Caryl Rivers

Girls and Calculus

VTR Date: July 31, 1981

Caryl Rivers discusses trends in the alignment of perceived ability and gender.


GUEST: Caryl Rivers
VTR: 7/31/1981

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Sometime back I was quite taken by an op-ed piece about “Girls and Calculus”. A very critical essay about the inference that some have made from research done at the Johns Hopkins University that boys seem by nature, meaning genes, to be better at mathematics, particularly spatial tasks, than girls. Caryl Rivers, Professor of Journalism at Boston University, the co-author with Grace Baruch and Roslyn Barnett of Beyond Sugar and Spice; How Women Grow, Learn, and Thrive, wrote about what she called this “great leap to genes” that has been making what she fears is a comeback in contemporary thinking. “Biology”, she wrote, “is the new frontier of backlash”. And of course may be used to rationalize abandoning special equal-treatment programs that in very recent years have at least attempted in some small measure to make up for our historic, culture,-long boy-versus-girl patterns of socialization by which boys have been taught to like and thus to master math and other things as well, and girls have been taught that they’re just not good at them. As another author was quoted in this nature versus nurture struggle, “If your mother hates math, and your father tells you not to worry your poor little head about thinking about it, do you think that a math test could possibly be an accurate measure of your ability?”

Well, let’s talk about this subject now with Caryl Rivers, who wrote that intriguing op-ed piece, got good math genes, and who is the author with her husband, Alan Lupo, of a recent volume published by Summit Books, entitled, For Better, For Worse.

Thanks very much for joining me today, Caryl.

RIVERS: Oh, you’re welcome.

HEFFNER: I have the feeling as I read your op-ed piece that I don’t think you particularly give two hoots about mathematics. And so I didn’t come prepared with mathematical questions. But I wondered why you were quite so upset by this great leap back to genes.

RIVERS: Well, I think I’m really more interested in the politics than the science, you might say, of the question. And I think that what’s happening is you’re noticing more talk about genetics, what women can’t do, what blacks can’t do. And that, it seems to me, has some strange connection with the fact that we’re not entering an era of tighter economics when you’re finding much more competition for jobs and when a lot of people, particularly affluent white, or in some cases white males, would not, would prefer maybe not to compete with more people on the market. It seems to me that there is some connection between those two facts.

HEFFNER: Now, do I detect a devil theory here?

RIVERS: No, not really. I don’t think it’s a devil theory any more than I think that if you are white you necessarily don’t want to see blacks succeed. But I think that overall when times get tough, we start, as a society, we start looking for reasons why the haves have and the have-nots don’t have, and also looking for ways to say, “Let’s not give anymore”. Because if you say, “After all, if women had the capacity to learn math, let’s have more programs, spend more money, and create more people to compete”. However, if we say, “Well, they haven’t got it in their genes”, then you don’t have to feel guilty about not spending on special programs, whether it be women, blacks, or any other group that’s in the minority.

HEFFNER: And yet the research that was the basis for your, that was the taking-off point for your op-ed piece, that was real. Certainly that wasn’t contrived.

RIVERS: Sure. No, the research is real showing that on this particular test, the math hunt, young men did better than young women. What I think happened that was wrong was that the researches then took a stop that went beyond their data, way beyond their data, suggesting that it was s genetic reason rather than a cultural reason for these scores. I think we don’t have the vaguest idea yet what the reason for that is. Maybe if we’d been 20 years giving girls special help and we’d gotten rid of that whole social pressure against girls for math for a long time and the scores still didn’t change, then I might say, okay, you may have something in this argument. But I think they leapt from their data, which was okay, to a conclusion that was really speculative.

HEFFNER: Caryl, can you really picture yourself saying about something like this, “Yeah, I think you might have something to this data?”

RIVERS: Sure. I mean, but the point is, let’s say that it turns out that as a group men perform better on spatial tasks. But people misunderstand that. And I’ll give you a concrete example of how they do it. I just read an article, I think it was in Parade magazine, which said, a general was quoted as saying, “We won’t hire women to be pilots because men are better in spatial abilities”. Well, there he’d misread the whole thing. None of that data says that all men are better than all women. But that’s the way he was using it. There are a lot of women who are much better at spatial tasks than a lot of men. So what happens is, even if this group difference exists, it cancels out individual differences. And here’s this general saying, “Uh-uh. No women pilots”. Totally misusing the data.

HEFFNER: What you’re concerned about are these generalizations then.

