A discussion on the disparity between male and female performances in the basic sciences

I wanna know your thoughts on this issue. The issue is about cognitive differences between the sexes, which is always a hot anthropological issue. Recently, Sheril Kirshenbaum from The Intersection posted some examples of NSF’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2008 report. The results of the report indicate that females are much less adept in answering science and engineering questions compared to males.

Don’t believe me? Here’s some egregiously outstanding examples:

The continents have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move. (Correct answer: True)

    85% of all males surveyed answered this correctly.
    75% of all females answered this correctly.

All radioactivity is man-made. (Correct answer: False)

    77% of all males surveyed answered this correctly.
    64% of all females surveyed answered this correctly.

The universe began with a huge explosion. (Correct answer: True)

    40% of all males surveyed answered this correctly.
    27% of all females surveyed answered this correctly.

The center of the Earth is very hot. (Correct answer: True)

    85% of all males surveyed answered this correctly.
    75% of all females surveyed answered this correctly.

Electrons are smaller than atoms. (Correct answer: True)

    61% of all males surveyed answered this correctly.
    48% of all females surveyed answered this correctly.

How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun? (Correct answer: One year)

    66% of all males surveyed answered this correctly.
    46% of all females surveyed answered this correctly.

Lasers work by focusing sound waves. (Correct answer: False)

    62% of all males surveyed answered this correctly.
    32% of all females surveyed answered this correctly.

Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals. (Correct answer: True)

    47% of all males surveyed answered this correctly.
    40% of all females surveyed answered this correctly.

A doctor tells a couple that their genetic makeup means that they’ve got one in four chances of having a child with an inherited illness. Does this mean that if their first child has the illness, the next three will not? (Correct answer: No)

    90% of all males surveyed answered this correctly.
    84% of all females surveyed answered this correctly

There’s been a lot of discussion on threads of each of Sheril’s posts, where people questioned if this disparity between the sexes was because the test makers were male, or something about the test environment affected the ability of females to perform as well. These situations could be a factor, but when about 75% of of female respondents incorrectly answer how the universe was started, or when over half of females surveyed don’t know the span of 1 cycle of the Earth around the Sun… I begin to think if there’s something much larger going on — it could be biological, or it could be something cultural. What do you think?

5 thoughts on “A discussion on the disparity between male and female performances in the basic sciences

  1. It’s hard to say. My experience is that fewer females do science A-Levels than boys, which in the UK is about the first time you get a choice in the matter. Up until that age, everyone is supposed to be doing some sort of science. That said, those girls that did do science did well and regularly out-scored boys in tests. On the other hand, the balance of boys to girls varied in different science classes. More boys tended to do physics, for example. Indeed so much so that our physics teacher tried to metaphorically arm-twist girls who he thought could do the subject into continuing with it simply because he wanted to see more of a mixed class. He usually failed, I have to say. Biology, on the other hand, was about equal numbers. In fact, there may even be more girls. Now that situation may well have changed in the years since I did my A-Levels, but I’d be surprised if it has reversed dramatically. And of course it has a knock-on effect university-wise because if you don’t do science A-Levels than you don’t generally do a science degree and so on.

    Why don’t females do science, or at least physical science? I don’t know. I suspect culture does play some part in it, but maybe there is a biological component too and some types of sciences suit the way females think better than others.

  2. As with most data sets, I doubt there is a solitary force operating here. It would seem likely that both biological and cultural forces are acting upon the results, although I would conjecture that a number of cultural forces are the main culprits.

    One of the cultural forces that appears to act upon the data is religion; specifically monotheistic, fundamentalist religion. I assume this has something to do with the unusually low scores for both males and females in questions like “The universe began with a huge explosion.” While this force may be observed universally, it may bear implications on the disparities as well.

    In my observations of my own students, I have encountered at least twice as many hostile females than males on the topic of evolution. My female students who are unwilling to accept scientific fact are much less flexible and tend to repeat the same anecdotal arguments. Males who are uneasy about evolution, at least in my experience, appear to be more willing to find a compromise between science and religion.

    Of course, this is in itself an anecdotal observation, but it seems possible that this may have some impact on the data.

  3. I view the results as irrelevant (let me state that I am a male. Romanian-born name for the matter, and, as such, at least in theory, subject to early-age sexist indoctrination). The only possible conclusion is that, in the study group, women turned out to be less informed than men on scientific and engineering issues. Period. Any other inferences are unwarranted. Two things for those fixed, for whatever reason, on the question:
    1) Why is this even an issue? Good science is good regardless of the gender of the researcher.
    2) If and when cultural conditioning and education will gender-homogenize, likely the science gender gap will disappear. Simply put, we have no reasons whatsoever to expect anything else.

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