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Study Suggests Women Score Low on Tech Aptitude Tests for Lack of Encouragement [Nov. 3rd, 2011|01:26 am]
Lindsey Kuper

What follows is a parody of an article that appears on the CACM website. If you haven't read the original yet, try this fun exercise: read the below and then try to figure out what the very small change is that I made from the original.

A new study by a University of Iowa researcher suggests that males score better on technical aptitude tests than females because boys and men are simply more encouraged than girls in technical things, like taking apart a bike.

The theory offered by Frank Schmidt, professor of management and organizations in the Tippie College of Business, seeks to explain why men score better than women on technical aptitude tests even though the two genders are of equal intelligence.

Aptitude tests are used to predict how well people will do in school and on jobs. These tests focus on particular skills or kinds of specific aptitude, like verbal or technical aptitude. But research over the last few decades by Schmidt and others has found that what really matters is general intelligence, not specific aptitudes. Smart people, researchers have found, are able to learn the requirements of any job if they are motivated.

"The factors that are measured by the specific aptitude tests independent of the general intelligence component in these tests don't make any contribution to job performance," he says.

Technical aptitude measures are often used as a component of general intelligence measures, so Schmidt wanted to know why women and men score differently on technical aptitude in particular. He analyzed data from the 10 subtest Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB, to look at how men and women differed on the tests, including those on technical aptitude.

He found that at all intelligence levels women score lower on technical aptitude than men at the same intelligence level. Also, at all levels of technical aptitude women had higher levels of general intelligence. So if technical aptitude tests are used as part of a measure of general intelligence, women could receive intelligence scores that are too low. That is, technical aptitude tests may be biased indicators of general intelligence for girls and women.

In his paper "A Theory of Sex Differences in Technical Aptitude and Some Supporting Evidence," Schmidt presents a theory that suggests this difference stems from sex differences in encouragement in technical pursuits. People who are more encouraged to do technical things are led to acquire technical experience, which in turn increases technical aptitude scores. The paper is published in the current issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, published by the Association for Psychological Science.

Schmidt presents evidence that among men, technical experience does lead to better scores on technical aptitude tests. To find out for sure, he would need to conduct another long-term study — one that looks at whether early encouragement develops into later aptitudes, as opposed to the opposite theory that aptitudes cause encouragement. If his theory is right, it might be possible to narrow the gap in technical aptitude by encouraging girls in technical areas. Encouragement should lead to aptitude.

But that may not work, Schmidt says.

"The research shows it's very hard to change people's patterns of encouragement," he says. "They're pretty stable and they form pretty early in life."

It's more important, he says, to make sure that the tests used to measure general intelligence aren't using biased indicators. "That is quite possible today. You can either not use technical aptitude tests or you can use them and counterbalance them," he says, with tests that women tend to do better on, like perceptual speed or some verbal tests.

Figured it out yet? The change I made was to replace "interest" with "encouragement" and "interested" with "encouraged", with some light editing otherwise. (For another fun variation, replace "encouragement" with "expectation" and "encouraged" with "expected"!)

Thanks to Brian Burg for pointing out the original article.


[User Picture]From: cos
2011-11-03 01:34 pm (UTC)
Your change seems to work very differently in this part than in the rest:

    "The research shows it's very hard to change people's patterns of encouragement," he says. "They're pretty stable and they form pretty early in life."

In the rest of the article, your change has the effect of suggesting a way to look at it.

But in this bit, you're changing one factual assertion into a different factual assertion, and the two may be very different in how true or false they are. For example, is there even any research about how hard it is to change patterns of encouragement? Even if there is, it'd be a coincidence if it showed similar results; the research would be very different.
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[User Picture]From: _tove
2011-11-03 03:38 pm (UTC)
Of course I agree that the research would have to be very different, and I can't point to any particular studies, but purely anecdotally, I'd argue that the altered fact is still correct, and that it's even harder to change [parents' and teachers'] patterns of encouragement than [kids'] patterns of interest. Kids are pretty moldable, whereas even if you could convince all parents and teachers that equal encouragements are a good thing, there are studies that show that gender-based expectations can be very subtle, and even affect interactions with babies. I think this is the one I was thinking of: "Sex Stereotypes in Adult-Infant Play". There are several more referenced here: "Parental Influence on Children's Socialization to Gender Roles"

When you add in the fact that many parents and teachers don't want to be convinced, and think it's just fine (and, perhaps, Godly) that little Sally is encouraged to sit still and compliment her brother when he takes apart their bikes... well. It's an ideological battle, in many ways.
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[User Picture]From: lindseykuper
2011-11-03 10:19 pm (UTC)
Good catch. That's a place where I didn't simply replace one word with another. When I tried to, saying "The research shows it's very hard to change people's encouragements" didn't make sense grammatically, and that's when I realized that (as _tove pointed out) unlike the original article, I wasn't talking about changing the kids; I was talking about changing the people around them, because those are the people that encouragement (or expectation) would come from, or not. That's the crux of what I think is missing from the article. I actually think the article is quite good, especially this part: "Smart people, researchers have found, are able to learn the requirements of any job if they are motivated." That's an interesting and important result. But what makes someone motivated? That's where I think the article doesn't go far enough. It suggests that you're motivated if you're interested. Well, okay, but what makes someone interested? Where do interests come from? What if people's interests are a product of their environment? If so, and if that environment is the patriarchy, then it would be reasonable to suppose that people's interests would end up conforming to certain standards based on what the patriarchy encourages (and expects).

I haven't read Schmidt's paper, and it's possible that it's being distorted by the CACM article, although I tend to trust CACM. But anyway, it sounds like the article is saying that Schmidt's hypothesis is that interest leads to experience, and experience leads to "aptitude" (or, at least, to doing well on so-called aptitude tests; another neat thing about Schmidt's research is that it suggests "aptitude" is now the wrong word, because "aptitude" connotes something innate rather than something that can be learned through experience). He's got evidence for the second half of this hypothesis: that experience leads to better scores on the tests. It sounds like he doesn't yet have evidence for the first half, that interest leads to experience, so it's a bit disingenuous for the headline to say so. But even if he did, my point is that interests, or the lack of them, don't just spring up out of nowhere.
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[User Picture]From: keturn
2011-11-04 05:29 am (UTC)
I was just pondering along these lines earlier this evening (prompted by the upcoming Grace Hopper Celebration here), trying to figure out why it is that while I strongly believe that the sexes are equally capable, but I'm less convinced this necessarily means there should be an even distribution of all sexes across all interests or professions.

And it comes down to this, I think, this "what makes someone interested?" That I don't know. I'm willing to believe that it's societal, but I'm also willing to believe there's other correlations between sex and interest that aren't learned.
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