The superstition of equality

Posted: Apr 24, 2006 12:05 AM

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.

For instance, boys tend to perform better than girls at a test called the Mental Rotation Test. The examiner shows someone two shapes and asks whether they are mirror images of each other. This ability to visualize a shape even when rotated in space helps in a whole variety of other skills, including building things from plans, interpreting schematic drawings, tying knots or reading maps.

I got a personal demonstration of this fact in 2003, right around the time I first encountered Dr. Baron-Cohen’s book. I was looking at an architectural drawing of our neighborhood, illustrating a plan-view of the streets and the layouts of the houses. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. I was turning it all around, trying to get myself oriented. My eleven year old foster son peeked over my shoulder at the map, which was now upside down. Mind you, this particular boy was not an exceptional genius. He was an ordinary boy, who as a matter of fact, had been functionally illiterate when he moved into our family. He immediately pointed to one spot on the map and said, "Look, Mrs. Morse: that’s Wyatt’s house."

He was right. The little stinker.

I have a doctorate in economics, hardly a hard science, but certainly the hardest of the social sciences. The first requirement of science is to respect the facts. I have to recognize that statistical disparities do exist between men and women’s math and science abilities and aptitudes. It is no threat to my own self-esteem, or denial of my analytical capacity, to say so.

I was attracted to economics because I loved the crisp logic of the discipline. But after I had my doctorate, I found I was more attracted to the humanistic than the statistical side of the discipline. I’d rather spend my days thinking about "what it all means," than staring at tables of numbers. (Although, I have to admit, there are still graphs and tables that can make my heart beat fast.) I was happier when I admitted my own preferences. It was a relief when I quit trying to "win one for the girls’ team," by proving I could compete with the guys. It was a statement of self-confidence when I finally decided I no longer needed to prove anything.

We can tie ourselves in knots trying to pretend we don’t know that men and women have different preferences and abilities. We’ll just make ourselves miserable. We can hamstring math and science departments, in an effort to jam them into our ideology of gender equality. Denying scientific fact is too high a price to pay to get more women into science.

The "gender stereo-types" we have been taught to disdain actually have some foundation in fact. Most of us know this from experience. Scientists know it from research. It is time for us to speak out, before some political hack declares an Equality Jihad on math and science departments.

We don’t can’t afford to keep paying lip service to the Myth of gender equality.

Editor's Note: Jennifer Roback Morse will debate NARAL’s Cristina Page this week on the impact of contraception on society.  Tune in at

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