It’s a well-known fact that boys underachieve. Every statistic tells us so. But ever since writing this post I’ve been suspicious of gender as the root cause for differences in achievement. Yes, girls outperform boys but is this due to fundamental differences in gender? Or is it more to do with expectations, perception and bias? Or is it, perhaps, an illusion? Might differences in performance be due to other, less beguiling causes?

There’s no doubt that boys and girls are biologically different. But, as Gertrude Stein put it, “A difference to be a difference must make a difference.” Do the very obvious biological differences between the sexes actually make a difference to their academic performance?

This debate between two eminent Harvard professors of psychology, Steven Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke on the science of gender and science is fascinating:

But it’s also very long and I imagine few readers will set aside the two hours needed to appreciate their arguments. Very briefly, Pinker argues that the reason that women are under-represented in the physical sciences and mathematics is, at least in part, due to biological differences whereas Spelke argues that these differences make little difference and the under-representation is due to social factors such as biased perceptions and unequal opportunities.

What’s particularly interesting is that both cite much of the same evidence and research to support their arguments. The facts are not really in doubt, the debate comes down to a matter of interpretation.

Apparently for most human characteristics, while the mean scores are identical for men and women, there are more men at the extremes. Take this example of the normal distribution curves of male and female IQ scores.

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There is more variability between the data set of all men than in the data set of all women. to put it another way, if there are more male geniuses there are also more male idiots. Might the fact there are more male professors of mathematics and physics be because there are simply more very clever men? Another reason might be due to men and women’s different priorities. Pinker suggests that men are, on average, more likely to prioritise status at the expense of family. Men seem also to have a preference for things over people. If community service is at one end of a career continuum then physics or engineering would be a the opposite end. Not only that, men are statistically more likely to take risks, work longer hours and think mathematically.

Spelke, rightly, points out that the differences Pinker cites are not deficiencies and that there’s a mismatch between reality and expectations. She shows various examples of the effects of gender labelling such as experiments where participants are told that a baby is either male or female, or where participants are told CVs are from male or female applicants and then asked to evaluate either the child’s behaviour or the merits of the CV. She says that where performance is unambiguous, everyone agrees. If a child’s reaction is clear, there is no dispute about it, but where interpretation is called for, female children are more likely to be viewed as fearful, and sweet whereas males are more likely to be labelled angry or strong. In the case of CVs, star candidates will be feted no matter their gender, but in the case of more mediocre candidates, male candidates’ track records are interpreted as more productive and experienced and are far more likely to be offered jobs.

This is covert rather than overt sexism. Parents do not necessarily deliberately treat girls and boys differently, but of course they treat angry or fearful children differently. Employers may genuinely want to bridge the gender gap but it’s more reasonable to prefer more experienced and productive candidates. I’m as guilty of this as anyone as I explored in this post. It’s certainly not the case that I deliberately favour male contributors, but it may well be the case that I judge the contributions of men and women differently. It’s impossible, Spelke says, to judge intrinsic aptitudes while society’s perceptions are so biased.

Both scientists make excellent points, both agree that girls get better grades at school in all subjects and both concur that biased perceptions and unequal opportunities are pernicious, but where Pinker says gender differences make a difference, Spelke says they do not.

As a father of daughters, I worry about all this. Despite the likelihood that they will outperform their male peers at school, statistically, there’s little doubt they’ll struggle more to make their mark on society. If this is, in part, due to real biological differences, does that make matters better or worse? When surveyed, women’s priorities include:

  • Being able to work part time for a limited period
  • Living close to family and other relatives
  • Having a meaningful spiritual life
  • Having friendships.

Men’s priorities are:

  • Having lots of money
  • Inventing or creating something of worth
  • A fulfilling, full-time career
  • Being successful.

Does it really matter to what extent these priorities are socially constructed? I have no idea, but it’s clear which of these sets of priorities is more likely to help my daughters forge ahead in the world of work. Is it also clear which list is more likely to make them happy? I recognise myself in the second list and feel at least a little ashamed.

Of course, women deserve the opportunity to be as successful as men in any field in which they wish to compete. Feminist activist, Gloria Steinem said, “There are really not many jobs that actually require a penis or a vagina, and all other occupations should be open to everyone.” She’s right. But we ought also to remember that fairness is not sameness. Obviously women should be allowed to judge their successes differently, but maybe society ought to reward rather than punish women for these differences?

I had intended  to start with this quote from self-proclaimed ‘dissident’ feminist Camille Paglia, but on reflection decided it might work a lot better at the end:

In the theory of gender I began from zero. There is no masculine power or privilege I did not covet. But slowly, step by step, decade by decade, I was forced to acknowledge that even a woman of abnormal will cannot escape her hormonal identity.

Vive la différance!