In 2006, Dr. Lawrence Summers resigned as president of Harvard University partly due to a non-confidence vote by Harvard’s faculty, which resulted from Summers’ controversial remarks that women are under-represented at the top end of math, science, and engineering fields because women have “different availability of aptitude at the high end”. In his remarks he mostly dismissed the possibility that the under-representation of women in science fields was due to socialization differences or discrimination (visit Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute at the University of Wisconsin for an amazing collection of resources related to the Summers case).
Although many studies have been conducted on this issue, a study scheduled to be published on the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry greatly informs this debate by disentangling, to a significant extent, the relative contributions of genetics and environment to the possible sex differences in math and science achievement.
In the article the authors examined 3,000 pairs of British twins when they were 9, 10, and 12 years of age. Specifically, the authors reviewed teachers’ reports of the kids’ academic performance and examined the genetic and environmental predictors of “high science ability”.
- Despite the unusually large sample size, there was no difference in standardized achievement scores between boy and girl twins at any of the 3 time points. The large sample size is worth noting because large sample sizes make the identification of significant differences much easier.
- Boys were more likely to be at the high end of performance at age 9, but this sex difference was not present at age 10 or 12.
- Finally, the authors examined a model that used Monozygotic male pairs (MZM), Dizygotic male pairs (DZM), Monozygotic female pairs (MZF), Dizygotic female pairs (DZF), and Dizygotic opposite sex pairs (DZOS) to determine the relative contributions of genetic and environmental differences to science achievement. This model suggested that both genetic and environmental factors have a similar effect on science performance for both boys and girls.
This last finding is highly informative. The model indicated that there was no difference between boys and girls in how they are affected by genetic and environmental factors. Theoretically, if girls’ science achievement was due to limited aptitudes (related to some neurocognitive difference for example), they would be affected by environmental and genetic factors differently than boys (for example by being less responsive to the same environmental conditions or to the same ‘math gene’). Thus, the authors concluded that absence of difference between the sexes in how these potentially causal factors influence their science achievement suggests that the possible sex differences in the high end of science performance “may be due to attitudes rather than aptitudes”.
The reference: Haworth, C., Dale, P., & Plomin, R. (2009). Sex differences and science: the etiology of science excellence Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2009.02087.x
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