Larry Summers caused an uproar when, back in 2005, the then Harvard University president suggested one reason there are so few female scientists is that “innate” differences exist between men’s and women’s aptitude levels for science and math. Women walked out of the speech. Alumni reportedly withheld their donations. The faculty of Harvard’s Arts & Sciences program issued a vote of no confidence that contributed to his resignation the following year.
But could he have been right? More studies have shown that at the extreme ends, some differences between boys and girls do exist in aptitude for math and verbal reasoning, even if on average they’re about the same. Researchers have looked at everything from annual math assessments required by No Child Left Behind to the SAT and ACT scores of 7th graders to try to arrive at some answers regarding this controversial debate over the role biology, sociology and discrimination play in the gender gap in science and math.
Now add to this highly charged discussion a new study from researchers at Penn State University and Southern Illinois University that looks at the connection between biology and career choice. It asks whether innate differences don’t just say something about men’s and women’s abilities, but about their preferences as well. In other words, could biological factors contribute to what field you enter? Could babies’ hormones in the womb have a say in their adult careers?
The study looked at people with congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), a genetic condition associated with receiving high-level exposure to androgens, or male hormones, early in development. It also looked at their unaffected male and female siblings, and to what extent each group was interested in careers related to “things” (say, becoming a mechanic or biologist) or those related to “people” (such as teaching or dancing). The study found that the females with CAH in the study—those with high levels of androgens—were more likely to be interested in careers that dealt with “things” than the “normal” female participants.
Moreover, the interest in careers like engineering became more pronounced the more androgen the girls were exposed to in the womb. Meanwhile, there were no noticeable differences in the career interests between the males with CAH and the “normal” males in the study, reports the British Psychological Society’s blog.
I’m no endocrinologist or psychologist, so I won’t begin to analyze the merits of the research, which studied just 125 people between the ages of 9 and 26. But if there are truly innate differences between girls and boys at the extreme end of the spectrum when it comes to science—and I will leave that to the scientists—I think looking at how it affects career interest could be more promising. After all, that’s something that can be changed by doing more to expose young girls to science, finding ways to increase their interest, and creating work environments that are more hospitable to those with families.
Who knows whether this study will inspire other college presidents, in an attempt to be provocative, to give speeches linking hormones and career choice. (I’d bet Larry Summers would advise against it.) But perhaps there’s something to it. The BPS blog points to a 2006 study in which girls who participated in a program that showed how science helps people reported being more interested in a career in science as a result. Then again, I’d guess boys who went through the same program would be more interested, too.
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