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Test Scores, Congress, and Sex Differences in Science

John Tierney is "Daring to Discuss Women in Science" in the New York Times. In the first column of a proposed series on the topic, Tierney examines the existence of gender bias in the sciences. In considering the House of Representatives' recent passage of the "Fulfilling the potential of women in academic science and engineering" legislation, Tierney is not convinced that — if approved by the Senate — the law would solve gender inequities in science.

He goes on to "mention new evidence supporting Dr. [Lawrence] Summers' controversial hypothesis about differences in the sexes' aptitude for math and science," and says that while "men and women might, on average, have equal mathematical ability, but there could still be disproportionately more men with very low or very high scores." Therefore, in agreement with Summers, Tierney goes on to opine that "a tenured physicist at a leading university … might well need skills and traits found in only one person in 10,000: the top 0.01 percent of the population, a tiny group that would presumably include more men because it's at the extreme right tail of the distribution curve." Tierney is aware that test scores are "hardly the only factor important for a successful career in science, and no one claims that the right-tail disparity is the sole reason for the relatively low number of female professors in math-oriented sciences." He acknowledges the potential for further biological and cultural biases against women.

Blogger FemaleScienceProfessor doesn't "want to write about Tierney again," she says, but goes on to write that Tierney's essay references "flawed studies" and suggests — sarcastically — that "if women were good at math and science, perhaps they would understand these scientific studies with all the numbers in them." The blogger "reluctantly" agrees with Tierney's opinion of mandated workshops to "enhance gender equality." FSP says that "in all likelihood, these would be yet another sounds-good-in-theory administrative requirement that PIs and others would have to sit through to be allowed to run our research groups."

While the discussion of gender disparities in science is certainly not a new one, it has been creeping up in just about every corner of the blogosphere. Recenltly, blogger PZ Myers at Pharyngula wrote that "one of the most cunning tools of the patriarchy is the assignment of woo as a feminine virtue. ... It's a double-trap; women are brought up indoctrinated into believing that being smart and skeptical is unladylike and unattractive." Meanwhile, over at The Scientist, Edyta Zielinska examines whether women make more effective lab leaders than men. The author's conclusion? "Possibly," though Zielinska quotes experts who are quick to point out gender differences in management styles.

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