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Myth Debunked: Are men better at math than women?

Google recently fired the engineer James Damore for a memo that claimed that women on average have more neuroticism and that men in general may be biologically more suited to coding jobs than women.

Damore said that “the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.”

Men outnumber women in math and science careers too. This is one of the main reasons why many believe that men are better at math and science. Are women different from men? There is no doubt that biologically there are differences. Are there significant differences in their mental aptitude and performance? Serious studies done since 1990 show that: (i) The gap is smaller in countries with greater gender equality, suggesting that gender differences in math achievement are largely due to cultural and environmental factors; (ii) A child’s early experience, educational policies and culture strongly affect success in math and science; (iii) The perceptions of and attitudes towards female mathematicians imposed by society hurts women’s  performance; (iv) The cultural perception that mathematics is for men and that it is cool for women to show poor aptitude in mathematics or to repeat jokes about blonde women continues to reinforce the edge of men’s performance.

Sir Tim Hunt, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2001, lost his honorary post at University College London when in a public talk he said that women caused trouble for men in the laboratory. “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.” Even said jokingly, such remarks reinforce the  underlying  doubts in women’s ability to take posts of responsibility. The UK Royal Society distanced itself, stating “Tim Hunt’s comments do not reflect our views”.

In Malta, gauging from the predominance of women in the Dean’s List for the Faculty of Science, one can deduce that we are among the more progressive countries as to women’s  performance. The same cannot be said about gender balance among academia. For 20 years, there were only two full-time female academics in the Faculty of Science. The number is still very low but increasing steadily, showing that misconceptions among aspirant academics and those serving on boards are gradually being corrected.

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