Inequalities: When the Summers of our discontent said XX<XY in math and science

Robert Kuttner is the latest in a series of people calling for the head of Larry Summers, director of the National Economic Council, for example for not doing enough to heal an economy that is hemorrhaging jobs.

But Kuttner has to stand in line.

On January 14, 2005, Summers, then president of Harvard University, gave a memorable speech that riled up millions of the same people who would later go on to elect President Barack Obama, so that the latter, in turn, could appoint Summers as his chief economic advisor.

Summers said that the reason few women seem to excel in mathematics may be genetic, citing as evidence the indisputable fact that girls play with dolls and not chemistry sets.  As we write, little girls are playing with fresh new dolls from Santa and boys are blowing up their bedrooms and the family cat.

The physiological and psychological studies do give girls the big gold star for language/communication and they give the boys gold stars on spatial gifts, which correlate with mathematical ability.

The history of the genetic difference can be easily explained: According to paleontological evidence, back in the day, male cavepersons were hunters who required spatial abilities when deciding things like: “How far do I throw my spear to kill this ginormous dinner before me?” and “How far/fast do I have to run back to the cave if said spear doesn’t get ginormous dinner?”

Cavewomen, being bereft of strip malls and catalogues at the time, were gatherers.  Huddled in groups picking berries and chatting it up, as it were. Developing the verbal skills women have todaythat drive men insane.

MIT professor Nancy Hopkins walked out of Summers’ speech in disgustbut that was no surprise.  She was just being emotional.

When someone asked, “What about Hypatia of Egypt, Sophie Germain, Ada Lovelace, Emmy Noether, Julia Robinson, Hedy Lamarr, Rosalind Franklin, Marie Curie and Lisa Meitner?”, Summers replied that these women would not have gotten tenure at Harvard under his watch.

“Besides, they are the exceptions that prove the rule,” Summers added, the “rule” being Newton, Einstein, and Hunting.

Is the Summers of our discontent correct, that XX<XY in math?

There are differences between the brains of men and women.  Women have lady-parts, about some of which monologues have been written, and those lady-parts, like every organ, are regulated by the brain.  A true scientist must concede that some of those differences may have an impact on cognition.  Those lady-parts certainly prevent teen-aged boys and the occasional state governor from thinking clearly.

The problem with Summers’ theory is that he unscientifically rejects a factor that would prevent anyone from measuring his alleged genetic differences.  He said that the reason you do not find many female mathematicians and scientists at top American universities has nothing to do with sex discrimination, because that doesn’t exist: He gave a game-theoretic argument, which he’s qualified to do because he saw A Beautiful Mind and two of his uncles did not win the Nobel Prize.

In fact, two studies published in 1990 and 1995 found “a slight female advantage in computation in elementary and middle school,” and, according to the 2009 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, “girls have now reached parity with boys in mathematics performance in the U.S.”

Still, only 31% of U.S. doctorates in mathematics went to women in 2007, with women being only 12% of the math and statistics professors at the top 50 universities.

This may not all be a result of sexism, but it seems odd to immediately jump to the conclusion that it is biology.

“Compared with men,” a report by the National Academies says, “women faculty members are generally paid less and promoted more slowly, receive fewer honors, and hold fewer leadership positions.”  Moreover: “These discrepancies do not appear to be based on productivity, the significance of their work, or any other performance measures.”

So if biology is not destiny, what about society? Mattel once made a Barbie doll that said, “Math class is tough.”  The doll also said, “I’ll just have celery sticks and water, please.” “Like…like so there I was and like…what-ever.” And: “Oh. My. Gawd.”

In our culture, it may be that math is less appealing to girls.  To change this equation, actress Danica McKellar has written math textbooks with covers resembling Cosmo, and Austrian artist Peren Linn has designed jeans with Fermat’s Last Theorem imprinted on them, to merge elliptic curves with feminine ones.

If you want to see how bad girls aren’t at math?  Watch how quickly they can figure out the marked-down price of any clothing item, during a sale. Where it’s not only marked down on the tagbut another percentage listed on a big sign hovering over a certain dress rack designates “do the math” by stating, “Take an Extra 20%, 30%, 40% Off!”

Or maybe that’s just one of those gathering skills yet to be explained.

So it seems as if Larry Summers was wrong on all counts. But far be it from us to tell Summers to leave math to mathematicians, and to stick to economics:

Given his track record so far, do any of us really want him to do that?

Dr. Jonathan David Farley is a mathematician at the Institut für Algebra of Johannes Kepler Universität Linz in Linz, Österreich (www.latticetheory.net). Autumn Stone has a degree in psychology, enjoys long romantic walks on the beach with her scotch, and devotes heinous amounts of energy irritating Dr. Farley with math questions because he still refuses to do her taxes. And when chance permits, blows up Barbie dolls, too.

Kathlyn Stone

Kathlyn Stone is a Twin Cities, Minnesota-based writer who has covered general news, and business, international trade, and health care news and policies for public and professional audiences.