Sex Differences in Science and Math

The latest issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest lays firm foundations for an intelligent debate about a pernicious problem in the history of psychology: the difference between boys’ and girls’ performance at school [link].  But, of course, the underlying issue is older even than psychology as a discipline.

Below, we provide the abstract for the latest contribution to this debate, as well as some select readings (with abstracts) on the history of the problem.

The issue — a single article, introduced by the editor — offers the following:

Amid ongoing public speculation about the reasons for sex differences in careers in science and mathematics, we present a consensus statement that is based on the best available scientific evidence. Sex differences in science and math achievement and ability are smaller for the mid-range of the abilities distribution than they are for those with the highest levels of achievement and ability. Males are more variable on most measures of quantitative and visuospatial ability, which necessarily results in more males at both high- and low-ability extremes; the reasons why males are often more variable remain elusive. Successful careers in math and science require many types of cognitive abilities. Females tend to excel in verbal abilities, with large differences between females and males found when assessments include writing samples. High-level achievement in science and math requires the ability to communicate effectively and comprehend abstract ideas, so the female advantage in writing should be helpful in all academic domains. Males outperform females on most measures of visuospatial abilities, which have been implicated as contributing to sex differences on standardized exams in mathematics and science. An evolutionary account of sex differences in mathematics and science supports the conclusion that, although sex differences in math and science performance have not directly evolved, they could be indirectly related to differences in interests and specific brain and cognitive systems. We review the brain basis for sex differences in science and mathematics, describe consistent effects, and identify numerous possible correlates. Experience alters brain structures and functioning, so causal statements about brain differences and success in math and science are circular. A wide range of sociocultural forces contribute to sex differences in mathematics and science achievement and ability—including the effects of family, neighborhood, peer, and school influences; training and experience; and cultural practices. We conclude that early experience, biological factors, educational policy, and cultural context affect the number of women and men who pursue advanced study in science and math and that these effects add and interact in complex ways. There are no single or simple answers to the complex questions about sex differences in science and mathematics.

By way of response, here are some select readings in the history of gender differences:

  • Martin, B. R. & Irvine, J.  (1982).  Women in science: The astronomical brain drain.  Women’s Studies International Forum, 5(1), 41-68.

Reviews the literature on the position of women in science and reports the results of a study of the long-term employment profiles of doctoral students of radio astronomy. In particular, attention is focused on explaining the divergencies in the subsequent career paths of males and females. Indicators of the “quality” of students’ doctoral work are employed to demonstrate that the relative lack of career success shown by women astronomers is most likely to be the result of social factors concerning their role within the family rather than any inherent lack of ability as a scientist or direct discrimination in employment.

  • Shields, S.  (1975).  Funtionalism, Darwinism, and the psychology of women.  American Psychologist, 30(7), 739-754.

Examines the psychology of women as it was studied from the middle of the 19th century to the 1st 3rd of the 20th century. During that period 3 topics received the most attention: sex differences in brain size and complexity and their implications for cognitive and affective behavior; the hypothesis of greater male variability (a corollary of evolutionary theory) and its social implications; and the expression of maternal instinct. Each topic is examined in relation to evolutionary theory and its influence on the conduct of 19th century science. The antecedents of each topic are traced as is the subsequent redefinition of each within the paradigm of behaviorism. It is proposed that each of these topics functioned as “scientific myth” which justified and explained contemporary cultural values.

  • Walton, M. T., Fineman, R. M., & Walton, P. J.  (1996).  Why can’t a woman be more like a man? A Renaissance perspective on the biological basis for female inferiority.  Women & Health, 24(4), 87-95.

Western biomedical theory supported the idea of human female inferiority. The Aristotelian formulation was: nature intends to produce the perfect male form with external genitalia; the female with internal genitalia is less than perfect and thus a defect of nature. In the Renaissance, peripubertal virilization in females was interpreted as further evidence that females were “defective” males incapable of developing into the more perfect male form. During the Renaissance and beyond, women were destined to be viewed as defective men, and therefore, inferior because the doctrines and observations of science, religion, and philosophy offered no other “reasonable” explanation.

See also:

  • Irvine, J. M.  (1990).  From difference to sameness: Gender ideology in sexual science.  Journal of Sex Research, 27(1), 7-24.

Reviews the last century of sexual science concerning gender similarity and difference. In the 19th century, sexologists focused on the differences between women and men, a perspective typified by researchers like H. Ellis, who considered female sexuality to be weaker, less fulfilling, and more passive than that of the male. Modern sexology since the 1950s when A. C. Kinsey (1953) became known for his empirical work has shifted to the ideology of similarity. Sexual scientists, most notably W. Masters and V. Johnson (1966, 1979), emphasize how alike men and women are in sexual response and functioning. This change in emphasis is related to sociopolitical influences and to the quest by sexual scientists for cultural legitimacy. However, the ideology of similarity raises complex questions about scientific methodology and political considerations. Also, the emphasis on similarity is limited by a denial of social inequities between the sexes.

  • Mageo, J. M. & Stone, L.  (2005).  Screen Images and Concepts of Sexual Agency in Science and Social Science.  Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 6(1), 77-104.

This article contributes to studies of how inequities of power are naturalized in culture through the idea of “screen images,” a form of shared projective thinking. Screen images develop when socioeconomic reality contradicts shared cultural values and thus produces moral anxiety. The screen images we trace are those of the Lady and the Whore in bourgeois Victorian cultures, which we believe represented compromised versions of female sexual agency. Although these images originated in Victorian models of sexual difference, we show that they continue to shape models in 20th-century medicine, primatology, and evolutionary social science. These screen images reveal a historically persistent denial of agentive sexuality in women and have served as a defense through which people have avoided confronting the socioeconomic bases of gender inequality.


About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

4 thoughts on “Sex Differences in Science and Math

  1. Here is the reference to the paper in the issue:

    Halpern, D. F., Benbow, C. P., Geary, D. C., Gur, R. C., Hyde, J. S., & Gernsbacher, M. A. (2007). The Science of Sex Differences in Science and Mathematics. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 8(1), 1–51.

  2. The article offers as a “consensus” position that “males are more variable on most measures of quantitative and visuospatial ability, which necessarily results in more males at both high- and low-ability extremes”? The more things change, the more they stay the same — this was the “consensus” position in in the 1890s! See the debate between Joseph Jastrow and Mary Whiton Calkins over what was then known as the “variability hypothesis” in the “Classics in the History of Psychology Special Collection” on women and psychology, edited by Kathy Milar, at .

    -Chris Green-

  3. The book ‘Why Gender Matters’ has some information about gender-based learning styles, IIRC.

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