The Mathematics of Sex: How Biology and Society Conspire to Limit Talented Women and Girl


by Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams
Oxford University Press, 2009
Reviewed by Sharon Presley

As a psychology professor who has taught Psychology of Women for many years, I am familiar with much of the research literature on gender comparisons of cognitive abilities. But even I learned a lot from this book. It is far and away the fairest, most balanced and thorough overview of the research on this topic that I have ever seen or read (and I've read quite a few!). Its main purpose is to understand why there are so few women who have careers in areas of science that require math abilities. Many writers come to the glib conclusion that it is because women aren’t as good at math and spatial abilities because of innate differences. This book dispels that common myth.

It looks at both the case for biological influences and environmental influences—dispassionately and carefully. The authors are well-known and well-regarded research psychologists so they know how to do their homework. This is in contrast to some books that just present their side of the argument or are superficial and present only a few studies. They even tell us that one of the author's minds was changed by what they found. A rare confession for an academic! In the spirit of true scholars, they also admit where there are gaps that are yet to be researched.

In my (educated) opinion, the authors come to a reasonable conclusion. There may be biological influences but they are minor in comparison to social factors. First of all, they show that cultural factors have also play a role in math and spatial scores (they report studies from all over the world--a big plus since many books on this topic somehow assume that if it's true in the US, it can be generalized to everyone--an arrogant assumption—and don’t look into statistics in other countries). Females have HIGHER spatial scores in Iceland than males, folks. Since the author's specific purpose was to explain why math-talented women are underrepresented in math- and science-oriented careers, they also explore the particular reasons why this is so—the social as well as biological. They conclude that it is not lack of math or spatial ability but rather preferences and limitations of academia. If you want to have a tenure track job in a science-oriented university, you have to really produce and publish early in your career. But this is right at the time when women are in their peak child-bearing years. If you don't publish enough, you don't get tenure. Many women really do have to choose between family and careers—which of course men do not have to do. There's more to the picture than that but this is the headline.

I cannot recommend this book too highly. It's not a pop psych book so having a background in research will help you understand some of it. But it's not ponderous. Any educated layperson will be able to read this well-written book and benefit from it. If you want the whole picture and not just part of it, read this book.

Copyright 2009 Sharon Presley