among the most gifted in math and science. In one study of gifted pre-adolescent students conducted by Johns Hopkins University, boys outperformed girls among the top scoring students on math by 13-to-1.
For years, feminists have tried to explain away these achievement differences by suggesting that girls are not encouraged properly to pursue math and science. Lately, some have even started blaming the way in which these subjects are taught: too much emphasis on competition and being "right," too little on collaborative learning and nurturing self-esteem. But socialization alone can't explain the wide differences in ability, especially at the highest levels of mathematical and scientific achievement. Summers was really just articulating what most researchers in this area believe -- that biology plays a bigger role in explaining these differences than socialization does.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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