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Where's the Outrage?
January 26, 2005
by Glenn Sacks

Harvard president Lawrence Summers is currently being mauled by outraged feminists over his speculations as to why there are more male PhDs in math and science than females. Yet few eyebrows were raised when U.K. Member of Parliament Barry Sheerman recently disparaged efforts to address the boy crisis in education by saying "women are brighter than men...the brightest kids are coming through and they happen to be women." Can one imagine the furor if a British MP or an American senator said "men are brighter than women"?

I also believe that the debate over Summers' remarks has been misframed. I'm no expert on math or science--in fact, I must surreptitiously study my 12 year-old son's math book in order to be able to help him with his homework. As a former high school teacher I would offer the uninformed guess that if you took 100 of my History or Journalism students and gave them a math test and then added up the scores, the overall male and female averages would be about the same.

However, when discussing the number of PhDs in math and science at Harvard, the relevant question is not "do males and females do equally well at math?" but instead "which gender tends to congregate at the very top one half of one percent in math?"

On most standardized tests men and women score equally overall, but the score distribution is tighter for women and wider for men. In other words, there are more male geniuses and more male idiots. Thus Summers has a point -- because the distribution of male abilities is wider than that of females, it makes sense that the top one-half of one percent might be mostly male.

Summers also speculated that part of the reason for the disparity is the enormous time commitment needed from Math and Engineering PhDs, and that fewer women than men are willing to spend their 20s and 30s buried under a 70 or 80 hour workweek. This also seems like a reasonable supposition.

It is also noteworthy that an academic's tepid remarks on women have set off an international media storm, yet males are continually disparaged and criticized in academia with hardly a protest.

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