Gender Differences and Performance in Science by C. Muller et al., Science 2005

Gender Differences and Performance in Science by C. Muller et al., Science 2005
Science, Vol 307, Issue 5712, 1043 , 18 February 2005

On 14 Jan., Harvard University President Lawrence Summers, speaking at a meeting of the National Bureau of Economic Research, suggested that since fewer girls than boys have top scores on science and math tests in high school, genetic, rather than social, differences may explain why so few women are successful in these fields (“Summers’s comments draw attention to gender, racial gaps,” News of the Week, A. Lawler, 28 Jan., p. 492).

Well-accepted, pathbreaking research on learning [for example, (1, 2)] shows that expectations heavily influence performance, particularly on tests. If society, institutions, teachers, and leaders like President Summers expect (overtly or subconsciously) that girls and women will not perform as well as boys and men, there is a good chance many will indeed not perform as well. At the same time, there is little evidence that those scoring at the very top of the range in standardized tests are likely to have more successful careers in the sciences. Too many other factors are involved. Finally, well-documented evidence demonstrates that women’s efforts and achievements are not valued, recognized, and rewarded to the same extent as those of their male counterparts (3).As leaders in science, engineering, and education, we are concerned by the suggestion that the status quo for women in science and engineering may be natural, inevitable, and unrelated to social factors. Counterexamples to this suggestion are drawn from the fields of law and medicine. In 1970, women represented just 5% of law school students and 8% of medical school students (4). These low percentages have increased substantially in response to social changes and concerted institutional and individual effort and are now about 50% in each case. Obviously, the low rates of participation in 1970 were indicative of social, and not genetic, barriers to success.We must continue to address the multitude of small and subtle ways in which people of all kinds are discouraged from pursuing interest in scientific and technical fields. Society benefits most when we take full advantage of the scientific and technical talent among us. It is time to create a broader awareness of those proven and effective means, including institutional policies and practices, that enable women and other underrepresented groups to step beyond the historical barriers in science and engineering.

J. Bransford et al., How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition (National Academies Press, Washington, DC, ed. 1, 2000). C. M. Steele, Atlantic Monthly 284 (no. 2), 44 (Aug. 1999).

V. Valian, Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1999). Trends in Educational Equity of Girls and Women: 2004 (National Center for Education Statistics, Washington, DC, 2004) (available at ).


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