Yes, Virginia, there is such thing as social conditioning
I wanted to stay out of the Larry Summers thing, I really did. That some men in power are willing to say any fool thing that pops into their heads as long as it justifies their belief that The Penis is what got them where they are are, and that they can expect a chorus of true believers to sing hosannas about what dimwits women are by birth when they do so, is not news to me. But then Salon had to jump into the whole fracas with a cobbled-together article of "proofs" that we women are better equipped for bottle-feeding than for long division and I cannot sit still any longer.
This article doesn't even start out strong before it slides downhill fast. The author, Lorraine Dusky, immediately accuses feminists of hypocrisy because feminists were largely accepting of studies demonstrating that women are more likely than men to be whistle-blowers, and that women overall tend to make decisions that incorporate moral thinking more than men. Since we feminists accept that men and women are different in this way, she argues, why can't we accept that Summers was right, that men and women are different when it comes to mathmatical ability?
I had just started on my first cup of coffee and I could immediately see the hole in that argument. Feminists, at least most feminists I know of, and I know a whole lot of them, don't disagree that men and women are different, sometimes dramatically different. But Summers didn't just say that men and women are different; he said that we are born different, that mathmatical abilities are somehow written into our genetics. Studies demonstrating that grown men and women have different views on similiar situations don't prove squat about genetics. All they prove is that a difference is there, and odds are that the differences can be attributed to social conditioning.
For instance, the social conditioning of the noted moral differences between men and women can be observed by breezing through one of the textbooks that pass for sex ed nowadays, the abstinence-only textbooks, where the gender roles in teenage dating are laid out--boys try, girls resist. Or, from a sexual "morality" angle, girls are the moral gatekeepers, assigned to keep themselves and the boys in line. It's not really a mystery why girls grow up to be women who still think of themselves as moral guardians.
There's no reason to rule out social conditioning, much less sexism, off-hand as the reason that more men than women excel in math and science. Even physical brain differences that Dusky details cannot be written off as pure genetics, which she admits and then blows off.
While some argue that this is a result of conditioning -- when girls take up throwing a ball, their spatial ability increases by leaps and bounds -- conditioning doesn't explain why males' IQ scores are more variable than females'. More males than females end up at the low end of the IQ scale, and not surprisingly, relative to females, there are more male high school dropouts and more men in prison. But the opposite is also true: More males than females have extremely high IQs.
I see no reason why if conditioning can push boys to the heights and it can't also drop them to the depths. Dusky's assumption that average neurological differences between men and women can be readily understood and explained--as if calculus just goes on in the left brain unaided by the right side and that in fact the right side of the brain interferes with all its girlish gossip--simply isn't true.
But the biggest gaffe of all is to pull out the argument that we know men are smarter because men have historically dominated math and science, an argument that makes sense right until you remember how women have been systematically denied access to the same education that men have enjoyed.
And like it or not (I don't like it), this is probably why the world has more male geniuses à la Einstein, Mozart and Michelangelo. We can thank the goddess Nike for Marie Curie, but where's another woman in our pantheon?
The miracle is not that most historical geniuses are men. The real miracle that there are any female historical geniuses at all, considering all the obstacles in women's way. For instance, the exceptional Marie Curie did what none of the men nodding away in agreement with Summers's low assessment of women's scientific abilities have probably done--she taught herself physics and acquired her degree by exam.
Mozart was a genius, and also a prodigy that was pretty much forced to practice day in and out from the time he could reach the piano keys. I think it's safe to say that if Mozart were born a girl, this would not have happened. We can't know if there could have been a female Michelangelo--a woman in his time would not have been allowed to paint the Sistine Chapel.
We don't have evidence that points definitely one way or another on whether or not women are mentally limited compared to men, but we have mountains of evidence that women have been socially limited for all of history. It's a shame to see otherwise smart people ignore the known--the historical oppression of women--in favor of a bunch of cobbled together theories about women's genetic inferiority that have rather scant evidence to support them.