Women, STEM, and D&D

Yesterday, I briefly mentioned the topic of women in the math and sciences.

It’s well known that post-secondary education is predominantly female. It is also well known that this is not true of STEM fields, where women are a minority.

Some chock this up to differences in intelligence or that women aren’t gifted at math. It’s not differences in overall intelligence, as the difference in average intelligence between men and women has always been small, and might even have reversed in the last few years. Even so, men have always held generally have held a small advantage in spatial reasoning and mathematical reasoning, but these differences are not great enough to account for the massive disparities in math-based subjects.

Greater male variability may explain some of it. High-level mathematics requires high intelligence, and due to greater variability there are a greater number of high-intelligence males than females (just as there are greater number of low-intelligence males), but as we can see from IQ by intended major, even those intending to enter the hard sciences have an average IQ of only about 110. Even factoring in variability, a requirement for an IQ of 110 should not lead to such large disparities in the STEM field, but fewer women pursue STEM fields at this point.

Feminists will argue that it’s all about discrimination and whatnot, but with the predominance of females throughout the rest of universities and the large number of programs dedicated to attracting women to STEM its hard to see how any can argue this with a straight face.

Not to mention, that females are well-represented in the physical and life sciences. Is there somehow less discrimination in the life and physical sciences than the harder sciences? Unlikely.

Notice instead that the STEM fields women are involved in are the less math oriented sciences. Across the board, women avoid fields that require lots of math.

So the problem is mathematics, but it is unlikely due to differences in intelligence and the explanation of discrimination is ludicrous.

So the answer: in general, women simply don’t like math. Shocking, I know.

Now, this is the point where feminists cry sexism, women do like math  (say the female gender and polisci students).

Now, you know from personal experience women don’t like math; ask most women, and they’ll readily admit they don’t like math. The available data seems to support the assertion women just plain don’t like it, but proving that women generally don’t like math  is difficult. You can’t really see into women’s minds to show they don’t like math and anecdotes that all your female friends don’t like math is no more proof positive of a statistical trend than the one female friend you have who loves math is proof negative.

So, how can we know?

The answer is simple: Dungeons and Dragons.


See, the thing is, most guys don’t like math either. Only a small minority of men, and an even smaller minority of women, enjoy math. These men are generally referred to as nerds.

(When I say nerd, I don’t mean the recent trend of “LOL, I watched Dr. Who once, I’m such a nerd” hipster teenagers. I mean the actual nerds, the guys who will spend their Saturday nights imagining themselves swinging around +2 Swords of Shining Light or who will actually go outside and throw around lightning bolts.)

These nerds are the ones who dominate the STEM fields.

Why they’re (or more accurately we’re, as I’m a bit of a nerd myself) like that I don’t know, but I kinda like Half-Sigma’s idea that nerds are simply men with a very mild form of Asperger’s, something also kind of touched on by Susan Pinker.

But that’s beside the point, which is that nerds dominate the STEM field, because they are an abnormal sort of people who actually like math.


So, how does that help us prove that women dislike math?

Simple, look at D&D.

D&D, for the uninitiated, is essentially what happens when you combine Tolkien, tactical wargames, improvisational theatre, and mathematics. Nerds get together and each creates a character, which is essentially a large block of statistics and math made of options from a large, complicated rule book. He then gives this block of math some personality (sometimes the personality comes before the math, but most nerds know which usually comes first). One nerd, the GM, gets the especially complicated job of creating a world out of blocks of statistics and math. The nerds then takes their blocks of math which interact with (and kill) the GM’s blocks of math, so their blocks of math can grow larger numbers to defeat more powerful blocks of math. Along the way there is some roleplaying: which is essentially improvisational theatre concerning the blocks of math.

D&D is essentially what people who enjoy math do for fun. It’s making math a game.


It’s a simple fact that few women play D&D, it is largely the domain of males. The game is open for all to play and most players would love to have more females players who share their hobby.

Yet, women don’t play.

You go to any improvisational theatre group, there’s tons of women, women like theatre. Women also like Tolkien, and fantasy in general for that matter. So, why don’t they like D&D?


Most women, and most men, don’t like math, so making a game of complex math is not something they would consider fun.

If women, on average, liked math as much as men, they would be as involved in D&D as much men. There is no discrimination or institutional barriers preventing them from enjoying D&D, all it requires for entry is $20 for the rulebook. You don’t even really need that as most GM’s would be happy to lend you their copy if you join their game.

They are not though.


It doesn’t have to be D&D. In the above D&D can be replaced by complex board games, science fiction, Magic cards, war games, or pretty much any nerdy math-based activity. No matter what the math-oriented hobby, men vastly outnumber women.

Women simply don’t see the enjoyment in spending free time doing math. Most men don’t either, but the minority of men who do is larger than the minority of women who do.


That’s why there’s a STEM gap.

The minority of females who are nerds is smaller than the minority of men who are nerds.

So, next time a feminist says that there’s a STEM gap and it’s caused by sexism, ask her if she plays D&D and how many of her female friends do?


