Running the numbers

In the wake of Larry Summers’ provocations, it’s hard not to notice something: people really like talking about innate cognitive differences between men and women. Regardless of what they think about them, it’s an irresistible topic on which to spin grand conclusions from sparse scraps of evidence. The more obvious and important fact, that systematic biases are turning women away from becoming scientists, is more mundane and depressing, not nearly as much fun to debate about.

Here’s a little bit of actual data. (Mentioned by Meghan O’Rourke in Slate; this table from an article by Sue Serjeantson, quoting a paper by Lynne Billard, in turn quoting results from a 1983 study by Paludi & Bauer.) This is the mathematical equivalent of the well-known fact that women musicians are more likely to be hired by orchestras if auditions are blind (pdf). Paludi and Bauer gave the same mathematics paper to various experts and asked for their opinion on its quality. The only difference was the name on the paper: some were told that the author’s first name was “John,” some were told “Joan,” and some were merely given the initial “J.” Here are the ratings the paper was given.

Mean Rating Score (%) of Article

Article Authored By

Article reviewed by

John T. McKay

J.T. McKay

Joan T. McKay









A substantial effect: the paper was rated significantly higher if the reader thought that the author was male. Even women rated the male-authored paper higher! And I’m sure that every one of the subjects in the study would swear that they personally can be completely objective in evaluating mathematical performance, regardless of the sex of the individual.

Study innate differences all you like. But don’t use them as an excuse to hide from reality.

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