December 11, 2008
The Washington Post ran Ruth Marcus’s December 3 syndicated column as “Was Larry Summers Right About Intrinsic Aptitude?” Marcus ended her column “Summers probably had a legitimate point.” But, just what was this “legitimate point”? Are there systematic gender differences as Summers claimed?
In her column, Marcus cited a study which found more white American boys than girls had scores in the 99th percentile of state mathematics tests. In the very same study the situation was reversed for Asian Americans.
Marcus cited another study that did not find systematic differences. “In all but three countries — Britain, Thailand and Iceland — more boys than girls scored in the 99th percentile in math.”
A study published in the November Notices of the American Mathematical Society also documented a lack of systematic gender differences in mathematical ability. Girls as well as boys with exceptional talent for mathematics are frequently identified and nurtured in some countries where this ability is highly valued. In the United States, children of immigrants from these countries are much more likely to be identified as possessing extraordinary mathematical ability.
Was Summers right about systematic gender differences in intrinsic aptitude? These studies give no indication that he was.
Cathy Kessel, President, Association for Women in Mathematics