UPDATE: Several of my favorite bloggers have, not surprisingly, said things that I agree with on this subject.
Physicist Michael Nielsen points out that even if women were on average "worse" (a poorly defined concept) at math and science, it wouldn't preclude the possibility of there being more highly qualified women than men -- and vice versa, of course. His point is that we all have lousy statistical models in mind.
Historian Tim Burke makes the related point that Harvard, in particular, could easily achieve gender balance without compromising standards at all. It needs only a few brilliant women to do so, and they surely exist, and Harvard could surely recruit them. If it wanted to.
Physicist Chad Orzel comments that most of the advice given to women about career success applies to men too, and as a veteran of many seminars, I can confirm it. This includes the advice about blending career and family, which is never easy for anyone.
And artist/physics student "Pyracantha" has two somewhat sad posts about her own reaction to comments like this (last month and this month) which is mostly a deeply rooted fear that they are true, and she is doomed to failure. And that in itself accounts in large part for the shortage of female physicists.
I never know exactly what to say about the whole issue of women in physics. Usually when I do say something, I regret it later. But now I have a couple of links I really want to publicize.
So as long as I'm blogging about it, let me just summarize a couple of thoughts briefly.
1) I admit part of me fears it's true, that women really do suck at math and science and computers.
2) But I've mostly been able to convince myself that's crap by getting this far.
3) Lawrence Summers is not courageous for saying that women may be bad at math, and it is not censorship or thought policing to disagree with him. What he says is what most people seem to believe, and have believed for a long, long time, including many women. And someone says it to the press every couple of years. So the best description isn't "courage," it's "conventional wisdom."
(And lots of things that people believed for a long, long time aren't true.)
4) My main theory about why there are so few women in my discipline is that women have more to lose from being nerdy and antisocial than men. This is more the fault of their mothers and their magazines and their female friends than of men. I blame the feminine subculture, and the fact that women mostly believe they can't do it, so why try?
5) Which is not to say that there's no discrimination of any kind. For the most part nowadays, it's just male physicists being condescending. (Historically, it was more about forbidding women access to education outright.)
I really don't believe in any theories of biological inferiority. First of all, because I believe that math and science and logic really are universal. I think aliens would have to discover the same laws we do. If aliens can understand, then women, with really insignificant biological differences, certainly ought to be able to. And secondly because I don't believe biology is destiny anyway. I think hormones influence moods, but I think moods are irrelevant to math. And finally, see above re: "getting this far." I can understand math, and I'm female, so it's not biological. QED, as far as I'm concerned. (Although I've heard everyone's favorite response to this, about statistical outliers. It so happens I know I am not exceptional. I remember what it felt like to hate math and fail at it.)
Now, the links:
Why aren't there more women in physics? For most of the same, complex reasons that there aren't more women in computer science.
If it were really biological, wouldn't it be the same in other countries? (That graph seems hard to argue with, to me.)
But then how can we account for the difference in test scores? Easily. This month's Scientific American shows that stereotypes are almost always self-fulfilling prophesies. (Which is just another reason standardized tests are meaningless, in my opinion.)
Links like that really cheer me up, some days.