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What Happens When a Math Whiz Grows Up? Depends on if You're a Boy or a Girl

In a New York Times op-ed this week, two Cornell professors lay out a provocative argument: The gender gap in research science isn’t a reflection of sexism in the academy; the real problem is that journalists over-report small differences, thus perpetuating them and scaring women off. There’s no question, admit Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams, professors of human development, that “until recently, universities deserved their reputations as bastions of male privilege and outright sexism.” But, they go on: “Times have changed.” Mistreatment of women in the physical sciences, computer sciences and engineering is “largely anecdotal, or else overgeneralized from small studies.” For women working in research science today, they argue, getting hired, promoted and fairly compensated is not very different than it is for men.

Science writers and bloggers jumped on these claims, calling them “ludicrous,” “absurd,” and just plain wrong. A timely new trove of data—just published online in the journal Psychological Science—lends further support to Williams and Ceci’s detractors. In the 1970s, a team of psychologists—led by Johns Hopkins professor Julian Stanley—began a longitudinal study of thousands of especially bright children, intending to check in with them periodically over the next 50 years. The project, known as the “Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth” (SMPY), is now run out of Vanderbilt University, and its currents leaders—David Lubinski, Camilla Benbowo, and Harrison Kell—have just released a 40-year update on the first two cohorts of children, giving us a breakdown of how their career paths diverged over youth and middle age.

The first cohort was recruited between 1972 and 1974, and consisted of 12- and 13-year-olds whose SAT math scores placed them in the top 1 percent of their age group. They adjusted the criteria slightly for the second cohort (recruited between 1976 and 1979), restricting their search to the top 0.5 percent.

The latest set of data—gathered from surveys collected between early 2012 and early 2013—shows that these mathematically precocious children had grown into high-achieving adults: Across the two cohorts, 4.1 percent had earned tenure at a major university, 2.3 percent had become senior executives at well-known companies, and another 2.4 percent were attorneys at major firms. But they also found important gender differences at every level of elite achievement. Among the first cohort, for example, 33 percent of the men had earned a Ph.D., compared to 25 percent of the women. 4.7 percent of the men, but just 1.5 percent of the women, had achieved tenure at a major university. Nearly three times as many men had published a book. Over three percent of men and 0.7 percent of women had won a grant from the National Science Foundation. There were also differences in the women’s lifestyles and priorities: Women more often said personal relationships were more important than work, and 30 percent of women—but just 7 percent of men—said they’d be unwilling to devote more than 40 hours per week to their “ideal job.” Williams and Ceci don’t deny that women are under-represented at the top levels of science, but the SMPY data at least shows that we can’t attribute the problem to innate differences in ability.

The latest wave of SMPY data isn’t the only new research suggesting the gender gap in the academy isn’t just some sort of construction of a gullible or over-sensitive feminist media. Another new study shows that the way academics talk about male and female job applicants reveals subtle gender bias. For a paper in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, a pair of Italian psychologists, Monica Rubini and Michela Menegatti, analyzed the written judgments of 36 selection committees tasked with hiring associate professors at the University of Bologna. (They included over 800 individual written judgments in their study.) They found that female candidates—whether or not they were ultimately selected or rejected for the position—were described with a greater proportion of negative adjectives: for instance, “She is an unoriginal researcher.” Male candidates were more often ascribed positive adjectives, and when they were criticized, it tended to be with verbs: for instance, “He did not write many articles.” As Rubini and Menegatti explain, negative verbs stick to you less: they are attached to “very concrete and specific behaviors or performance that are likely to change in different situations or future evaluations,” whereas negative adjectives imply that “negative traits of women are stable across situations and more likely to remain unaltered.” Interestingly, both male and female members of the selection committees showed this linguistic bias against female candidates.