Differences in Culture, Not in Brains

Here’s a headline I saw recently on an article in The New York Times online:

Girls Lead in Science Exam, but Not in the United States

Every three years, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development gives a science test to 15-year-olds worldwide. And on the 2009 test — data from the 2012 test is still being analyzed — girls did a little better than boys on the test in most countries.

But in the United States, boys did better than girls.

In general, girls did better on the test in Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Russia. Boys did better in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Western Europe, and Central and South America.

In most cases, the differences aren’t huge, and in the place where the scores were the best in the world — Shanghai, China — the girls were just a hair better than the boys.

I’ve looked at the charts with the article several times now, but I keep coming to the same conclusion:

There’s no inborn difference between men and women when it comes to science.

Despite all the efforts at getting rid of sex discrimination in the U.S. — opening the doors to women in combat is the latest step forward — we’ve still had to listen to everyone from prominent economists and university presidents who should know better (why, yes, I am talking about Larry Summers) to authors of a slew of pop science books proclaim huge differences in the male and female brain, especially when it comes to science.

Responsible science shows that most of those differences don’t exist. I wrote about this at length for the Cascadia Subduction Zone a couple of years back (click on Vol. 1, Number 4, to open the PDF and read the piece). But for some reason, a lot of people are still highly invested in promoting those imaginary differences.

These test results indicate that the differences are cultural. Despite our supposed commitment to equality in the U.S., our society still promotes a lot of differences between the sexes. The idea that men are better at science, while women are better at verbal skills, is probably the one that gets the strongest endorsement. You hear something often enough, you’re likely to believe it.

There have been a lot of studies on “stereotype threat” lately. That’s the idea that if people are reminded that they’re part of a group that’s supposed to be bad at something, they’ll do worse on a test than if no one points it out. Apparently, an act as simple as marking a box for male or female or checking a racial category will do it.

After all, we all know what we’re supposed to be good at.

Since some of the places where girls did well are not known for enlightened ideas about women, I can only speculate that, in those countries, nobody tells girls who are in school that they’re not supposed to be smart at science.

I’m sure people will come up with a lot of contorted reasons for why these test results don’t show that girls and boys can both succeed at science. People will probably speculate that in some of the Middle Eastern countries, fewer girls are in school, and trot out the idea that Asians in general are better at science than westerners (which doesn’t exactly explain why Japanese girls are better at it than Japanese boys). Neither of those theories explains why Finns do so well and why Finnish girls do better than Finnish boys, but I’m sure someone will have an theory about why Finns are different.

But the simple answer — and the simple answer is often the most accurate — is that there’s not an inherent difference between girls and boys when it comes to science.

There are, of course, major differences among individuals in science, in verbal skills, in math, in athletic talent, in musical ability, and just about anything else you can name. They just don’t break down neatly along gender lines.

It’s time to stop putting barriers in the way of women who want to go into science. Cultures can change and it’s time we changed this one.



Differences in Culture, Not in Brains — 6 Comments

  1. Nancy, love the post, but what are the barriers that you are referring to? I know you’ve discussed this before, but I’d like to hear it again.


    • Sue, I think the best discussion of these issues is still that of Anna Fels in her book Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives. She says women have ambition and make the effort to master challenging things, but unless they get recognition for their efforts, they may not continue. And according to her, recognition is something men are much more likely to get than women, particularly in the sciences. Here’s a review I did years back.

      Everyone should read this book. It’s still in print, even though it was published in 2005. It’s the best discussion of the subtle barriers out there that anyone has done.

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