Monday, March 27, 2006

Gender Gap and the Procrustean Bed

At the elite levels of sports and athletics, the gender gap is prominent and resists closure. There is an approximate 15 minutes difference in the best times of elite male marathoners, and elite female marathoners. Other sports show similar differences at the elite level.

Remember when it was predicted that intensive training for women in athletics would close the gender gap in performance? Some years ago, when the marathon was first becoming a competitive event for women, the rapid improvement in female times led some to predict that female performances would soon equal those of men in the marathon. This has not happened, and it won't. The current world record for women is 2:21, compared to 2:06:50 for the men, a difference in speed of about 10%. This same 10% gap is present across the distance running performance spectrum The reason for the performance gap is not that women don't train as hard as men. There are some important physiological differences between the sexes that can't be overlooked or overcome.

....The "typical" young untrained male will have an absolute VO2 max of 3.5 liters/min, while the typical same-age female will be about 2 liters/min. This is a 43% difference! Where does it come from? Well first, much of the difference is due to the fact that males are bigger, on average, than females. Us humans are all (sort of) geometrically similar, so heart size scales in proportion to lean body size . If we divide VO2 by bodyweight, the difference is diminished (45 ml/min/kg vs 38 ml/min/kg) to 15 to 20%, but not eliminated.

....It is important to make note of the fact that these differences are "on average". In reality, there are many women with significantly higher VO2max values than average men. However, if we look at the "best of the best", the differences persist. Using XC skiing as an example from here in Norway, the highest reliable values for VO2 max recorded in national team XC skiers are about 90 ml/min/kg. The very best Norwegian woman has been measured at 77 ml/min/kg, a 17% difference. So, while this woman will outperform 99.9% of all men, she will not out-perform the national team level males.

Read more here.

A number of studies have demonstrated that boys inherit a performance advantage in athletics, for both pre-puberty, and even more so in post-puberty.
The stopwatch does not lie, and whether in swimming, running, weightlifting, shot put, bicycling etc. the superior VO2 max and muscle mass of males prevents the gender gap in athletics from closing. The only way to narrow the gap is to train the elite athlete girls and confine the elite athlete boys in restraints to encourage muscle atrophy and loss of VO2 max.

In the cognitive realm, you see a similar phenomenon in the measures of spatial ability and mathematical ability at the elite levels. Although hope springs eternal that training will narrow the gap, as in athletics, sometimes it seems that the only way to narrow the gap is to train the elite girls and prevent the elite boys from training somehow.

One can be excused for wondering why all the excitement about male superiority in a small area of elite cognitive performance? The number of jobs involved is minimal. Certainly an intelligent businesswoman, female physician, or female lawyer, can make much more money than an elite mathematician, physicist, or engineer. What is all the near-hysteria about?

Average intelligence levels of men and women test virtually identical. A 1995 study examined the performance of more than 100,000 American adolescents on various mental tests. The study found that on average, females performed slightly better than males on tests of reading comprehension, writing, perceptual speed, and certain memory tasks. Males tended to perform slightly better than girls on tests of mathematics, science, and social studies. In almost all cases, the average sex differences were small.

And here is how developmental psychologist David C. Geary puts it:

There was no sex difference on the IQ test, but males showed significantly higher mean scores on the arithmetical computations, arithmetical reasoning, and spatial cognition measures. A series of structural equation models indicated that individual differences in arithmetical reasoning were related to individual differences in IQ, spatial abilities, and computational fluency. Moreover, the results suggested that the male advantage in arithmetical reasoning is mediated by the male advantages in both computational fluency and spatial cognition.

Women are graduating from schools of higher education at a rate of 6 to 4 vs. men. Women have achieved virtual parity in schools of medicine and law, and make up about 70% of graduate psychologists. Women are achieving phenomenally in the modern world, and if any gender should be worried about current trends, it is the males. A few men are holding on under siege, to a small sliver of cognitive excellence, and all that many psychologists can think of doing is to try to eliminate the small gap within that tiny sliver of cognitive performance.

It is a fascinating study in academic frustration--the data will simply not behave in a politically correct fashion. Many more research studies and outreach programs will be mandated, however, to erase that gap. But I can tell the gender psy-sers exactly how to erase the gap, and I will not charge for the valuable information. Simply prescribe pro-androgenic drugs that cross the placental barrier, to pregnant women in their second trimester, who are carrying female fetuses. Some additional androgenic supplementation may be necessary at different time periods after birth--and there will be potentially unpleasant side effects. Hirsutism, deep voice, skin blemishes, a certain manly aggressiveness, etc. But all of that would be a small price to pay to erase the gender gap in this one small remaining area of academics, no?

Just as there are elite women athletes who can defeat 99% of males in their sport, there are women mathematicians and physicists who are better at their trade than 99% of males. But they are not competing against those 99%. They are competing against the elite males, a very small number, but a significantly greater number than the number of elite females in those vocations. That is the hump that the gender Procrusteans are incapable of leveling. The relatively tiny number of male elites in a relatively tiny number of fields who will simply not go away.

Lawrence Summers paidwith his job, for making a very timid suggestion about possible biological gender or sex differences in that very small, elite sliver of academic professorship in a few top rank schools. The politics of this subject are absolutely deadly to anyone in a public position who lets down his guard for even a moment.

But why? I will deal with the real reasons for the excitement in a later posting.



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