Science and the Attack on Women: Girls, Boys and Math

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Science and the Attack on Women: Girls, Boys and Math

by Jon Beckwith & John Durkin

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 13, No. 5, September-October 1981, p. 6 — 9 & 32 — 35

John Durkin is a doctoral candidate in biophysics at Harvard University. Jon Beckwith teaches and does research in genetics at Harvard Medical School. He is a long-time member of Science for the People and is active in the Sociobiology Study Group.

“Are Boys Better at Math?” asked the December 7, 1980, New York Times article. “Two psychologists said yesterday that boys are better than girls in mathematical reasoning, and they urged educators to accept the possibility that something more than social factors may be responsible.”1 On December 15, Time called our attention to “The Gender Factor In Math”: “Since the rise of feminism … female underachievement in math has been generally chalked up to sexism … That theory meets its strongest challenge yet in a seven-year study reported in this week’s Science magazine. According to its authors … males inherently have more mathematical ability than females.”2 Newsweek headlined their article on the subject, “Do Males have a Math Gene?”3 And a few months later, Discover magazine began its cover story on “The Sexes and The Brain” with reference to this same study as the most recent support for the position that sex-role differences are inborn. According to the subtitle of this last article: “Men and Women think differently, Science is finding out why.”4

This is only a sampling of the extensive publicity which followed the publication of a study by Camilla Benbow and Julian Stanley of Johns Hopkins University.5 Considering the enormous attention this study was given, it would seem as though some important new scientific insights have been made. But this is simply not the case. When we look more closely we find that this is yet another tempest in a teapot a case of the skimpiest of scientific data being blown into a major news story with considerable social impact. It is important to look in some detail at this study and the attendant publicity in order to see the influence of social factors on scientific research and its communication to the public. Why and how do particular scientific findings gain such notoriety? 

The Study

In a research article entitled “Sex Differences in Mathematical Ability: Fact or Artifact?”,6 Benbow and Stanley reported the results of eight years of research conducted by the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY). This group conducts talent searches to identify mathematically gifted children. Benbow and Stanley gave the children in each of several talent searches the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and found that on the mathematics section the boys, on the average, got higher scores than the girls. Since these children were in the seventh and eighth grades, they had presumably not learned the material covered by the SAT; on this basis, Benbow and Stanley claim that the test measures mathematical ability for these children. Since seventh and eighth graders have taken the same courses, differences in achievement at this level cannot be attributed to boys having received more education. Furthermore, Benbow and Stanley report that the boys and the girls had the same attitude towards mathematics.

They conclude their paper:

We favor the hypothesis that sex differences in achievement in and attitude toward mathematics result from superior male mathematical ability, which may in turn be related to greater male ability in spatial tasks. This male superiority is probably an expression of a combination of both endogenous and exogenous variables. We recognize, however, that our data are consistent with numerous alternative hypotheses. Nonetheless, the hypothesis of differential course-taking was not supported. It also seems likely that putting one’s faith in boy-versus-girl socialization processes as the only permissible explanation of the sex difference in mathematics is premature.

Benbow and Stanley’s conclusion was taken by the media to mean that innate (or “endogenous” in their words) factors were responsible for the differences in math “ability.” This interpretation was reinforced by Benbow’s comment that “women … would be better off accepting the differences”7 and by their charge that their critics are practicing “‘sweep it under the rug’ sexual politics.”8

Socialization and Math Performance

But, what, in fact, have the researchers shown? They have studied children in the upper percentile of math performance. The only socialization process for which they have controlled is the number of mathematics courses taken. Nevertheless, they imply that by eliminating one out of many possible explanations for differential performance, they are allowed to favor “endogenous” factors as playing an important role in determining math performance. It should be immediately obvious that there are many factors acting on seventh and eighth grade girls which could also explain the results of this study. Benbow and Stanley dismiss these explanations as “the usual arm-chair assumptions.” Yet there is a whole body of work examining the impact of female/male socialization on math performance.9,10

Guidance counselors and teachers often discourage girls from taking math. In one study it was found that “42 percent of girls interested in careers in mathematics or science reported being discouraged by counselors from taking courses in advanced mathematics.” 11 Casserly 12 interviewed guidance counselors and came up with comments of the following type: “I just hate to see a girl get in over her head.” Even if the students do go on to further math courses the message conveyed by these advisors is bound to affect their confidence in their mathematical ability.

