and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column
January #4

Is there a gender gap?
No easy answers to why some excel in math, others don't
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Friday, January 28, 2005

Anyone watching me at the bank, computing how much cash to take from my paycheck before making the deposit, will see my fingers moving.

Subtraction requires fingers: Nine from thirteen requires counting forward, moving fingers as I go .... ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen. Nine from thirteen is four, Sister!

Well, that's the way the nuns taught us, using Popsicle sticks. I don't carry Popsicle sticks around with me, but have learned to substitute fingers.

Is this because I'm female? I wonder if the Catholic schoolboys who were taught the same way I was still use their fingers or if their male minds progressed beyond the mechanics to the concept, so they can now do their math in their heads.

My son had trouble with subtraction in the first grade. His public school used frogs, jumping forward and back, instead of sticks. 

He was fine with addition, but could not do the simplest ten minus six.

I asked an engineer friend to help with Lance's homework. He quickly got to the bottom of the problem: Lance couldn't imagine a frog jumping backward, its legs being what they are. My friend told him that the frog turned around first, thus ending his mental block.

I hadn't even seen the concept issue. Is that because I'm female? Or am I perhaps the only Catholic school graduate of either sex who is still using my fingers to count? At my next class reunion I shall ask around.

Maybe it's just me, the individual person, an incidental female who attended Catholic schools and Penn State University, both of which gave me math and science teachers who had low expectations of what a female could achieve in those classes. I clearly recall one male algebra teacher telling us girls that we didn't belong in his class and were wasting his time.

I was intrigued by geometry but chose to accept the prevailing wisdom that math was not for the likes of me. I took only easy, required science courses so I could spend more time on my strongest intellectual interests philosophy and human relationships. No one knew back then that these are also a function of math, biology, genetics, and science. It was a female classmate, who chose to take advanced science courses, who first read about DNA and told me about that exciting, brave new world.

Sarah went on to become a serial mother and artist, making lovely pottery. I, with little need to nurture or create things from clay or yarn, presently spend my free time checking out the mapping of the genome, string theory, and evolutionary biology.

I think that, had I been encouraged as a child to study math and science, I might have been good at both subjects.

Which brings me to Harvard President Larry Summers.

I am appalled, not by Summers' hypothesis that women are innately inferior to men when it comes to math and science, but by the hysterical response of his female critics and the craven response of some of their male allies. It would make me embarrassed on behalf of my sex and then the human race itself, were I innately inclined to fully identify with either.

As an individualist, I believe that as long as I was born with a certain level of basic intelligence, and could find a way to pay for the education, I could have done anything that interested me enough to challenge assumptions that I could not succeed.

Adults encouraged me to write, and so I have. But many discouraged my involvement in the male world of politics (itself, come to think of it, a science), and I ignored them. 

As Tom Robbins wrote, "It's not men who limit women, it's not straights who limit gays, it's not whites who limit blacks... What limits people is that they don't have the (expletive deleted) nerve or imagination to star in their own movie, let alone direct it".

My many life choices, from finger-counting to fighting taxes, were made, I suspect, for reasons that are genetic as well as environmental. 

Larry Summers was right: The latest scientific research is showing innate differences between male and female. This is fascinating and reflects the common sense of people who observe children like my opposite-sex twin grandkids. Despite their parents' initial determination to treat them the same, they have been, almost from birth, poster children for the traditional male and female roles. 

But other children are less typical. As a child, I liked both my dolls and my male cousins' Tonka trucks as well as my friend Rachel's microscope and chemistry set.

My son Lance, by the way, despite having grasped the frog thing, never really got into math. He chose working with disadvantaged kids and the mentally ill over a science career. He is much more nurturing and artistic than I am. Nature (from some other ancestor's genes, obviously), not nurture from his upbringing, apparently helped him make his choices. 

We are both reading books about science now finding a genetic component for kids' responses to disadvantage, and to mental illness. Boys and girls alike, our minds should be open to unabashed discussion of the whole wide world of theory until we finally reach the whole wide truth.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem News and Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Providence Journal and other newspapers.