Male variation

I’ve been glancing through Mary Roth Walsh (ed), Women, men and gender: ongoing debates (New Haven 1997) and came across discussions of differences between the sexes on mathematical ability. (This interests me because I studied maths before I became a historian, and was good enough to get a first-class degree in it). Looking at the data, the argument doesn’t seem to be about average abilities, where there is little, if any sex-related difference, but about the extremes. Specifically, some scientists are claiming that men’s intellectual performance (both on mathematics and other intellectual measures) is more variable than women’s, so that there are more extremely clever men and more extremely stupid men, while women’s abilities bunch more. (This has also been suggested by several other studies/commentators(see e.g.,,1556640,00.html). I’ve heard of this theory before, but for the first time I came across it being designated as the Greater Male Variability Hypothesis. I haven’t investigated the topic sufficiently (and I’m not sure I will), to know how much the evidence stands up for this view. (When I started Googling the term, one of the first things I found was a cross-cultural study that claimed that US findings on this weren’t common to all cultures)
I do have two immediate thoughts from a gender studies perspective, however. One is that if there was a Greater Female Variability Hypothesis, it’d surely have got extended onto claims about women’s emotional variability, inconstancy etc. The other is why claims about variability only emerge during discussions about why there are so few women scientists (e.g. Lawrence Summers speaking at Harvard). Why do the scientists not speak out whenever there is one of the frequent panics about boys’ academic achievement? Or are they not prepared to acknowledge the alternative side of their hypothesis: that is ‘natural’ that boys will disproportionately be at the bottom end of the academic scale, and (as a presumable corollary), we shouldn’t do anything to alter this inevitable state of affairs.


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