Science: Sex Differences in Attainment

By Lynn, Richard; Mikk, Jaan | The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Science: Sex Differences in Attainment


Lynn, Richard, Mikk, Jaan, The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies


We review ten international studies of the attainments of boys and girls in science from 1960 through 2006. In general, boys achieved higher average test scores than girls from the age of 10 years in the earlier studies, but this advantage had disappeared for 10-15 year olds in the years 2003-2006. All the studies of 18 years found that boys had higher average attainment that girls. The boys' advantage is greatest in physics and smallest in biology. Boys have greater variability than girls. The reasons for the higher scores of boys may lie in greater interest in science and, among older adolescents, in greater mathematical ability.

Key Words: Science attainment; Gender; TIMSSS; Variance ratio; Abilities; Interests; Intelligence.

The question Why aren't there more women in Science! was raised by Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard, in January, 2005, in a lecture delivered to the American National Bureau of Economic Research. He stated that there is a "five-to-one" ratio of men to women among the top 1 per cent of scientists (and mathematicians) and suggested that the likely explanations for this are that women are socialized to avoid these subjects, and - more controversially - that women may have less average ability in science and math.

Summers' suggestion that women may have less average ability in science and math provoked a storm of protest, to such an extent that he felt it necessary to resign his position as the president of Harvard But was he right? To explore this question, Ceci and Williams (2007) have edited a book (Why aren't more women in Science?) with contributions from 15 experts who, they say "represent all points of view" (p.6). Their experts are divided on the question of whether males are better than females at science and math. Several contributors assert that there are no differences between males and females in their ability to do well in science and math. Among the contributions, we read that "test performance cannot explain the low representation of women in math and science" (Valian, 2007, p31); "for mathematical abilities, there is a negligible overall sex difference favoring females (Hines, 2007, p.104); "boys and girls now show equal capacities and achievements in science and mathematics from elementary school to college" (Spelke & Grace, 2007, p.64); "when we look at the three abilities that are essential for success in the physical sciences - mathematical ability, spatial ability, and verbal ability - the data provide no support for the notion that women lack the necessary abilities" (Hyde, 2007, p. 135). These assertions are endorsed by the editors who write that "females do as well or better in math and science, on average" (Ceci and Williams, 2007, p. 12).

None of the contributors provided a literature review of sex differences in science and mathematics. Our purpose here is to summarize the ten international studies of sex differences in science attainment that have been carried out from 1960 through 2006 on school students aged 10 to 18 years. These provide the major data on the problem, yet curiously none of the contributors made any mention of them. The contributors to the Ceci and Williams book gave their conclusions without first examining the results provided by these studies. We believe it is better to look first at the facts and then give the conclusions. We plan to summarize the international studies of sex differences in math in a later paper.

1. The 1960 Study

The first international study of science attainment was carried out over the years 1959-61 (Foshay, Thorndike, Totyat, Pidgeon & Walker, 1962). The school students were aged 13, and 12 countries participated in the survey. In all the countries, boys performed better than girls, but standard deviations were not given so it is not possible to give the sex differences in standard deviation units (d) or to calculate possible differences invariance. Nevertheless, the study is useful. …

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