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See Inside December 2007/January 2008

Sex, Math and Scientific Achievement

Why do men dominate the fields of science, engineering and mathematics?



AGE FOTOSTOCK

For years, blue-ribbon panels of experts have sounded the alarm about a looming shortage of scientists, mathematicians and engineers in the U.S.--making dire predictions of damage to the national economy, threats to security and loss of status in the world. There also seemed to be an attractive solution: coax more women to these traditionally male fields. But there was not much public discussion about the reasons more women are not pursuing careers in these fields until 2005, when then Harvard University president Lawrence Summers offered his personal observations.

He suggested to an audience at a small economics conference near Boston that one of the major reasons women are less likely than men to achieve at the highest levels of scientific work is because fewer females have "innate ability" in these fields. In the wake of reactions to Summers's provocative statement, a national debate erupted over whether intrinsic differences between the sexes were responsible for the underrepresentation of women in mathematical and scientific disciplines.

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