In addition, girls are socialized to not want to do well in math because boys might not like them or they might be socially ostracized. Interviews with girls have turned up the following typical comments:

‘ … boys do not like or are afraid of smart girls, especially mathematical whizzes …’ 13

‘ … girls don’t want to be known as science nuts by taking every science course around.’14

Furthermore, studies have suggested that teenagers associate mathematics with masculinity.15

This discouragement process starts early. Ernest16, in a survey of elementary and high school teachers, found that 41 percent thought boys did better than girls in math, while none thought girls did better than boys. He suggested that “we may be observing the so-called ‘Pygmalion effect’ in education, according to which the student performs to some (measurable) extent, in response to the expectations of the teacher.” This speaks directly to Benbow and Stanley’s claim to have controlled for differential course-taking. Sitting in the same classroom and learning from the same teacher is a different experience for girls and for boys.

Perhaps even more importantly, early childhood socialization and differential upbringing of the sexes could have significant effects on later interest and performance in math. The different kinds of toys boys and girls are given to play with, boys’ interest in sports which require various mathematical reasoning powers, and parents’ attitudes towards their children’s school work could all have significant impact. 

Math Ability 

Benbow and Stanley claim to have shown that males have more ”mathematical reasoning ability,” or “mathematical aptitude,” then females. These terms carry connotations which the media have failed to examine critically.

“Aptitude” implies something that is fixed. “Girls have less aptitude than boys” implies that there is a barrier to female achievement. (In conversations with associates, one of us has noticed an alternate formulation with the same implication. They often speak of “mental capacity,” which one either does or does not achieve depending on one’s training.)

The phrase “Mathematical Reasoning Ability” is carefully constructed and sounds quite precise. It implies a single, indivisible trait, a fundamental quality.

It is important to remember, however, that mental ability is not directly measurable. Ernest17 has pointed out that psychologists do not have a consensus even on a definition of mathematical reasoning ability. What is observable is performance on a mathematical task. The experiment infers ability from performance. The conclusions one draws therefore depend on which measuring instrument one uses.

Benbow and Stanley chose to use the SAT. There are coaching courses for the SAT which significantly improve the scores of those who take them. In fact, the improvement in the scores of minority group students, who traditionally do worse on these exams, is even greater than the improvement shown by students on the whole. Of course, none of the seventh and eighth graders in the SMPY talent searches have taken these courses. But this malleability points out that performance on a test is the result of a complex interaction between biological substrate (i.e. the brain) and imposed experiences.

Methodologically, the Benbow and Stanley study is hopelessly inadequate to separate out these influences (with the lone exception of differential course-taking).

As for math ability as a single trait, it should be obvious that skill at solving problems involves many skills, among them “motivation, perseverance, the ability to withstand frustrations, an esthetic sense, courage, intelligence, imagination, and many kinds of competencies including computational, spatial, algebraic, and verbal.”18 Note that while some of these skills are taught formally, others have to do with attitudes and self-image. Benbow and Stanley have not controlled for sex differences in these areas.

A final caveat to the use of the SAT in a study in which sex is a variable is the content of the test. Performance in word problems is affected by the problem-solver’s familiarity with their content. For example, Graf and Ridden19 gave their subjects one of two word problems which were identical computationally. One was about buying fabric, the other about selling stocks. The female subjects solved the stocks problem more slowly than the males. Chipman20 cites studies by the Educational Testing Service which found similar sex biases in the contents of the SAT mathematical word problems. Eliminating bias is a recurrent problem in the design of tests. For example, the Stanford-Binet I.Q. test is believed to be biased against blacks by sampling cultural information more familiar to whites.21 To date, this bias has not been corrected. The Stanford-Binet I.Q. test is, however, unbiased sexually. When it was first prepared in 1916, women had higher scores than men. The test was redesigned so men and women had the same mean score.22

Benbow and Stanley have indeed shown a sex difference. But, quite apart from the question of what causes it, it is not clear what they have shown a sex difference in. 


Girls agreed that a chemistry set had been the hardest toy for most of them to get.23

Fox and Cohn24 cite a study of gifted children which found that the parents of gifted boys often noticed their sons’ interest in science at an early age, discussed careers with them, and supplied them with science-related toys and books. Very few noticed their daughters’ interest in science.

Yet Benbow and Stanley25 “favor the hypothesis that sex differences in achievement in and attitude toward mathematics result from superior male mathematical ability.” It is evident even from the way they presented their data that they do not take socialization very seriously. Differential male-female performance was carefully documented; means and standard deviations for boys and girls in each of the talent searches were tabulated, and the relevant statistics were computed. But the claims that these children had taken the same number of courses did not differ significantly in their attitude toward mathematics were referenced: “C. Benbow and J. Stanley, manuscript in preparation.”

