Why Men are better than Women at Math (Situations Matter)

Men are better than women at math and science.  This is a comment likely to rile the feathers of some of my more feminist readers, and yet I could easily support such a statement with evidence showing that men get higher SAT scores in math than women or how science and technology careers are predominantly male disciplines.  In spite of this evidence, I wouldn’t be the first to get into trouble over comments like this.  Larry Summers, once president of Harvard University, lost his job after giving a speech on this subject to the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2005.
But he didn’t lose his job for pointing out this disparity.  In fact, the whole point of the conference was to explore the reasons behind the gender gap in science, engineering and mathematics.  What got Summers into trouble was saying that inborn differences in aptitude probably played a greater role than societal expectations.  He felt that men were inherently better and not just situationally better–an idea which did not sit well with the female faculty at Harvard who believed their president felt justified in giving preference to male faculty for tenured positions and other opportunities for advancement.
Previously I wrote “Love or Science?: A Young Woman’s Dilemma” about research suggesting that when women were primed to think of their romantic goals they showed less interest in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math–presumably because they were seen as more masculine and therefore less appealing to potential romantic partners.  This is an example of how the situation, in terms of how society views these roles, could have a massive influence on women’s motivations to study and pursue these fields.
I learned about the story of Larry Summers from Sam Sommers (no relation, as he is keen to point out,) the author of a new book on how “Situations Matter” for many important outcomes.  Through a variety of examples in the book, Sommers shows the thinking traps of our bias towards believing that “what you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG).  WYSIWYG thinking is what pushes us to believe that the way things are is due to their nature, often overlooking the situational forces at play.
Larry Summers’ comments, if not for his leadership position at a prestigious university, are really not all that controversial.  Most people probably believe in certain inherent differences between males and females, and many of us have been brought up to think of the male mind as being more rational, logical, and analytical, while the female mind is more intuitive, caring and emotional. 

But are these differences really a part of our nature?  Do they stem, as many people believe, from an evolutionary adaptation?  Is women’s genetic survival better guaranteed by learning how to nurture and care for the family, while male genes are passed on by their being more innovative and learning how to solve problems?  This seems like a good explanation, and is one that is widely accepted.  
In “Situations Matter,” Sommers provides evidence that these differences are more a product of our society than we realize.  It is true that men do better than women on a math tests such as the SAT.  But simply telling the students prior to the test that the test has been designed to eliminate cultural gender differences brings the scores together.  It is the same test with a slightly different context, and the gender gap disappears!  A subtle suggestion to counteract our deep seated societal beliefs about the differences between men and women makes a big difference.
Sommers goes on to provide other examples of research on influencing the gender gap with subtle situational shifts.  Women do better on math problems, for example, in a room full of other women, than they do in mixed company.  And if students perform the math test wearing swimsuits, (further highlighting gender differences [I’ll let you read the book to learn about how they engineered that study!]) the gender gap widens.  If the students hide their obvious physical differences under sweaters, the gender gap in math skills narrows again.  
Once you see these situational forces at play, it is easy to imagine how they become deep-rooted from early childhood.  Sommers points out that Pottery Barn Kids sell a “Boys’ Quilt” and a “Girls’ Quilt” in their catalog, each with a variety of images for each letter of the alphabet.  While many of the images are the same, there are some differences between the boys’ and the girls’ version.   The boys’ quilt for example has Pencil for P, Radio for R and Star for S.  On the girls’ version these are a Purse, a Ring and Shoes.  While still in the crib the boys are being exposed to scientific primes while the girls are being given primes towards fashion and jewelry.
Sommers also shares research showing how the level of anxiety about math in female elementary school teachers predicts increased anxiety and decreased performance among their female students . . . and so the cycle continues.  I was excited to see all of these examples in Sommers’ book.  When I wrote the article on “Love or Science?” I said I thought there was more to the story, and Sommers’ analysis paints a fuller picture for us. 
The examples above represent only a few pages from his book, which uses science to shatter illusions from a variety of common scenarios to make us more mindful of what is really going on in the world around us.  Reading his book makes you feel like Neo in The Matrix. Not only do you see everything that is going on around you, but you begin to see the invisible programming that is making everything the way that it is (i.e. the situations.)  Just like Neo in The Matrix, once you see this programming, you can begin to manipulate it in your favor to be more effective in your own life.

