Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Are Girls Worse at Math and Does That Translate to Lower Salaries Later in Life?

One of the best parts about living in Chicago is access to the country's top universities.  Yesterday, I had the opportunity to hear a lecture by one of the area's top economists on the topic of math performance in girls and boys and future salary potential.  As the mother of three daughters, I'm more than interested in this topic.  As a scientist in a male-dominated career, I feel like somewhat of an expert already.  But here's what I learned:

  • There are no differences in math performance among girls and boys in elementary school.  The evidence showing that boys may be slightly better than girls at math is noted at age 15.
  • Boys are really only better at spatial ability (whereas girls are better at verbal).  Interestingly, this is related to testosterone levels.  Boys (and girls) with more testosterone are better at spatial ability than those with less testosterone. 
  • There is really no connection between spatial ability and math scores, EXCEPT in geometry.  Tests, such as the SAT and ACT, that skew heavy on geometry result in higher scores for boys than girls.  But when it comes to algebra and calculus, which have nothing to do with spatial ability, there are no measurable differences between girls and boys. 
  • When it comes to career salaries, there is a gender gap.  Men make more money than women.  Much of this is explained by the following:
    • Women are less likely to take jobs with long hours or a competitive pay structure.
    • Women are more likely to select jobs that are family-friendly versus those with higher pay.
    • Women are more likely to step out of the work force for family reasons, which results in lower pay at a given point in time.  For example, if you compare a 40 yr old man and woman who are both lawyers, the woman may make less money on paper, but she may have taken 5 years off to raise a kid or care for a sick relative and that is not always accounted for in surveys.
    • In interviews, men tend to over-represent their experience resulting in better opportunities or higher pay, whereas women tend to under-represent their skills. 
At this point in the lecture, a hairy spider walked across my table and I stood up like a crazy person and waved my arms around like an idiot until someone removed it (not even squished it, but gently took it away to live out its days in a planter or toilet).  That is neither here nor there, but was a subtle reminder that you can take the scientist out of the lab, but you can't take the girl out of the scientist. 

The most interesting finding for me was that even after you factor out all of the reasons above, men still make more money than women at a given job.  There is an underlying perception or expectation that men will outperform women.  I'm sure if you compare 2011 to 1961, things are much better today and we are likely moving in the right direction for the future.  But hearing these research results reminds me that women just need to work harder than men in a given career to achieve the same level of success.  This is especially true in male-dominated careers like science and engineering.....and spider catching.