Miriam Callahan lives in Washington, D.C. This is her response to our latest book club selection, Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, which we began to discuss last week.
I don’t remember when I was introduced to the idea that boys’ intelligence was more variable than girls’. I assume it was sometime between when I learned that boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider and when I became aware of Judith Butler’s existence. But somehow this idea — the Greater Male Variability hypothesis — got lodged in my head, and it took Cordelia Fine eight pages of well-reasoned argument to unlodge it.
The Greater Male Variability hypothesis made sense to me, and even seemed fair in a perverted way. Men and women, on average, are equal in terms of intelligence, mathematical ability, scientific ability, etc. But how to account for the fact that Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein, Brian Greene and 89 percent of the Harvard physics faculty are men? Being mathematically-inclined myself, I knew that a bunch of really spread-out numbers could have the same average as a collection of closely-grouped numbers. Maybe, then, there was a Forrest Gump for every Stephen Hawking, and women were just less likely to be that dumb — or that smart. I proceeded under this assumption for years and years until I read this Edward Thorndike quotation in Delusions of Gender:
In particular, if men differ in intelligence and energy by wider extremes than do women, eminence in and leadership of the world’s affairs will inevitably belong oftener to men. They will oftener deserve it.
Thorndike said this in 1910 — a hundred years ago! Although I knew I wasn’t immune to the implicit gender stereotypes that Lindsay talked about last week, I was gobsmacked to learn that one of my consciously-held beliefs about gender came from the days of corsets and hobble skirts. As I read on, I realized my mistake.
In order to believe that male intelligence was naturally more variable than female intelligence, I had to have assumed that intelligence was as inborn and as easy to distinguish as eye color. Somehow I had held onto the idea of greater male variability even after I learned about challenges to the idea of “general intelligence,” and even after I, like many other first-year college students, started calling everything a “cultural construct.”
As it turns out, culture has plenty to do with women’s lack of representation at the highest levels of mathematical ability. According to a study cited in Fine’s book, “this scarcity is due, in significant part, to changeable factors that vary with time, country, and ethnic group,” including institutional identification of high achievers in math and social expectations of what people of different races and genders will be good at. Interestingly, this study found that in the United States, East Asian women and white women who emigrated from Eastern Europe are actually well-represented at the very highest levels of mathematical ability — non-immigrant white women and women from historically underrepresented minorities were the only women who were underrepresented compared to their proportion of the general population.
Furthermore, the same study noted that the ratio of boys to girls identified as “highly gifted” (as defined by their ability to score 700 or above on the math section of the SATs in middle school) fell from 13 boys for every girl in 1983 to 2.8 boys for every girl in 2005. Greater Male Variability appears to be, well, variable. In this case as in so many others, culture matters. And that heartens me, because I don’t want to live in a world where Billy Joel is intrinsically able to go to extremes, and I’m not.