New study shows women can do math, and well

When I say “affirmative action” what comes to mind? While the readers of this post may think of this answer (because you are largely a self-selecting group), I doubt that many folks think of the definition as successful policy proposals that directly impact marginalized communities.

The notion of affirmative action is so maligned in our society that most folks likely think about heated debates and choosing a person of color/woman over an equally qualified white male. And then said white male sues the school for “reverse racism.”

Well, as it turns out, the effects of affirmative action can be determined using studies that measure methods that actively promote the underrepresented group. Scientific studies, FTW.

A new study, released in Science, indicates that policy-based initiatives can increase women’s participation and competitiveness in math and the quality of the resulting work.

Even though in many parts of the world women’s educational advances have surpassed those of men, it’s true that women are still underrepresented in positions of leadership and power within corporations, politics, and some scientific research fields. These disparities are often explained by pointing to two factors: continuing gender discrimination, and lower desire for competitiveness among women.

This new study focused on the issue of competitiveness. The experiment, done by Loukas Balafoutas and Matthias Sutter, involved three methods that provided an initial advantage to women in a math competition. The  researchers found that in each case, when offered that initial advantage, women entered the competitions more readily, but the aggregate performance of the participants was unaffected, and sometimes even improved. In other words, ladies can kick ass at the math-bowl, too.

Based on the premise that if competitors know they have a higher chance of success before a competition even begins, they will be more likely to enter it with more confidence in their own abilities, here’s how the study worked:

Balfoutas and Sutter created math competitions with rewards, drawing participants from an experimental pool of 360 undergraduate students broken into groups of 6—three women and three men. The three methods they examined were based on three kinds of commonly used policy initiatives practiced in European parliaments or public-sector job searches:

1. A quota system, requiring that a certain proportion of the winners be female;

2. Two sub-cases: the highest-performing woman was given preferential treatment in one, while in the other, if a tie occurred in the competition, the woman was always selected;

3. The competition was repeated until a certain fraction of the winners were women.

In article in Ars Technica, Matthew Francis writes:

“The common feature in all three methods is an affirmative action approach: the active promotion of the underrepresented group. Passive methods (such as increasing potential rewards for everyone) do improve participation by women, but they also improve men’s performance as well, which leaves the gender gap in place. Affirmative action, on the other hand, not only changes the odds of success by women, but (according to the authors of a related study) also increases their confidence and willingness to compete in the first place.”

Let’s also take a minute to point out that none of these methods constitute “reverse discrimination,” the nebulous and rarely clearly defined challenge that affirmative action plans often face. In none of these cases was a top-performing man denied a reward if he outperformed everyone else. In fact, the researches found the main effect to be an increase in the number of able women willing to participate in the competitions.

Another interesting element of the study is that it looked into the concerns that the teams therefore might not do as well in the competition, and that men may not be willing to cooperate with women after the end of the competition, due to resentment of their unequal treatment. Neither of these concerns were born out in this study. Not only did the inclusion of women not affect team success, Balfoutas and Sutter paired men and women in a coordination game after the contest. They found performance in this game did not decrease compared to the controls.

Notably, not all methods produced equal outcomes. And the study has focused on whether people enter into existing competitions, which is relevant to things such as job openings or political campaigns, but doesn’t address other issues, like the number of available jobs, promotion opportunities, the kinds of rewards up for grabs etc. Also, studies like these are most often gender-normative, most fundamentally, leaving them open to critique. But the researchers have given us a clearer understanding of how despite these limitations, gender-based affirmative action policies can increase the willingness of women to compete without affecting the chances of highly skilled men to succeed as well.

Join the Conversation

  • Robert

    I never thought men naturally did better at math than women. I do believe men are more interested in math just like women are more interested in liberal studies. It’s no one’s fault if there aren’t that many women interested in math. When you have to give incentives for someone to do something then they really aren’t that interested in the first place. In the end that leads to unhappiness when you are stuck doing something you don’t want to do. For example I know engineers make a lot of money (I work in the same building as them) and I could eventually learn all the math for it but I would be miserable in the end.