RIVERS: Absolutely. I think that when you start taking group differences and applying them to individuals, then you start, politics really starts getting involved. I’m intrigued by the fact that constantly the tests show that women do much better at verbal skills. And do you find men saying, “Oh gosh, I can’t write a sonnet. My verbal skills are lousy.”? Or, “I can’t be an editor to this publishing house. A woman should do it.”? But we do find people saying that about women and math. So it’s an interesting political question.

HEFFNER: Again, I’m sure you’re not concerned about math, but about the politics. And you suggested the economics of it. Throughout our history we have made these kinds of assumptions. And when you and your colleagues wrote Beyond Sugar and Spice: How Women Grow, Learn, and Thrive, you weren’t talking about bad times; you were talking about good times and bad times and mediocre times.

RIVERS: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: So that we’ve always tended to put women in their place, which had to do, generally, we said, with their genetic capacity.

RIVERS: Yeah. Well, a good example of that, I think, is a lot of the medical doctrines of the nineteenth century. Women were kept out of universities, they were kept out of serious fields of study, because it was said that the brain and the ovaries could not develop at the same time. That if a woman thought too hard she would damage her childbearing capacity. And that’s why you saw nice ladies being able to do a little bit of French and a smattering of piano. And we know now that that is scientifically absurd. But in the early nineteenth century this was thought to be quite accurate, and of course had the effect of keeping women out of any serious intellectual pursuit.

HEFFNER: But let’s go back again to this notion. I said, “Do I detect a devil theory?” You said, “No”. But you did say there’s a connection between what may be increasing hard times these days and perhaps an effort to jump, make that great jump towards a genetic rationalization of not putting quite so much money into what we’ve considered the disadvantaged…


HEFFNER: …the culturally disadvantaged. How so? I mean, do scientists lend themselves to this? Or are you talking about doctrines that are always present and are used at certain times?

RIVERS: Yes. I think so. I think that many scientists don’t say, “Here’s my genetic theory, and I’m going to do this intentionally to discriminate against blacks or women or whatever group”. They do the research in what they believe is an objective way. I think they don’t realize how much influenced they are by prevailing social theories. But…

HEFFNER: In reading the data?

RIVERS: In reading the data and in making assumptions based on the data. And then when they make their assumptions the data is used by society to say what it wants to say. A good example: what happens often is the kind of findings that sort of appeal to, you might call the elite groups, the grouping control, tend to get a lot of publicity, tend to be hooted about. Those that don’t tend to disappear. And one of my favorite examples is what’s called “the material deprivation literature”, which is, back in the early 30s and 40s, scientists started looking at children in orphanages and found that they didn’t have contact with a mother or father, and they lay in cribs, and you know, very sterile environments. And they really turned out to be quite damaged emotionally and physically. At the same time, they studied sons and daughters of working mothers, working in a factory. They had loving, working mothers. And the other damage, material damage literature was used to say, “Oh, women shouldn’t work, because they’re going to hurt their children”. But the scientific basis of it was studies on children in institutions, which had no thing to do with working mothers.

HEFFNER: Yes, but Caryl, you’re a professor of journalism at Boston University. Mustn’t we therefore turn to your profession, the scribblers, because they’re the ones who interpret for us what the scientists uncover, say, manage to drag forth from their data? So it’s you and your colleagues.

RIVERS: Well, it’s me and my colleagues, true. But I think traditionally it’s also true that, how many black managing editors do you have? How many women do you have in control of deciding what are we going to play up and what we’re going to play down? I think that you still have essentially an affluent white male elite deciding what the news is going to be. And I don’t think that they often make these decisions deciding on evil ways or conspiratorial things. I think they’re deciding in terms of their interests and what they’ve grown up to be and what society has shaped them to be. there aren’t enough fresh voices, I think, making those decisions about, hey, you know, if you play this story, or the way this story is played, what does it mean, do you understand why you’re doing this? I think until we get more diversity up in the decision-making towers of journalism that we’re going to be victims of the same social myths that a lot of the scientists are victims of.

HEFFNER: You mean to say we have to have seated at this table with us people who represent various and diverse backgrounds in order to be fair-minded or open-minded?

