Gender Differences in Math and Science?

I've been fascinated, and gratified, by the widening of the discussion about gender differences in math and science (and IT!) professions that Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers sparked. Summers suggested in a speech last month that a factor in women's dismal progress in mathematics and the sciences might be "innate" differences between male and female. Am I the only person who's actually grateful that Summers has dragged this unspoken assumption into the light of day, where we might actually look at and, gosh, even question it?


The New York Times published a follow-up to the Summers "controversy" that actually focuses on the issue Summers raised and not on his putative motive for raising it ( ). In reading this and other thoughtful analyses of the whole question of cognitive gender differences, I'm struck again and again by the assumption that difference equals inequality, and that the "male way" is the benchmark against which the "female way" should be measured. Can't they both be equally valid? Why do human beings have such a problem with tolerating difference? 


We all know that boys and girls develop differently. But Professor Kurt Fischer, director of Harvard University's Mind, Brain and Education Program, has said that none of the developmental differences say anything meaningful about actual ability. Any teacher will tell you that there are greater differences within the sexes than between them. And any person who's overcome a difficult challenge will tell you that the person who wants to achieve something, does.


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