Gender politics vs. science

New York Times graph of science scores by gender and country
New York Times graph of science scores by gender and country

The internet was abuzz last week with articles talking about the gender gap in science in the US, UK and Canada.

The articles were wrong or misleading on almost every level.

New York Times graph of science scores by gender and country
New York Times graph of science scores by gender and country

Fortunately, the New York Times included a helpful, color-coded graphic which demonstrated the basic facts:

  • In 18 of 29 countries of Northern and Western Europe and the Americas, boys performed slightly better than girls on a science test.
  • In most other countries girls performed better than boys.
  • In Muslim countries, girls were often very strong relative to boys in the same country, but generally weak relative to girls or boys in the rest of the world.

The New York Times went with the clever headline “Girls lead in science exam, but not in US.” At the Guardian, Emma Keller led with

“There was bad news … girls around the world outperform boys in science – except for in the United States, Britain and Canada.”

Well, no. Girls outperform boys in science except in the US, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Hong Kong, Germany, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Mexico and ten other countries.

Even if her statement were accurate why is it bad news that there are some countries in the world where boys slightly outperform girls? Isn’t it equally bad news that there are other countries where girls outperform boys?

The NYT and the Guardian then decry cultural forces that are more hostile to women’s equal opportunity in the US and UK then in the Muslim world. Keller writes

“Researchers then found that ‘countries with the poorest degrees of gender equality also have the widest gulfs between male and female mathematical performance.’”

Really? The Muslim world has greater degrees of gender equality than Europe and the Americas?

Keller’s piece generated significant negative reaction, but not for the points I mentioned. Misrepresenting the study and bashing her home countries were fine. It was only when she got politically incorrect that people took notice. She offered these tips to get girls interested in science:

  • Scientific theory fires her imagination when connected to current or domestic affairs, or when she can empathize.
  • Understand that girls generally begin processing information on the brain’s left, or language, side. So, girls deconstruct math concepts verbally. … They need to “talk it through”.
  • Girls are more responsive to color than boys. Color-code toys and blocks … Buy the patterned coloring-books … As your daughter gets older, color-code folders and files for school by subject so that she can grab them easily. Color-code your family calendar.
  • Have her read instructions and recipes aloud.
  • Buy her kits (like Lego) that involve building according to instructions. Even when the project is relatively easy, have her read the steps aloud to you. It’s amazing what girls skip when they don’t slow themselves down for this step.
  • Cooking – especially following a recipe – uses both math and science. … If you encourage your daughter to experiment in the kitchen, she will be more comfortable experimenting at school.
  • Shopping is filled with math problems.
  • Have the girls cook dinner, or bake cookies or tie dye t-shirts together.
  • Find a female pediatrician.

Those are all direct quotes. Can you imagine if a man had presented that list?

Keller is not just a random blogger. She’s an author of two books and has written for respected publications like Vanity Fair and the Sunday Times. Her husband Bill was the executive editor of the New York Times.

On the lighter side, comedian and neuroscientist Dean Burnett responded with the satiric Boys and science: The gender gap and how to maintain it. To help boys, Burnett offered such nuggets as

  • Emphasize that we live in a cruel, random world.
  • Instead of a bedtime story, try listing the current death toll from virulent diseases or pointless wars.
  • When he loses a tooth, rather than invoking the tooth fairy, explain that it is the result of bodily decay that will inevitably lead to the cold embrace of death. A relentless barrage of cold hard facts will undoubtedly encourage your son to embrace rational thinking and science in order to gain some chance of staving off the grim horror of the universe.
  • When they have a comic book, tell them they can’t read the next page until they’ve highlighted all the scientific inaccuracies and impossibilities on the current one.
  • Boys tend to be more violently inclined than girls. … Although distasteful to many, a dedicated parent can use this to encourage an interest in science, by making a game out of it. … They get points whenever they punch you in the right answer.

Burnett ends with a more serious “Your child is a person, treat them as such. … He is not a passive collection of stereotypes that you need to cajole into a science career by any means necessary, especially not if you’re using approaches that are embarrassingly unscientific and based on ridiculous clichés or views.”

Most of the backlash against Keller’s article, for example Pseudoscience and stereotyping won’t solve gender inequality in science, focused on her parenting suggestions.

But I think we should also object to how quickly people accept the narrative that the cultural forces are more supportive of women in the Middle East than in the US and the UK. This is the thinking that leads to strange alliances between, for example, feminists and gay rights activists and Islamic fundamentalists. It leads intelligent writers to equate the Tea Party with the Taliban. Western society is far from perfect, but many are far too quick to see it as the source of the problems that it is working so hard to solve.

On the bright side, these articles and the reactions to them show that there’s a very wide consensus on the key points. Many girls and boys have a strong aptitude for science. We should encourage each child to pursue whatever fields best fit his or her aptitude and interest. We should fight against our natural tendency to limit and stereotype.

Still, it would be helpful if future articles about girls and science didn’t twist data to fit a narrative about how the US and UK are the worst places in the world for girls who are interested in science.

About the Author
Gil Reich is the author of If You Write My Story, which helps kids deal with life, love, and loss. He is also co-founder of internet marketing and development company Managing Greatness. Previously Gil was VP of Product Management at He has been a popular speaker at internet marketing conferences around the world.