RIVERS: Well, I think we can be. But I suspect that I may be a little more ready to jump on the gun and write a piece for the op-edit page when this is done about women than if it had been done about blacks, because I’m not black. We certainly maybe need somebody who, the scientist comes out ad says, “Hey now, we’ve got another study that shows blacks really aren’t quite up to snuff genetically”, who’s going to get furious and jump off the gun and say, “This is specious reasoning. You’re misusing your data”. And be able to appear on the op-edit page of The New York Times.

HEFFNER: Well, look, the question of potential or possible genetic effects. You’re not dismissing those off-hand are you?

RIVERS: Oh, no. I think, I’m not. What I see is that unfortunately I see the way that genetic data is being used politically. I think you have to be awfully careful. If I were a scientist, for example, and I publish a study that says blacks can’t do calculus as well as whites, or women can’t do calculus as well, I would, I think I would have to probably publish the data, but I think I might set it in a setting that would say, look, there’s an awful lot we don’t know about genetics; behavior is incredibly complex; be careful with this stuff; don’t misuse it.

HEFFNER: But then the journalists would still be free to pick and choose what they want.

RIVERS: Oh, sure. Sure.

HEFFNER: And they wouldn’t pick the caveats, they wouldn’t pick the warnings.

RIVERS: They might not. But I think, at that point, as a scientist, would at least attempt to make that caveat. I would hope the journalist would then be a little bit more sophisticated and try to look at this data. There was a good example when The New York Times ran a story a little while back saying that, it came from some study that said girls all want to be homemakers again. Well, it turned out the study was pretty flawed, and they really didn’t’ say that. But Good Lord, that got immense headlines. People were buzzing about it. Would that story have been played on page one if it said, you know, “Bright young women want to be astronauts or physicists? It would have died.

HEFFNER: You mean the one that did appear corresponded to our ancient prejudices?

RIVERS: I think so. I think that when something does appear that corresponds to the prejudices, the social environment which we’ve grown up to believe in, we tend to glom onto it and say, “Ah ha! This tells me what I really sort of think is the case”. And we tend to find that much more appealing than the other stuff.

HEFFNER: Caryl, is it beyond the realm of your sense of possibility that females are, let’s say, not inferior, but females are different from males when it comes to matters relating to spatial conceptualization?

RIVERS: Well, let’s put it this way: It is possible that as a group…


RIVERS: …males may do better. There are always going to be – let us say this is a genetic given, that this is true – it’s only going to apply to a certain number of people. There’s still going to be a minority of women who are going to be every bit as good and maybe better in spatial event.


RIVERS: What bothers me is that the uses to which this is given, that when groups who are not in power, like women and blacks, when it is found on a test they don’t do something well, I hear doors closing. But when it’s found that men don’t perform well – for example, women do very well with manipulating things. Women probably should, all neurosurgeons should probably be women. But I do not hear doors closing on men because they’re not as good as women at the skills that would go into neurosurgery. So this is the kind of thing that I think you have to worry about. Who’s going to get the doors closed after them after these tests? Not in essence, the validity of the tests. There indeed may be good differences between men and women.

HEFFNER: You see, one of the troubles, it seemed to me, in your strong statement against the jump, the great leap to genes, is that it too can be interpreted in its own way as a kind of almost anti-intellectual, anti-scientific, political sloganeering. And indeed it is political.

RIVERS: Oh, it is political. But I think that, my feeling about the researchers is that it was not I who am, you know, waving a flag. I think that they went way beyond their data. And I think a great many other scientists believe that right now the intermix that produces a good mathematician is just too complex for us to know, that it is far too premature to say that it isn’t culture that’s doing it, it’s genes. We really don’t know. And these scientists in really guarded language made that inference. And I think that is really very speculative.

HEFFNER: But I started off by saying I didn’t think you really were talking about math or spatial relations. I think you were talking about many, many, many other things. And obviously if the world is indeed our oyster in this regard, there must be areas where the genes that accompany female genes do enable a person to do something that males cannot.

RIVERS: But that’s true with individuals. I mean, the problem is…

HEFFNER: You wouldn’t want to generalize if you could, that in general…Why? What’s your objection to it?

RIVERS: I don’t object yet. I object to it because I think that will be, I think in a world where we didn’t discriminate against certain groups it would be perfectly fine to say…I don’t think we should stop doing the research. I think we should be aware of what happens when there is a finding made that X group is better than Y group. What’s happening now – let’s talk about blacks for instance – I think right now a finding that would say blacks are not good at some intellectual sphere, and a conclusion that this was due to genetics, would be immensely damaging. Because I think right now people in Washington would be opening, you know, that research and saying, “Ah ha, another line in the budget we can cut”.

