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John Simkin

Why Women are Poor at Science

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Report in today's Guardian:

The president of Harvard University has provoked a furore by arguing that men outperform women in maths and sciences because of biological difference, and discrimination is no longer a career barrier for female academics.

Lawrence Summers, a career economist who served as treasury secretary under President Clinton, has a reputation for outspokenness. His tenure at Harvard has been marked by clashes with African-American staff and leftwing intellectuals, and complaints about a fall in the hiring of women.

He made his remarks at a private conference on the position of women and minorities in science and engineering, hosted by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

In a lengthy address delivered without notes, Dr Summers offered three explanations for the shortage of women in senior posts in science and engineering, starting with their reluctance to work long hours because of childcare responsibilities.

He went on to argue that boys outperform girls on high school science and maths scores because of genetic difference. "Research in behavioural genetics is showing that things people previously attributed to socialisation weren't due to socialisation after all," he told the Boston Globe yesterday.

As an example, Dr Summers told the conference about giving his daughter two trucks. She treated them like dolls, and named them mummy and daddy trucks, he said.

Dr Summers also played down the impact of sex bias in appointments to academic institutions.

He said: "The real issue is the overall size of the pool, and it's less clear how much the size of the pool was held down by discrimination."

At least half of his audience comprised women, several said they found the remarks offensive and one walked out.

"It was really shocking to hear the president of Harvard make statements like that," said Denice Denton, who is about to become president of the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Others said Dr Summers's comments were depressingly familiar. "I have heard men make comments like this my entire life and quite honestly if I had listened to them I would never have done anything," said Donna Nelson, a chemistry professor at the University of Oklahoma.

A Harvard spokeswoman declined to comment yesterday, or to release the transcript of Dr Summers's remarks. Richard Freeman, who invited the Harvard president to speak at the conference, said Dr Summers's comments were intended to provoke debate, and some women over-reacted.

"Some people took offence because they were very sensitive," said Dr Freeman, an economist at Harvard and the London School of Economics. "It does not seem to me insane to think that men and women have biological differences."

During Dr Summers's presidency, the number of tenured jobs offered to women has fallen from 36% to 13%. Last year, only four of 32 tenured job openings were offered to women.

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There are, of course, biological differences between men and women. Furthermore, it is true that genes have a stronger role to play in our behavior than we'd like to acknowledge.

However, from my classroom experience, I would have to say that if performance in science and math is genetically influenced, then women are genetically better at it. Women are consistently at the top of my classes. That doesn't seem to translate into post-graduate work, and I suspect the reasons are much more social than genetic. Relatively few of my great women students continue in graduate studies - and I think they're probably "discouraged" from doing so by a variety of social factors.

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Mike Toliver wrote:

Women are consistently at the top of my classes

Hello Mike

I'm Leslie Simonfalvi, director of the International Teacher Training & Development College in Budapest, Hungary.

We teach English as a Foreign / Second Language, as well as different subjects in English.

Girls / women are consistently at the top of my classes, too, and the 'only thing' they need for that is a different kind of explanation all the way through.

To examplify what I mean please find pasted here the links to the related blogs we use as optional extras after a similar kind of verbal explanation in a speech-class.

http://ilsgroup.blogspot.com/

http://ilsgroup2.blogspot.com/

http://ilsgroup3.blogspot.com/

Best regards

Leslie

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Girls / women are consistently at the top of my classes, too, and the 'only thing' they need for that is a different kind of explanation all the way through.

Chemistry in my school has been fortunate in having equal proportions of boys and girls post 16 and performance in examinations have not been dominated by one sex. I agree that styles of learning are different and this requires a different approach but is this difference due to genetic differences?

We are aware that students learn in different ways. Is it an artificial divide to suggest that these different learning styles are sex based?

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