They do not report how they assessed attitude towards mathematics, either in the Science report or in an expanded account (Benbow and Stanley, manuscript in preparation, kindly sent to us by the authors). This is critical because evaluation of a child’s feelings about mathematics depends on what question is asked. Several researchers have simply asked boys and girls “Do you like math?” and reported that girls and boys like math about the same26. But other ways of examining such attitudes paint a more complex picture. For example, sociologist Sanford Dornbusch has studied high school students in the San Francisco area in an attempt to discover the causes of student failure:

One of our questions had asked the student: when you get a poor grade, which reason do you think usually causes the bad grade? There were four alternative answers: I had bad luck, I didn’t work hard enough, the teacher didn’t like me, and I’m not good at this subject. Most students gave lack of effort as the reason for receiving a poor grade in every subject. However when it came to math, 26 percent of the females gave lack of ability as the basis for a poor grade as compared to 15 percent of the males … This pattern was found in no other subject for females and in no subject for males.27

Fox and Cohn28, two other investigators at SMPY, examined other facets of these gifted children’s characters. They found that, even in the seventh grade, the high-scoring boys have a strong orientation towards investigative careers in mathematics and the sciences, and a strong “theoretical-value orientation.” The high-scoring girls tend to have values that are more social than theoretical. Furthermore, the boys much more than the girls seek out extra-curricular experiences in mathematics studying with a parent or teacher, working mathematical puzzles. Fox and Cohn conclude:

SMPY’s study of the characteristics of mathematically precocious adolescents lends some support for the social explanation of sex differences at the higher levels of ability and achievement.

This conclusion is especially striking because their SAT performance data are exactly the same as Benbow and Stanley’s! (Compare Fox and Cohn’s Table 7.1 with Benbow and Stanley’s Table 1). But, none of us remember seeing articles in the New York Times headlined “Are Girls Stifled at Math?” (“Two psychologists said yesterday that seventh and eighth grade girls have already been discouraged from performing well in mathematics, and they urged educators to accept the possibility that something more than genetic factors may be responsible…”), or in Time headlined “The Male Math Advantage” (“A new study says males may get more breaks than females”). For reasons which had little to do with its scientific merit, the media chose to highlight the Benbow and Stanley article, while they have by and large ignored a host of studies which examine social factors affecting female math performance. 

Why the Media Interest

Given the very limited nature of the conclusions the Johns Hopkins researchers were actually able to reach, it is at first surprising to see the extent of the media reaction and their willingness to broadcast the groundless speculations. In part, this may be due to the fact that Science chose not only to publish this article, but also to accompany it with a news story with the provocative title “Math and Sex: Are Girls Born with Less Ability?”29

However, this publicity does not seem surprising if we examine the trends in science reporting and scientific research on male-female differences of the last few years. Increasingly, we find scientists suggesting that women’s current place in society intellectually, economically, sexually, and in power relationships in general is a natural consequence of differences in male and female biology. These claims are rapidly picked up by the mass media.

Sociobiologists suggest the “mother nature is sexist,”30 and that such social facts as the sexual double standard 31, 32, heterosexual rape33, 34 and the dearth of women in “science, government and business”35 are a consequence of natural selection which operated on males and females differently. Others propose that evidence exists for different brain structure in men and women, which in turn leads to the different sex roles found in society (including differential math performance)36,37,38. Or, it is suggested that the different hormonal make-up of men and women can explain the social differences we observe.39,40

Not all of these proposals are ridiculous in themselves. It is conceivable that differences in biology influence human male and female behavior. However, in the specific examples cited above, as in the Benbow-Stanley study, there is simply no evidence to support the conclusions put forth. Sociobiology has been widely criticized as speculation built on the social biases of the scientists involved41,42,43,44,45. The whole field of brain lateralization is in disarray, with the claims of strictly determined functions for different brain hemisphers very much up in the air.46,47 Even the most prominent researchers in the hormone work admit the difficulty of separating the influence of early childhood socialization from biological factors.48,49

Thus, the current widespread research activity in these fields and the considerable publicity it has received cannot be explained on the basis of any new scientific breakthrough or insights. An explanation for the phenomena is found elsewhere. In all cases mentioned, the supposed new insights into the roots of particular behaviors correlate strikingly with the issues which have been raised by the women’s movement in the last 10 to 15 years. Demands for equal rights and affirmative action are now met with the argument that biology limits women’s possibilities in comparison to men’s. Increased consciousness of the problem of rape and its connection to power relationships between men and women, are met with statements that rape is a natural consequence of man’s need to spread his genes as widely as possible. And now a scientific rationale is offered for taking away from women the choice to have an abortion.50 