HEFFNER: Caryl, then let me ask you this question: I don’t one tiny little bit disagree with what you just said. But what is the result of that agreement on our part? What would we then do? Would we then stifle information resources, researchers, scientific researchers that did seem in the hands, in the lap of those who would manipulate them in a way that we don’t want them manipulated…

RIVERS: Right.

HEFFNER: …would we clamp down on them?

RIVERS: I don’t think so.

HEFFNER: Well, what do you do?

RIVERS: I think that you can’t do that. What I think we have to do is keep talking and keep saying, “Hey, look, this is how this information can be used. Be aware of the fact that genetic information is extremely useful, it’s extremely dangerous in an era when people don’t want to give anything else to people who are currently disadvantaged. Understand what this information does, and talk about it, write about it. If you’re a scientist, warn your fellow scientist”. You know, I don’t want censorship. But I really don’t want to see a lot of these people…If the scientist goes beyond their data, slap them on the wrist for doing it.

HEFFNER: Okay. You say you don’t want censorship. Do you think that we as a people – another generalization – or that your craft, the journalists, are equipped at this stage of our existence, to deal with the kinds of researches that geneticists are now doing?


HEFFNER: You do.

RIVERS: I think that intelligent laymen can read the research and can understand it. It is not…I mean, I would, for example, if it was quantum physics I might really wonder. But the kind of genetic research that’s going on now, I think I can understand it. I think and intelligent layman…

HEFFNER: No, no, no. That isn’t what I meant. What I meant is, given the nature of journalism and given the nature of our thinking, are we likely to interpret or misinterpret the kinds of genetic information that we are now beginning to get in greater and greater quantities?

RIVERS: My guess is that we may 50 percent of the time misinterpret it wildly. Hopefully 50 percent of the time we may get it right. Journalism has never been terribly precise. You’ve got so many practitioners. You can’t keep an eye on all of them. I think that you could hope that the best people will do a good job, and that the others, that they maybe blank out what some of the others do.

HEFFNER: So you don’t think of it as a kind of Pandora’s Box; opening it up is disaster itself?

RIVERS: Why would it be?

HEFFNER: Well, why should it be, or why would it?

RIVERS: What would be disastrous about opening up…

HEFFNER: What would be disastrous possibly in terms of what you complain about, the treatment of the material?

RIVERS: Oh, I see. I see.

HEFFNER: I’m not talking about reality. I’m talking about what journalism does do with this material.


HEFFNER: I’m talking about the absence of the caveats that you offer. We live in a real world.

RIVERS: Yes. In that term, I’m sorry, if you mean that could we be opening up a Pandora’s Box of a lot of new research which is going to be coming out and used politically against blacks and against women, yeah, I think we could. I wouldn’t therefore ever say to researchers, “You cannot examine differences in the brain. You can’t look at what androgens do or what enzymes do”. Look at it. But always keep in mind that politics impinges on what you do. And how much confidence have I got that the media is going to be really good on this? Not a lot. Not a lot.

HEFFNER: That’s an incredible burden though to put upon scientists. Remember always the uses that can be made of what you do. I mean, Oppenheimer and his colleagues trembled with fear at the possible uses of the kinds of energies they were releasing. For good reason.

RIVERS: That’s right. I think they should be trembling with fear. Not stopping, but shouldn’t we all, knowing the power of the media, shouldn’t we worry a little bit about what we do? Why should they soul-search any less than we do?

HEFFNER: Well, trembling with fear is not exactly a medium in which scientists work with the greatest productivity.

RIVERS: (Laughter) Well, it’s true. And I don’t mean “trembling with fear” in the sense that the minute I do this something bad is going to be happening. But I think sometimes scientist can get into a sort of narrow research tunnel where they don’t look at society, where they don’t even take into account what uses is society going to be making of my work. And I think they have to.

HEFFNER: I, of course, wondered if you were to agree that scientific information as produced, raw data interpreted the way you felt, legitimate way, indicated that there was this downside to women’s capacities in the spatial relations area, and therefore in mathematics, and therefore in the piloting of planes perhaps. Whether you wouldn’t just embrace it and say,
“That’s the way it is”. Whether you could, whether you could say, “Men over here and women over there”, and if you want to say, “Whites over here and blacks over there”, and if you want to say, “Younger people over here with the engrams they have and older people”, like me…

RIVERS: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: …”with the ones they’ve lost over there”.

