Dear John Tierney: Don’t Blame Biology for Science Gender Gap

In the past two weeks, John Tierney, The New York Times science columnist, has reminded me why I rarely read John Tierney, The New York Times science columnist. Unfortunately, once I noted the titles of his last two columns–“Daring to Discuss Women and Science” and “Legislation Won’t Close Gender Gap in Sciences”–I knew that I would feel compelled to read and respond.

Tierney fancies himself a provocateur for rehashing tired, oft-disproved arguments that blame the under representation of women in science and math careers on biologically-based sex differences. He decided to reiterate such “daring” positions because of legislation recently passed by the House that would require the White House Science Adviser to convene “workshops to enhance gender equity,” at which participants would take part in “interactive discussions…that increase the awareness of the existence of gender bias.’”

Let me stop here to say that I fully support revolutionizing how we do workplace diversity training regarding gender, race, ethnic origin, sexuality or disabilities. Recent studies demonstrate what those of us who have been forced to undergo diversity training (or have watched the “Diversity Day” episode of The Office) have long known: day-long diversity seminars do little to change employee biases. If companies actually want to transform their workforces’ attitudes, they should, in the words of Princeton University assistant professor Elizabeth Levy Paluck, try:

…appointing special staff members and committees to rethink hiring and promotion structures or assigning responsibility for progress in terms of diversity to some of its existing employees rather than bringing people in for a day or less to talk about discrimination and bias and prejudice.

So I agree with Tierney on one point: Diversity training can be a waste of time. Unfortunately, his column does not stop there. He fondly reflects upon (and evidently agrees with) former Harvard President Larry Summers’s notion that even if social biases were eliminated, the science faculty at Ivy League schools like Harvard would still be predominantly men. Tierney then asks whether it would be “safe” at gender-equity workshops to “mention the new evidence supporting Dr. Summers’s controversial hypothesis about differences in the sexes’ aptitude for math and science.”

The “evidence” upon which Tierney rests his entire argument is a 2010 study by researchers at Duke University that examines the top .01 percent of SAT math and ACT math and science scores of seventh graders who take these standardized tests. They found 3.83 men for every woman in the top .01 percent of SAT math, 2.6 men for every woman in the top .01 percent of ACT math, and 2.83 men for every woman in the top .01 percent of ACT science.

As our friends at Bitch have already noted, Tierney completely ignores years of research that demonstrates the cultural and class biases inherent in standardized tests. But he also cherry-picks quotes from the Duke study to support his point.

Tierney does note that SAT and ACT scores are not the only factor in determining why there are so few women on math and science faculties, acknowledging that “social bias” “may be a factor” working against women in science careers. Yet he neglects to mention the gender bias that operates against women years before they enter the job market. Even the Duke University researchers comment on this issue:

Non-cognitive factors likely play an important role in influencing career pursuits.

One of these non-cognitive factors may include stereotype or signaling threat (which I have written about here). The researchers also note that while there are more role models and teacher encouragement for girls interested in science and math than ever before, this problem has not been eliminated entirely, a point echoed by University of Chicago Professor Sian Bellock in her piece dismantling Tierney’s argument.

So it seems that everyone except Tierney agrees that social bias continues to play a significant role in deterring young women from math and science careers. Yet both the Duke study and Tierney fail to mention new research that illustrates how gender biases affect brain development in men and women from the day we are born.

Dr. Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist at the Chicago Medical School of Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine & Science, describes such research in her book Pink Brain Blue Brain. Comparing decades of studies on boys and girls’ brains, Dr. Eliot concludes that there is  “little solid evidence of sex differences in children’s brains.”

By adulthood, men and women’s brains are different, but most of these differences are not based in biology. They arise from how we are treated by society. Many sociological studies have shown that adults perceive and interact with children differently based on their gender. What makes Dr. Eliot’s research so groundbreaking is that she explains how this gender-based treatment permanently affects and alters children’s brains:

Infant brains are so malleable that small differences at birth become amplified over time, as parents, teachers, peers—and the culture at large—unwittingly reinforce gender stereotypes.”

Eliot’s research directly negates most of Tierney’s claims. For instance, Tierney writes, “Men are more interested in working with things, while women are more interested in working with people.” Certainly nature grants men and women slight biological differences, but Eliot’s research demonstrates that most gender-based traits arise from socialization and brain plasticity:

Boys are not, in fact, ‘better at math’ but at certain kinds of spatial reasoning. Girls are not naturally more empathetic than boys; just allowed to express their feelings more.

If John Tierney truly would “love to see more girls pursuing careers in science” and “more women reading science columns,” he should devote more time to exploring research like Dr. Eliot’s. Our society needs to change its expectations about girls’ behavior, about their likes and dislikes, and about their innate cognitive abilities. The more often nationally-recognized columnists like Tierney repeat tired, biased arguments about women in science and math, the less likely it is that women will continue to crack glass ceilings in these careers–and the less likely that any woman will want to read his science columns.

Above: Chicago-area high school students at annual event “Science Careers in Search of Women; photo from Flickr user Argonne National Laboratory under Creative Commons 3.0.


  1. One might wonder why John Tierney is allowed to pontificate about this unscientific nonsense at such a liberal bastion as the New York Times, but no doubt his scientific expertise is considered of great value there, much as the economic expertise of Larry Summers is considered of great value by the Obama Administration. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

  2. Larry Cahill says:

    I am a neurobiologist who works in the area of sex influences on brain function. The evidence that mammalians brains are possessed of all manner of sex influences down to the level of even ion channels is overwhelming. This is true despite the fact the neuroscience in the main has done its level best to avoid the issue. Neuroscience finally appears to be reaching a tipping point where more and more investigators are starting to pursue, not avoid, the issue of sex influences. Those who still cling to the "its all culture" or, more recently, "its mostly culture" arguments are not, I am afraid, going to be pleased, but so be it. Our job is to figure out what Mother Nature cares about.

  3. What is Tierney’s scientific expertise? If it exists, it does not appear to be in psychology.

    Tierney seems to consider differences in performance on the SAT and other tests to be evidence of “biological differences in mathematical aptitude.” But, as the Duke researchers note in discussing their findings about SAT scores (mentioned in Tierney’s June 7 column), such findings are consistent with explanations based solely on biological factors, solely on socio-cultural factors, or on some combination of both. See section 5.9 of Wai et al. (which the June 7 column links to).

  4. Professor Cahill, I’d be interested in your reaction to the Hyde and Mertz PNAS article:

    Tierney’s article links to this. However, Tierney does not seem to have read the piece that says, “finally, we review mounting evidence that both the magnitude of mean math gender differences and the frequency of identification of gifted and profoundly gifted females significantly correlate with sociocultural factors, including measures of gender equality across nations.” This concerns such things as participation and performance in international mathematics competitions and the Putnam.

  5. Lise Eliot says:

    This is for Larry Cahill. I think you know that we are closer on this issue than this exchange suggests (especially the statement that “most of these [brain]differences are not based in biology”–of course, they’re all biological, whether the cause is hormonal or experience-based plasticity). However, there really is no current evidence that differences in ion channels, cortical gray:white ratio, or anything else can account for reading gaps, salary gaps, sexual preference, etc. The jury is still very much out on the degree to which behavioral sex differences are learned versus innate, but a truly nuanced view knows that it is neither. The human brain is a deeply cultured structure; we are inherently, instinctively social, and as long as gender remains the most significant divider of human identity, it will exert a very strong influence on brain development and learning. (Didn’t your own research find that psychological “gender” is a stronger predictor of memory performance than chromosomal “sex?”)


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