References and recommended reading:

Sommers, S. (2011). Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World.  Riverhead Hardcover.

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15 Responses to Why Men are better than Women at Math (Situations Matter)

  1. Peggy Wynne Borgman October 4, 2011 at 1:11 pm #

    Having just finished “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell, this book sounds like a terrific companion piece. I’m amazed at how much of what we believe is based on erroneous assumptions of causality. The surge in gender-related “programming” of children by consumer products companies is very discouraging–back in the “olden days” of the 70’s and 80’s the Pottery Barn quilts you describe would have been outed as a bald example of sexism. I get depressed every time I walk into Toys R Us to pick out something for one of our grandkids. There’s the pink-and-purple sparkly ghetto of girl’s toys and the camo-dino-auto ghetto of boy’s toys. But my granddaughter on a recent visit was most interested in a train set and my grandson was most interested in playing with the kiddie kitchen we have here at the house. I feel like we’ve lost a generation of progress.

  2. Jeremy McCarthy October 4, 2011 at 3:56 pm #

    Thanks Peggy, If you like Gladwell, you will definitely like this book. Also check out an article I wrote on Malcolm Gladwell here: http://psychologyofwellbeing.com/201010/what-the-dog-saw.html. I know what you mean about the gender programming. I was very impressed with my cousin recently when I saw her scold her daughter who didn’t want to share her nail polish with her younger brother because it was “for girls.” My cousin said “no gender scripting!” and handed the nail polish to her son. I had never heard the term before but now I can see “gender scripting” all over the place!

  3. Marie-Josee Shaar October 4, 2011 at 8:00 pm #

    Yeah… I loved your article Jeremy and it also made me think of Outliers. But as much as I want to applaud your cousin, I have to offer the counter-argument as well. Gender scripting serves a purpose – and not just the purpose of keeping women in the kitchen! I saw on little boy on an airplane not long ago with red nail polish on his toes. I actually pointed him out to my husband. What can I say? We are so programmed that these reactions come naturally. On the flight back from that vacation, I saw again that same little boy. I wasn’t sure if it was him, but as soon as I looked at his toes, I was able to confirm. So you see, for me that child became “the little boy with the red nail polish” – is that really better?

    To reiterate: I agree with a lot of your points, but want to make sure we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water here…


  4. Jeremy McCarthy October 5, 2011 at 9:21 pm #

    But if he wasn’t “the little boy with the red nail polish” he might be the “boy with glasses” or the “boy with braces” or the “boy with the crooked teeth.” Of course every parent wants their child to avoid lifestyle choices or other things that might cause them to be rejected or ostracized for their differences but I admire those who feel it is more important to buck conventional ideas of what is “normal” and teach their children to explore different things for themselves and accept that every individual is different and they don’t have to blindly follow the norms of society.

    We’ll have to see how I feel about it the first time my son puts nail polish on!

  5. trish October 6, 2011 at 5:22 pm #

    I was just reading an article about how to get your boy to read. One thing that author said was that if a boy wants to read a How To book, then that’s reading! Just because it’s not a story doesn’t mean the kid isn’t reading. There’s so many thing ingrained in us about how boys or girls behave that it’s hard to break the mold. As an avid reader, it’s important to me to do my best to inculcate a love of reading, but I have to remind myself that my reading and his reading might be different — and that’s okay.

    You really pulled some fascinating examples from the book. Thanks for being on the tour!

  6. Marie-Josee Shaar October 6, 2011 at 6:15 pm #

    Very interesting point, Trish!

  7. Charlie Wills October 8, 2011 at 2:28 pm #

    From 2 to 6 years old we are stuck in a theta brain wave which is conducive to super learning, we are pretty much stuck in a Hypnotic download state from whoever we are being raised by and the environment (Why TV stinks). That becomes are subconscious for the rest of our lives and since the majority of us are only conscious 5% of the day it gets really weird.

    Most of are one on one relationhips have 4 people instead because of that other person that raised us is not US!!!!!(subconscious) and only when you have super focus like a new Love is there only 2 not 4….

