Gender, Math and Science

May 31, 2010

In 2005 Harvard President Lawrence Summers suggested that there might be an innate difference between men and women, explaining why so few women succeed in science and mathematics careers. However, Elizabeth Spelke, Marshall L. Berkman Professor, Psychology, Harvard University, who delivered a lecture at CEU on May 13, entitled “Gender, Math and Science: Perspectives from Cognitive Development” gave an alternative explanation. She argued that the three possibilities presented–innate differences in aptitude, innate differences in motivation and discrimination against women–lack explanatory power, and that differences can be explained by implicit biases towards gender.

Spelke further argued that innate gender differences in aptitude are unlikely since higher mathematics is evolutionarily speaking a recent phenomenon, therefore we are unlikely to have a core cognitive module dedicated to higher mathematics. She posited that higher mathematical abilities therefore rely on other core cognitive abilities of which she cited four: two in the algebraic domain (analogue magnitude system and the object file/small set system) and two in the geometrical domain (navigation/reorientation and geometry of visual forms). In none of them could she and her colleagues demonstrate a reliable gender difference in infancy. However, as Katalin Farkas, Head, Department of Philosophy, CEU, and others observed, it was questionable whether higher level mathematics did indeed rely either on these core domain systems or even on later (SAT) mathematical tests.

Spelke, reviewing the literature, observed that there was no evidence for higher motivation, driving boys towards mathematics and science, the only motivation-related variable with explanatory power in success in academic life being self-regulation, where again there were no systematic gender differences, with the exception of one meta-analysis favoring girls. Spelke argued that in spite of the lack of overt discrimination, implicit associative processes might explain the gender gap. Citing the “Baby X experiments” (the same crying expression being interpreted as sadness if the baby is believed to be a girl and anger in the opposite case), parents skewed perception of children (underestimating girls’ abilities) and human resources decision-makers’ implicit associations between women and lower credentials in maths and in sciences. Spelke claimed that the difference was due to underlying implicit presumptions on abilities associated with gender, which nevertheless were not there in reality.

The public lecture was organized by the Cognitive Development Center (CDC) and the Department of Gender Studies.


Elizabeth Spelke is the Marshall L. Berkman Professor of  Psychology and the Co-Director of the Laboratory for Developmental Studies at Harvard University. Elizabeth Spelke studies  the cognitive capacities of human infants in relation to those of non-human primates, children, and adults from different  cultures.  Her current research focuses on the origins and  development of knowledge of objects and their motions, of other  people and their social interactions, and of two domains at the  foundations of formal mathematics:  number and geometry.