The Cross-Border Biotech Blog

Biotechnology, Health and Business in Canada, the United States and Worldwide

Women in Math and Technology: Biological Equals

SexEqualityTwo stories over the last couple of days, one statistical, one anecdotal, seem worth mentioning as proof of not only how wrong, but how insidiously harmful, Larry Summers’ 2005 comments about women in math were.

Let’s start (appropriately enough) with the statistics. A PNAS paper this week by Janet Hyde and Janet Mertz in Madison, Wisconsin thoroughly debunks the Summers hypothesis. They looked at international data on women in math: those who score above the 95th or 99th percentile and those who are “profoundly gifted” mathematicians.

Their insight was that if achievement at a high level was biologically determined, the gender gap would be universal. In fact, they found that in both top categories, some groups in some jurisdictions show no male-female difference in achievement. Moreover, the presence of a gap “correlates with several measures of gender inequality,” indicating that differential achievement “is largely an artifact of changeable sociocultural factors.”

As Malcolm Gladwell says in “Outliers“:

“It is not the brightest who succeed … Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities — and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”

The second story this week highlights Dame Wendy Hall, an Outlier herself who is a Professor of Computer Science in the UK.  How many more women like Dame Hall would we would have in academia and business if Summers and others had given them opportunities at key moments?

What Summers exemplified, and what Gladwell, Hyde and Mertz prove, is that we are doing ourselves out of not just brilliant mathematicians, but brilliant CFOs, principal investigators and other leaders who sit firmly at the top of the natural talent pool but are discouraged, or denied opportunities to exploit their skills.  What a waste.

Update: an interesting powerpoint deck shows life sciences in general, and biotechs in particular, doing better than most; but still far from perfect.

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One response to “Women in Math and Technology: Biological Equals

  1. ZW August 18, 2009 at 7:42 pm

    And I just came across the following discussion.

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