    The testosterone filled work world is not nice for women so it kinda keeps them a little distant from the Math your talking about which is normaly a one person thing. Women (the master race) need oxytocin to make them feel great and relieve stress, and promote healthy serotonin which is gained from conversation and sharing ideas and thoughts, just the opposite from the Math world of a singlness. JMHO

  8. Jeremy McCarthy October 9, 2011 at 10:44 pm #

    Charles, your comment reminds me of a lecture I just heard from Bruce Lipton, the author of The Biology of Belief. I said the Jesuit schools used to have a slogan, Give us your boys and we’ll make the man. He said it was because they knew that if they could have a child in the first 7 years of life when the brain is incredibly plastic and developing like wildfire that they could establish beliefs that would be well engrained for the rest of their life.

    Also, interesting point about the individual nature of math versus other pursuits. When you think of stereotypical women’s roles (nursing, teaching) they do tend to be more social. Also, a new research study came out the week I published this blog that contradicts some of what is claimed in the Situations Matter book. They found that there are some chemical differences in the womb that seem to correlate with this predilection for math in males. But like almost every question about “nature vs. nurture” the answer is probably that both are important.

  9. SHAWN March 13, 2012 at 8:44 am #


  10. Sam July 9, 2012 at 1:59 pm #

    Poeple are retarded i swear, like the guy above saying “the mom handed the nail polish to her son” , isn’t this idiotic, are we supposed to deny the physical differences as well, isn’t this a type of brainwashing the author you spoke about warns against. Congrats you fell into the same mindset. Boys tend to matters that are conceptually physical and spatial and logical, it is due to the larger frontal cortex, and the amount of elecrical stimùlation that happens there when presented with challegning problem. Men are visual even in their thinking pattern of abstract subjects. The excellence in the scientific field stem from the tendency to solve problems. For women the approach is different, it is without a doubt, and even suspending all the social inputs, remains emotionally charged even slightly but it is still rather present. After all, the most fundamental question to pose, if there are difference between the gender at the physiological, sexual, neurological, endocrinological, and even immunological level, what makes us eliminate the rather more plausible conclusion that there are difference governed by the abovementioned factors at the psychological and mental quantitative level. I firmly believe that there are differences at approaching problems, and in this approach deviation that the skills manifest in the form of specialty and role

  11. Amelia January 31, 2013 at 10:53 pm #

    All of what Sam said has been disproved.The new research finds how we grow connections in our brain we need for certain tasks.When the society presents to males and females,a pre-fab destiny,the genders will only show a difference if they stay within
    their steritypical roles.The brain is plastic and possible of many abilities regardless of gender.We can literally create our own brain and leaving gender out makes for more
    possibilites with each human being.

    These old notions have got to be thrown to the junk pile,if we are to progress as a society because sterotypes DO effect children and we unfortunately create a situation
    where the individual potential of each person goes unrealized.

    When this society pre-judges male as being more logical/visual/spatial,and pre=jusge
    women as intuitive/emotional/.nuturing,we have liimited the potential of our work
    foroce to a great degree.

    America needs all the engineers and computer scientists it can find.We have a
    shortage of talent because we relate talent with gender.All we have to do is look at
    the females who succeed in math and science in the uiversities and it’s Asian and
    Middle Eastern with American females far behind due to rediculous sterotypes
    and myths.

    There are no ability differences because it’s all based on vapor.

  12. Justine C May 14, 2013 at 2:53 pm #

    Unfortunately, this article doesn’t take into consideration that the United States has one of the worst gender gaps in math and science compared to the majority of developed countries. Test data from a worldwide exam conducted by the OECD shows that out of 65 countries, girls outperformed boys at science in the majority of the countries. It seems that the majority of countries where the boys perform better are in many of the Western/Northern Europe and North American countries, leading us to assume that there are more societal implications at play as opposed to inherent or biological ones.

    Mapping of Boys vs Girls Worldwide Science Scores:

    @Shawn, I could tell by your love of the CAPS-LOCK and blatant disregard for grammar and spelling rules that you must be a smart one. Take a look at this list of notable women in math, science, and medicine before you bother to make any more moronic statements about things you’re clearly ignorant about. You might also like to look up Ada Lovelace, a brilliant mathematician whose work played a considerable role in developing that computer you’re typing on right now.



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