- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 27, 2005


Harvard University President Lawrence Summers has suffered condemnation for suggesting the underrepresentation of women in engineering and some scientific fields may be a result in part of inherent differences in the intellectual abilities of the sexes.

But some scholars who are in the know about the differences between men’s and women’s brains say Mr. Summer’s remarks have merit.

“Among people who do the research, it’s not so controversial. There are lots and lots of studies that show that men’s and women’s brains are different,” said Richard J. Haier, a professor of psychology in the pediatrics department of the University of California Los Angeles medical school.

Academia has been bitterly divided in recent years by the “nature vs. nurture” debate, and the Harvard president’s comments last month at a National Bureau of Economic Research symposium address aspects of that dispute.

On one side are those who believe the sexes are equal enough in their intellectual abilities that any biological difference between them is vastly outweighed by social pressures and discrimination that discourage girls and women from pursuing science and engineering.

“When people hear ‘biology,’ they think there’s nothing you can do about it,” said Joshua Aronson, a professor of applied psychology at New York University. “It’s in that context that Summers’ remarks are not helpful.”

On the other side are those who believe that biological differences between men and women really can account for at least some of the underrepresentation of women in engineering and some fields of science.

“I think it’s an outrage that certain questions — that real, important questions — can’t be raised in an academic atmosphere, that research that’s well-known can’t be presented without some sort of hysterical response,” said Linda S. Gottfredson, a psychologist at the University of Delaware.

In recent years, scientists have found that male and female brains are wired differently because of the role of testosterone and other male hormones during gestation. Brains growing under the influence of male hormones are slightly larger and have denser concentrations of neurons in some regions.

Male brains also contain a greater proportion of gray matter, the part of the brain responsible for computation, while women have relatively more white matter, which specializes in making connections between brain cells.

So men and women appear to use their brains differently in some situations. Does that make any difference in how smart they are?

The short answer is no. Average IQ is the same among men and women.

But it’s the long answer, which considers different kinds of cognitive ability and speculates about how it is distributed among individuals in the two sexes, that has been raised in support of Mr. Summers’ remarks.

Intelligence tests have found that men, on average, perform better on spatial tasks that require mentally rotating or otherwise manipulating objects. Men also do better on tests of mathematical reasoning. Women tend to do better than men on tasks requiring verbal memory and distinguishing whether objects are similar or different.

But is the difference really biological, or are exceptional girls and women intimidated by cultural stereotypes and discouraged from cultivating their talents from an early age?

Whatever the reason, researchers have found differences in math ability between males and females from prekindergarten through adulthood.

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