John Tierney has annoyed me before on the subject of women in science. And now he’s back, this time recapping the conventional wisdom that math departments like mine are 90% male because of the inborn boyish math power we men possess. He styles this as “daring.” The chutzpah!
Anyway, this time around he presses some perfectly respectable social science into service. Here’s a fact: more boys than girls get perfect scores on the math SAT. And a recent study by Jonathan Wai, et al found that that among students who scored over 700 on the math SAT in 7th grade — just 1/10,000 of their sample — boys outnumbered girls by about 13 to 1 in the 1980s, a figure which dropped to 4:1 by the early 1990s and has stayed roughly constant since.
Now here’s how the standard — oops, sorry, I mean “daring” — argument goes: mathematicians surely possess a math aptitude among the top 1 in 10,000 of the population. That segment of the population is mostly men, as proven by science. Ergo, most mathematicians should be men.
A mistake here, or at least a potential mistake, is thinking of success in mathematics as something driven by a variable called “aptitude”, which can be measured on a scale — as if getting tenured at Harvard were something like getting a 10 million on the math SAT. Wai et al find that girls make up a substantial majority of extremely high 7th grade scorers in the English and writing sections of the exam. Should one conclude on aptitudinal grounds women should be a majority among English professors? It’s easy to mistake your operationalizations for reality, as when Wai et al write:
Giving the SAT-M in the 7th grade allows individual differences in the extreme right tail of the distribution (i.e., the top 1% which includes over one third of the ability range) to be captured adequately
I can think of lots of things they might mean by “one third of the ability range” but none which have any content.
Not that I’m saying it’s meaningless to ace the SAT before getting your driver’s license. It’s a vanishingly small proportion of people who get a 700 on the math SAT at 13. But I’d think it would be a very small proportion of mathematicians too! If 10% of mathematicians were extreme child math prodigies, and those extreme child math prodigies are 80% boys, one hasn’t gone far towards explaining why US math research faculties are overwhelmingly male.
There’s actually an empirical question here which I know nothing about. So let’s contribute to my know-nothingness by undertaking a brutally unscientific survey. If you’re a working mathematician — say, a Ph.D. student in good standing or a faculty member at a university — did you score above 700M on the SAT when you were 13 or younger? Since I think it’s a fairly small proportion of the world that takes the exam that early, let’s ask a more widely applicable question as well: if you took the SAT as a senior in high school, did you get 800 on the math section? (If you answer this, you might mention whether you took the exam before or after the 1995 recentering.)