Seen in this light, sex role research is most easily explained as a social and political phenomenon, not a scientific one. Once again the scientific community has come forth with an apology for the status quo (in this case, male domination), and once again, it has done so with great success. There is no deliberate conspiracy to promote such research. Rather, it is a natural result of the domination of science funding, science and the media by the more privileged sectors of the society, and, in particular, by white males. For the scientists, the very choice of questions to be asked is influenced by their social biases. Further, the assumptions which underlie studies into these complex areas of human behavior inevitably reflect the prejudices of those doing the studies. For instance, Benbow and Stanley assume (although it is not stated) that 1) course-taking is the major environmental factor affecting differential math performance and 2) the SAT tests are unbiased measures of ability. Those assumptions require a particular outlook on society.

Genetics and Behavior

Even if some of these studies had come up with evidence for a genetic or biological component to a difference in social behavior or performance between males and females, it would tell us nothing about whether those differences could be changed.51 A genetic contribution to a behavior is defined only for the environment in which it is measured. A new environment may change that behavior dramatically, even though there were genes influencing it. 

For Newsweek to state in reference to the Benbow-Stanley study:  “…if they [the differences] are genetic, we must learn to accept them”52 reflects this wide-spread misconception. It is like saying that we must accept near-sightedness because it is genetic and forget about developing eye glasses; or that children born with the genetic disease phenylketonuria are doomed to mental retardation, when in fact they can be treated successfully with a phenylalanine-free diet.

If we wish to strive for a world in which men and women contribute equally in all social domains, there is nothing which genetics can tell us which would hinder those efforts. If there are inborn traits affecting math ability in which any group has an advantage, people weak in these traits could be helped through education. As Tomizuka and Tobias suggest:

If spatial visualization contributes to mathematical reasoning, teach it. Improve math teaching overall, and eliminate all the factors in the culture that discourage children of both sexes and all races from pursuing mathematical study with pleasure and reasonable expectations of success.53

In fact, programs instituted to raise the performance of girls in math have met with success.54,55 Blum, L. and Givant, S. “Increasing the Participation of Women in Fields that Use Mathematics,” Math Monthly 87 (1980): 785-793.56

The publicity these studies have received indicates the current receptivity to these ideas in influential circles. They are bound to affect parents, teachers and students who read about them. One of us recently talked with a high school science class about the Benbow and Stanley study. One girl who had already read about the study said that she felt like she should no longer try to improve her grade in math. It seems likely that such publicity can only worsen the differential treatment which boys and girls receive. The arguments for affirmative action, particularly in math- and science-related fields, will be viewed as unworkable if these claims are accepted. Math performance has been characterized as a “critical filter” in shutting off opportunities for women and non-Asian minority students.57 “Competence in mathematics is an important prerequisite for a wide variety of careers, particularly those of a professional nature. In addition to careers in mathematics and the natural sciences, careers in business and the social sciences are requiring a strong background in mathematics because of their increasing use of statistics and computer technology.”58

Any deficit in math background or attitudes that women cannot do math is likely to narrow women’s options even more. More broadly, the current scientific attack on women can only reinforce the political attack by reactionary forces. The Benbow and Stanley study, like the other scientific attacks on women, provides an apparently objective rationale for keeping women in their place. We must expose the fallacies underlying this work and its political content, in order to cut out an important underpinning for regressive social policies. 

Acknowledgement: Much of the analysis and information in this article is based upon discussions within the Sociobiology Study Group of Boston Science for the People. It was stimulated in part by a draft of a pamphlet on this issue written by the Ann Arbor Science for the People chapter. 