RIVERS: But see, already you’ve begun to do something very dangerous, and to say “Women over here, airplanes over here”. The truth is it’s women here who maybe aren’t so great, women here who are really great, and okay, folks, let’s not stop women from piloting the plane.

HEFFNER: But we’ve got, almost, in this country alone, almost a quarter of a billion people. Obviously we’re going to live by the numbers. I hope we don’t die by the numbers. But we’re going to live by the numbers. We’re going to make quantum jumps into estimates that have to do with quantities. How could it be otherwise?

RIVERS: I think that if we start living by the numbers, if we start saying that, if we start looking at groups and assessing numbers to groups and saying, “This group can do A, B, C, D, E; this group can do D, E, F”, first of all, we’re going to be wrong.


RIVERS: …because these group differences don’t break down, and we’re going to discriminate against the individual in that group who indeed can do all the things that he or she is not supposed to do.

HEFFNER: One of the glories of being a small nation with a much smaller population was our capacity not to generalize in that way, and not to have such problems with quantifications. But we’re not a small nation any longer…


HEFFNER: …and with a quarter of a billion people we’re obviously going to quantify. And we’re obviously going to peg groups that way.

RIVERS: Well, but this is why we have to always maybe keep screaming out from the corners, you know, “Stop doing that!” Because the more we do that the more we’re going to put people into these little boxes. And the question is, who is going to get pegged as the “can’t”, and who as the “cans”? Are we really ever going to say that because men score lower on verbal scores, we’re not going to let a lot of them into Harvard? I mean, are we really going to do that? Are we really going to take power away from people who have it now because of testing? We may indeed use testing and scores and whatever quantification to keep the doors closed to the people who want to get in, but we sure are not going to shove the people out, because they’re already there.

HEFFNER: Well, in Beyond Sugar and Spice, obviously you and your colleagues felt that male-dominated society has used the pegging device in economic ways, in political ways, to keep women in their places. And you’re suggesting now that perhaps the economic problems that we’re facing will enable us, will lead us to latch onto this kind of numerology at this point as quantification.

RIVERS: That’s my suspicion. And I must say it is not only men that do it. I think it’s any power elite anywhere, white, black, male, female, where you have a group that’s in power, it wants to stay on power. And it often subconsciously, not even maliciously sometimes, operates in its own sphere. I’m finding now that, for example, a lot of white men who are competing for jobs with women are feeling a bit sour about the feminist movement. They didn’t when it was something that they could sort of support intellectually. But when it comes down to competing for a job with somebody else, you know, who wants more people on the market?

HEFFNER: If the economic pressures of our times become even greater, do you anticipate that the gains (if you want to call them that) made by the feminist movement will be reversed?

RIVERS: They certainly could. I think that there’s no question that if we really move into the time when the economy is shrinking, when there are fewer and fewer resources, I think you will find once again it’s going to be the old first-fired-last-hired kind of thing.

HEFFNER: Has that happened up to this point, do you think?

RIVERS: I think it hasn’t happened yet, in the sense that we haven’t rolled into a full backlash period. But I think, I’m certainly seeing it beginning to happen in the areas of hiring, not wanting to go full force on Affirmative Action, not really looking for women and blacks to fill certain slots. I think it’s beginning; no question in my mind about it.

HEFFNER: And you’ve found that in university life perhaps?

RIVERS: Sure. Absolutely. I have found that. I’ve heard discussions about it. Why don’t we have more blacks? Why don’t we have more women? And well, you know, there’s always excuses for why we don’t. But one of the reasons is that we’re cutting back. The jobs are going. If we had 50 jobs to fill, fine. We’d find lots of people. We may have one or two jobs to fill now, and everybody’s beating on the door for it.

HEFFNER: We just have a few seconds left. But I wondered if the strength of the movements, the black movement and the feminist movement, which have sort of been dissipated in the last few years, whether you think once again this movement away from Affirmative Action will strengthen them again, will rekindle.

RIVERS: It could. I have a sense, I’m more optimistic about women who, in m any cases, are middle class and have more resources. I do worry a lot about what’s going to happen with blacks, because you have so many blacks trapped in that ghetto of poverty. And I think the people, the poor now are going to have the hardest time getting out. I think it’s going to be much tougher for those who are poor.

HEFFNER: A sour note, in a sense, to end the program on, but a realistic one. Thank you very much for joining me today, Caryl Rivers. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.