Differentiating the Sexes

My higher level maths class for Leaving Certificate (the state exam at the end of secondary school in Ireland) was entirely populated with boys. I think there were one or two girls in the class at the beginning of the year, but they found the subject too time-consuming relative to the six or seven others that students study at that age; they dropped maths to ordinary level pretty early in the year.

My Leaving Cert. physics class was similarly populated.

In my first year of theoretical physics in university, one of my thirteen peers was a lady. In second year, she was no longer around. I studied almost entirely under male lecturers, and I graduated surrounded by male classmates.

My life is one big anecdote in support of the proposition that men are better at maths and hard sciences than women are. It’s particularly important, then, for me to always be aware of that wonderful assertion that “the plural of anecdote is not data”.

In that light, putting away my anecdote and replacing it with real data, we can find out the truth about gender and maths: that poor female performance in maths is strongly correlated with societal gender disparity; that stronger male performance in maths is accompanied by a corresponding weaker male performance in maths (i.e., that us guys push out both ends of the bell curve—for every genius there’s, well, someone less successful); and that young girls are more likely than young boys to inherit the maths anxieties of their teachers, setting them off on a course towards poor maths performance in later life. In short: women underperform in maths when they spend their lives being told that they will.

I’m delighted to see real results based on real data about maths performance. We will desperately short-change ourselves if we continue to discourage half of our potential mathematicians and scientists with baseless stereotypes. Not only that, but we’ll condemn more young men to an academic life devoid of the fairer sex. I moved out of physics into computer science for the girls, which gives you some indication of the sorry state of the physical sciences.

Maybe computer engineer Barbie will help.