August 31 2011
A couple of items have been floating around the blogosphere lately that reaffirm the value of women in business and the sciences. Employers and business leaders, pay attention: researchers at MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence recently published their findings from their experiments on group intelligence. The experiments involved scoring the participants’ IQs separately, then randomly assigning them to teams to complete several tasks, including brainstorming, decision making, or visual puzzles. Team results were used to assess a value for overall group intelligence.
The result? While you might think that groups with the highest average individual IQs among the members would score the highest in group intelligence, the researchers found a very weak correlation between individual and group intelligence. More interestingly, preliminary findings indicate that the number of women in the group was correlated with higher group intelligence.
To clarify, the authors suspect that the mere presence of women is not what raises the IQ level of a team. Rather, they note that women tend to score higher on tests of social sensitivity, and it’s that trait that makes them a valuable asset to teams. Listening to one another, having open minds, and giving constructive criticism are all characteristics of effective teams. Compare that with a group containing a few uber-competitive people beating their chests and trying to dominate the conversation as the less-socially-savvy members look on in bored silence. (The authors also point out that they have early evidence that performance flattens out in groups that are all-female or heavily female-dominated). The upshot is that the social adeptness of women (and socially-sensitive men) contributes more to group performance than the presence of members who are merely smart. (H/T: ReadWriteWeb)
The second piece of gender-ability news (via Ars Technica) is a new study in PNAS that provides evidence that gives question to the persistent belief that males have innately better spatial reasoning skills than females. Spatial reasoning ability is widely considered to be related to mathematical ability, and is often used as evidence for why women make up a minority of the workforce in the sciences – something I’ve written about before.
This study compared the spatial reasoning ability of men and women from two tribes in Northeast India. Conveniently, the tribes share many common traits (agrarian lifestyles, similar diet, genetically closely related), but differ in one key aspect of their culture. One group is patrilineal, handing down property to sons and prohibiting women from owning land. The other is the exact opposite, requiring men to hand over their money and property to their wives and sisters, and in which daughters receive family inheritances. The study found that in the patriarchal tribe, men outperformed women significantly, taking 35% less time to complete the spatial reasoning tasks given to them. However, that performance difference vanished among members of the matriarchal tribe, suggesting that nurture and culture play a large role in the performance of these spatial tasks.
If future research continues to cast doubt on the “innate differences” theory of mathematical ability, then the debate over women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) professions will come down to cultural bias vs. preference. Now, while I understand I don’t speak for all female STEM students, in my experience as a science student, I never ran into a professor who wasn’t thrilled to have women in his class, or students who acted hostile. My experience, combined with the number of tech-professional men I’ve heard muse about how to draw women into the field gives me reason to doubt there’s a widespread, systemic bias against women in STEM professions. Rather, it seems women are choosing to not pursue these careers, whether due to their desire to work in more flexible jobs, jobs with a more comfortable gender balance (see above), or any number of factors. I also believe – if history is any reliable indicator – that this gender gap in science will eventually improve. Women have already tackled post-secondary and advanced education, business, humanities, social sciences, sports, and almost every sphere of life that was once thought to be “men’s business.” There’s increasingly little reason to think that math and science will be any different.