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Another Take on the Gender Wars

Can one honestly imagine a construction crew, working on a mammoth heavy-duty project like this one, that would consist of, say, female Indian chiefs and politicians, members of the “community” that the University of Toronto, with admirable thoroughness, designates as LGBTTIQQ2SA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer/Questioning, 2 Spirited, Allies), and the usual covey of  academic feminists? Every member of the current crew is of the male persuasion, not because women and certain minorities have been deliberately excluded by the patriarchy, but because the task at hand requires both a degree of conspicuous brawn and the mathematical and engineering expertise for which, on the whole, the male mind appears to be better suited. A plethora of reports, such as Statistics Canada, show that the proportion of female to male students enrolled in university math, engineering and architecture programs is far lower relative to the ratio of women to men in the humanities and some of the professions, such as health sciences and law, where women tend to outnumber their male counterparts, often by a hefty margin.

Larry Summers, former president of Harvard University, got himself into considerable hot water and effectively lost his job for suggesting that the paucity of women in some of the scientific disciplines could be accounted for by innate differences in mathematical ability between the sexes. Common experience and statistical distributions suggest that Summers was on to something, as a 2009 study by University of Wisconsin psychologist Janet Hyde strongly indicates. Men and women are obviously capable of performing many of the same tasks and are equally capable at innumerable trade, craft and professional enterprises, clustering around the mean and populating, at the very least, the first standard deviation of any bell curve chart measuring learning aptitudes.

But at the fringes of the second standard deviation and beyond, statistical distinctions come into play, women excelling in certain categories and men selected for in others -- including those sectors of endeavor (apart from brute strength) that call for proficiency at manipulating abstractions, where men exceed women. While average scholastic performance and measures of achievement tend to be more or less identical between women and men, the variability of scores measuring specific competences in the sciences and highly abstract disciplines are male-overrepresented in the top percentiles, as Hyde’s study demonstrates. (Some findings seem to imply that Asian American women do as well or better in the sciences than their male peers, but Hyde prudently avoids plunging into the murky and socially problematic debate over differences between the Asian and Caucasian brain.)

As the brilliant social scientist Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve, once mentioned in a 2005 Commentary magazine article:

The concepts of “inferiority” and “superiority” are inappropriate to group comparisons.

There is nothing inherent in being a woman that precludes high math ability. But there remains a distributional difference in male and female characteristics that leads to a larger number of men with high visuospatial skills, meaning that there are proportionally more men than women at both ends of the bell curve. The difference has an evolutionary rationale, a physiological basis, and a direct correlation with math scores.

* * * * * * * *

In a large sample of mathematically gifted youths, for example, seven times as many males as females scored in the top percentile of the SAT mathematics test. We do not have good test data on the male-female ratio at the top one-hundredth or top one-thousandth of a percentile, where first-rate mathematicians are most likely to be found, but collateral evidence suggests that the male advantage there continues to increase, perhaps exponentially.

Murray is not enunciating a patriarchal dogma. “Women,” he points out, “have their own cognitive advantages over men, many of them involving verbal fluency and interpersonal skills.” However, as mentioned above, men generally tend to excel in the more abstract categories and domains, for example in philosophy where, as Murray points out, “no woman has been a significant thinker in any of the world’s great philosophical traditions.”