>> Back to Vol. 13, No. 5 <<


  1. “Are Boys Better At Math?” The New York Times (December 7, 1980).
  2. “The Gender Factor in Math,” Time (December 15, 1980): 57.
  3. Williams, D.A. and King, P. “Do Males Have a Math Gene?” Newsweek (December 15, 1980): 73.
  4. Weintraub, P. “The Brain: His and Hers,” Discover (April, 1981): 15-20.
  5. Benbow, C.P. and Stanley, J.C. “Sex Differences in Mathematical Ability: Fact or Artifact?” Science 210 (1980): 1262-1264.
  6. Benbow, C.P. and Stanley, J.C. “Sex Differences in Mathematical Ability: Fact or Artifact?” Science 210 (1980): 1262-1264.
  7. Kolata, G.B. “Math and Sex: Are Girls Born with Less Ability?” Science 210 (1980): 1234-1235.
  8. Benbow, C. and Stanley, J.C. “Sex Differences in Math Reasoning,” Science News 119 (1981): 147.
  9. It is particularly surprising that these authors have ignored this work when we consider that Stanley is General Editor for a series of books which include Women and the Mathematical Mystique. This book reports on the work of a number of researchers who have documented social factors in school and at home which affect attitudes toward math.
  10. Fox, L., Brody, L., and Tobin, D. Women and the Mathematical Mystique. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1980.
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  15. Tomizuka, C. and Tobias, S. “Mathematical Ability: Is Sex A Factor?” Science 212 (1981): 114-121.
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  17.  Ernest, J. “Is Mathematics a Sexist Discipline?” in Fox, L. et al., op. cit. pp. 57-65.
  18. Ernest, J. “Is Mathematics a Sexist Discipline?” in Fox, L. et al., op. cit. pp. 57-65.
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  24.  Fox, L.H., and Cohn, S.J. “Sex Differences in the Development of Precocious Mathematical Talent,” in Fox, L. et al., op. cit. pp. 94-112.
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  27. Dornbusch, S. “To Try or not to Try,” Stanford Magazine 2 (1974): 50-54.
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  29. Kolata, G.B. “Math and Sex: Are Girls Born with Less Ability?” Science 210 (1980): 1234-1235.
  30.  Barash, D.P. Sociobiology and Behavior. New York: Elsevier. 1977, p. 283.
  31.  Morris, S. “Darwin and the Double Standard,” Playboy (Aug., 1978): 109.
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  35. Wilson, E.O. On Human Nature. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1978.
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  37. Durden-Smith, J. “Male and Female — Why?” Quest/80 (October, 1980): 15.
  38. Gelman, D. et al. “Just How the Sexes Differ,” Newsweek (May 18, 1981): 72-83.
  39. Weintraub, P. “The Brain: His and Hers,” Discover (April, 1981): 15-20.
  40. Gelman, D. et al. “Just How the Sexes Differ,” Newsweek (May 18, 1981): 72-83.
  41. Washburn, S. “Human Behavior of Other Animals,” American Psychologist 33 (1978): 405-418.
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  43. Bock, K. Human Nature and History: A Response to Sociobiology. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980.
  44. Kaplan, A.L. The Sociobiology Debate. New York: Harper and Rowe, 1978.
  45. Sociobiology Study Group. The Sociobiology Packet, 1980. Available from Science for the People, 897 Main St., Cambridge, MA 02139.
  46. See June, 1980 issue of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Article by McGlone, J. “Sex Differences in Human Brain Asymmetry: A Critical Survey,” with short commentaries by about 25 others.
  47. Gooch, S. “Right Brain Left Brain,” New Scientist (September 11, 1980): 790-792.
  48. Erhardt, A.A. and Meyer-Bahlburg, H.F.L. “Effects of Prenatal Sex Hormones on Gender-Related Behavior,” Science 211 (1981): 1312-1318.
  49. Rubin, R.T., Reinisch, J.M. and Haskett, R.F. “Postnatal Gonadal Steroid Effects on Human Behavior.” Science 211 (1981): 1318-1324.
  50. Donovan, C. “Is the Fetus a Person?” Science for the People (November/December 1980): 9-11.
  51. Lewontin, R.C. “The Fallacy of Biological Determinism.” The Sciences (March/April 1976): 12.
  52. Williams, D.A. and King, P. “Do Males Have a Math Gene?” Newsweek (December 15, 1980): 73.
  53. Tomizuka, C. and Tobias, S. “Mathematical Ability: Is Sex A Factor?” Science 212 (1981): 114-121.
  54. MacDonald, C.T. “An Experiment in Mathematics Education at the College Level,” in Fox, L. et al, op. cit. pp. 115-137.
  55. Brody, L. and Fox, L.H. “An Accelerative Intervention Program for Mathematically Gifted Girls” in Fox, L. et al, op cit. pp. 164-178.
  56.  Blum, L. and Givant, S. “Increasing the Participation of Women in Fields that Use Mathematics,” Math Monthly 87 (1980): 785-793.
  57. Sells, L.W. in Fox, L. et al., op. cit. pp. 66-75.
  58. Brody, L. and Fox, L.H. “An Accelerative Intervention Program for Mathematically Gifted Girls” in Fox, L. et al, op cit. pp. 164-178.