    I say let women do what THEY want to do, don’t lead them towards a specific subject just to try and make quotas.

    • Jess

      TLDR Summary:
      1. Don’t make generalisations, particularly about what women want/are interested in.
      2. If there seems to be a gender difference, look for societal pressures before declaring no one is at fault, or “women/men are just that way”.

      Actual comment:
      Robert, have you ever considered how much “lack of interest” is actually just socialised? I’m studying IT at the moment, and there are so few women around that it is actually depressing. There are four full-time female lecturers in IT across three campuses of my university. I don’t know the official percentage, but there are far fewer female IT students than male.

      Do you know why a lot of girls aren’t interested in IT as a career? Because it is a “boy’s field”. More than that, it is a “geeky boy’s field”, and what late-teenage girl, socialised to like makeup and glamour and “hot boys” is going to be *interested* in a field like that?
      (Disclaimer: Yes, this is a generalisation, which is bad; but it is also sarcasm, which I am trying to use to stress my point. Cries of hypocrisy are invalidated.)

      I was your typical all-girls-school graduate; I left school knowing that there is nothing a man can do that I can’t, whether that’s maths or IT or engineering or any other thing that might interest me. But I saw girls all around me who had ability, but wrote it off because “that’s a boy thing”, and there was nothing more frustrating than watching them do it.

      And of course, it ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy The “its a boy thing” argument and the associated “boys’ club” idea you see in a lot of these fields mean that more boys enter them than girls, leading to girls looking at it and seeing no/few female role models in a sea of men, and wondering if their gender precludes them from having a shot.

      Sweeping statements like “men are more interested in math just like women are more interested in liberal studies” just get people off-side, because they are generalisations. I’m in IT. I love maths. So-called “liberal studies” bore me. Guess what? I’m a woman. Surprise.

      The main point I’m trying to express through my frustration is, I think, my complete disagreement with this statement: “It’s no one’s fault if there aren’t that many women interested in math.” Yes, it is someone’s fault. It is the fault of a society that tells girls “you’re too pretty to do maths”, “those are boys things”, “you don’t want to seem too geeky” (personal experience talking there), or anything along those lines.

  • Dan

    From the study summary:”The researchers ran the experiment under four different conditions, each with a different incentive to encourage women to participate in the tournament. In one condition, the researchers set a quota, to guarantee that one of the two winners would be female. In two others, they gave women preferential treatment, adding certain fixed increments to the women’s scores. Finally, they dictated that the tournament would be repeated if no woman was among the winners. The results showed that all four interventions encouraged women to enter the competition more often, and their performance was at least equally good as that of the men.”

    In the first case, a (second-to) top performing man was denied the prize in favor of the highest-scoring woman. In the fourth case, if the top two performers were men, the entire competition is repeated until they aren’t. That’s pretty much the opposite of what is claimed, unless the control (no incentives) had identical results…

    • Smiley

      I agree. (I tried to make exactly the same point last night, but my PC froze.)

      May I add that the trials was designed to obtain the desired result. Which pretty invalidates the result.

      Imagine playing a tennis game: you win the first set. You win, right? No, continue playing. Your opponent then wins the next two sets: game over! And if you do win, then the game goes on and on until your opponent is in the lead. Hardly fair, is it?

  • Lisa O.

    Of course the first posters are male and of course they don’t agree with the article. *eyeroll*

    • Smiley

      Oh dear, what a comment.

      Are you saying that well argued commentaries are to be discarded because of the sex of the authors?

    • Smiley

      And, by the way, we doi not disagree with the conclusions. We merely point out that the arguments used are not very good.

      A little like saying that the earth is round because a the letter O is round. The earth is round, yes, but that can hardly be attributed to the shape of the letter.

  • Lisa O.

    @Robert…general preferences are not encouraged by society at all are they? You don’t get it. Females have been largely and frequently told they are not good at math and other “male” pursuits. And “coincidentally” those pursuits happen to be the best paying careers. Do you really think it is a coincidence that female preferred careers just happen to be the low paying ones?