It doesn’t have to be underrepresented through discrimination

Last month, Big Trade magazine Science A special supplement with a subject “The missing black physicists(The Lost Black Physicists). African Americans make up 13.4% of the population in the United States, but only 3.4% of all physics students who graduate from an American university are black.

Even more embarrassing, this percentage has declined in recent decades, despite all kinds of positive action (Preferential treatment): In 1988 it was still 5%. A step up the academic ladder, the picture was even more skewed: Only 1% of Physics PhD students are black.

Simple: It’s all about racism

In the I wake up The prevailing climate in American universities, of course, is only possible for one explanation for this massive under-representation of African Americans: racism. also in this ScienceNobody dares to doubt that.

Physics in the United States, as it is called, is still governed by a caste of male high priests who maintain an academic environment unlivable for blacks. strange that Hispanic In the same environment thrive, while Asians and Americans with Asians the roots They succeed exceptionally here, even more so than whites.

It is true that American universities are far from bedside, but the mechanism by which under-representation is interpreted as discrimination prevails here as well. Of course, half of the members of the House of Representatives, CEOs and professors must be women, because women make up 50% of the population.

Dodge to a Marginal Phenomenon: The International Mathematical Olympiad, IMO. This is an annual two-day competition, where country teams of six students solve challenging arithmetic problems. In many countries, including the Netherlands, the candidates for the national team come from preliminary rounds that take place in hundreds of secondary schools, after which these candidates also go through various training camps to select the top six.

Certainly in Russia and China, but in many countries this team is a prestige target, and performance at the IMO is seen as a matter of national pride. So you can assume that countries are really trying to send their best students.

An inconvenient fact: 95% of elite female athletes are male. IMO has an Online Hall of Fame, which is a permanent ranking of top performers. Only 15 girls out of the top 500. Lisa Sauermann from Germany is a unique female talent with 3rd place. The next girl is at 32 and the third is at 103.

How does that happen?

By the way, browsing through this Hall of Fame is a feast of appreciation: you keep seeing the names of the students who are now world-famous mathematicians. This proves that IMO really does test for creative talent, not a set of tricks that every average level person can master with a lot of practice.

How can this massive male domination of the IMO be explained? After all, girls are just as good at math in school as boys, according to international PISA surveys. Also, the average IQ of women is equal to the average IQ of men. However, girls are so poorly represented on IMO teams that a separate IMO for girls is still organized.

Is this blatant discrimination by men who feel threatened in their supposedly superior intelligence? At least not in the Netherlands, because the person who has been training and selecting the IMO team for many years is a woman.

It is unreasonable to systematically exclude girls from the selection of the IMO team. It is hard to imagine an unconscious bias about one’s qualities in this discipline; Every mathematical problem has one correct answer that cannot be discussed.

But this paradox is based on the misconception that if two groups are very similar, they should automatically result in equal representation. This is simply not true statistically. It is entirely possible that if, on average, girls and boys are good at math, twenty times as many boys are as extreme mathematicians.

Only the most talented…

The image below shows how this works: On the horizontal axis is an objective measure of Math Olympiad talent, T, and vertically the number of boys (blue) and girls (pink) with this talent score. What is “talent” in this case? Perhaps a combination of IQ and driving.

Such traits are often distributed “normally”: the graph has the well-known bell shape, most people are almost gifted, and people become even rarer due to their deviation from this mean.

If boys have a little more talent on average, it doesn’t make much difference on average: there are about as many girls as boys with a T-score between 80 and 120, and because that’s the bulk of the entire population, this determines the average grades . Then the above-mentioned PISA study shows no significant difference between girls and boys.

But for IMO, only talented students are recruited, so it’s at the very right end of the graph. And there’s a very different picture: there are far more boys with a score above 140, so the IMO teams are almost entirely made up of boys. So dominance has nothing to do with discrimination.

The more you move the selection border to the right, the more boys will be overrepresented proportionally. That matches the IMO Hall of Fame picture: these are the most talented IMO participants, so the boys’ dominance is even stronger.

The moral of this story, of course, is much broader: once you pick talent—and craving for something that is also talent—small differences between seemingly equal populations are greatly magnified in excellence.

The fact that less than 40% of parliamentarians are women does not necessarily mean that women do not have a fair chance of taking a seat. It may also mean that they are, on average, less motivated than men.

Likewise, the underrepresentation of blacks in American physics does not prove the existence of systematic racism. The relatively small difference between blacks, whites, and other minorities in motivation, or in the exact kind of intelligence you need for math and physics, can make that difference. This also fits with the picture that this underrepresentation becomes stronger if you look not at graduates, but at black physicists who have completed their Ph.D.

Abandoning the reaction that under-representation must be the result of discrimination also gives you space to simply accept that different populations are distributed unevenly across occupational groups, due to differences in talent or differences in interests and motivations. This is diversity too.

Arnot Jaspers He writes a weekly surprise column or article on Wynia Week. Would you like to get to know Arnout Jaspers more closely? Looking at the video or listen podcasts

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