Edit – Post-Script – 3/08 2012:

Seems this got posted at Reddit under the misleading title “Apparently, ladies don’t like D&D because they can’t Math.”, leading to a larger influx of people than my little corner of the internet has had before. It also seems a lot of them are confused by what I have said. I can’t answer every post individually and I do not have a Reddit account, so here’s a little post-script that will count as a reply to everyone.

1: My argument was not women can not do math (and, hence, play D&D). In fact, I specifically ruled out intelligence and mathematical capabilities in the fourth paragraph. My argument was not even that women do not enjoy math at all (and, hence, D&D). My argument was that nobody enjoys math (and, hence, D&D), except a small group of abnormal people (often referred to as nerds) and that more of these abnormal people are male than female. So, before y’all get your knickers in a knot: PLEASE READ WHAT I ACTUALLY WROTE BEFORE WHINING ABOUT WHAT I DID NOT SAY.

2: A number of people are focusing solely on D&D. As I said, you can apply this argument to the nerdy, math-based hobbies from board games to war games to RPG’s to hobby programming to whatever: anything where interaction is largely defined by basic mathematics. D&D was the specific example used, but do not get

3: If you are a women that either plays D&D, board games, video games, or enjoys math, that is wonderful. I wish more women did, I’d like to share my hobbies with others. But because you personally, and a couple of girls you know, enjoy them does not statistics make. I always thought that the preponderance of males in D&D and other such nerdy hobbies was a well-accepted, so I didn’t bother posting any proof. So here’s the proof: males are about 80% of games as per a WotC survey, so yes, more males play D&D. (The data is old, but this does not seem like something that is measured very often and I doubt it’s changed too significantly).

4: I noted the relationship between D&D (and nerdy hobbies) and STEM. This is not an absolute, just a relationship. In particular, I am not STEM myself, so generalizing me to STEM as a whole is silly. I do enjoy the low-level maths of economics and games as a hobby though.

5: Addition, subtraction, and the statistical blocks that make up characters and the (often violent) relationships between them are math. I didn’t say they were complex math, so I’m not sure where the comments about there being no math come from.

6: Yes, I make some typos; I write as a hobby with no editor. If you’re that anally retentive about typos in a blog post, well…

7: I have never had a beard, let alone a neck-beard. I’m not sure what the point of personalizing counter-arguments to a non-personal argument and insulting some random jackass on the internet is, but I hope the venting was stress-relieving.

35 responses to “Women, STEM, and D&D

  • Linkage Is Good For You – 8-12-12 | Society of Amateur Gentlemen

    […] Free Northener – Lightning Round, No We Are Not All Feminists, Women, STEM, And D&D […]

  • Kyle

    You should definitely check out ‘The Essential Difference’ by Simon Baron-Cohen (Borat’s cousin). He states the thesis plainly:

    “The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems”

    Basically, men are more autistic ( utism being an example of the extreme male brain).

  • Francis Begbie

    I read your post. enjoyed it, and wrote up my own, being a STEM guy myself.

    Just found your blog, and quite impressed. Added to the reading list.

  • dejour

    I enjoyed your post. And I generally agree that more men than women enjoy math based games. And more men than women enjoy math. And men are naturally more talented at complex math.

    But I see some alternative explanations for the D&D/poker/chess/board game/fantasy football gender divide.

    1) The social rewards aren’t there for women. Men usually meet a lot of like-minded individuals, but women meet a lot of (generally) low status males.

    2) Maybe women don’t enjoy competition as much as men. I find that women are more often addicted to one-person games with a math component (eg. tetris, solitaire)

    3) Many people get into these activities due to a surplus of free time. Since women in their teens and early twenties are more in demand socially than their male peers, the women simply don’t have the same time to devote to hobbies. The reverse holds for older ages. If you think about euchre or card clubs amongst people 50+, they tend to be dominated by women.

    Lastly, I think that few seriously argue that it’s all discrimination taking place at university or the job interview. The more serious people claiming a social reason for the discrepancy would argue that a vicious cycle takes place. We are more likely to buy math toys or games for boys than girls. We give girls more praise for being empathetic and give boys more praise for being competitive. If an opportunity comes along to talk about a difficult math problem, we might broach the topic with a boy but not with a girl. Boys and girls see that men are more often the math wizards. As a result of this encouragement, boys are more likely to be drawn to math-related hobbies. And girls less so. Anyways by the time the kids are teens, boys are more likely to have positive feelings toward math and thus more likely to have developed strong math abilities. And this means that boys are more likely to pick up math-based hobbies and games.

    Personally, I think that nature is about 50% responsible and nurture is 50% responsible, but I don’t think that D&D disproves the 100% nurture hypothesis.

  • Carnivore

    There’s more to it than just a matter of not liking it. As @Kyle quotes, the brains of the two sexes are wired differently. Math requires abstract thinking and strong reasoning (logic) skills. Those are two areas where women are not up to the same level as men.

    On the technology and engineering side of STEM (and speaking as an engineer), math can be a gate keeper to getting into a degree program, but there’s also the curiosity factor. Females really don’t give a damn HOW something works, as long as it works. If it breaks, they tap the nearest male on the shoulder to fix it. Males take a great interest trying to figure out how something works and take it as a challenge to repair something. Most boys have broken something by taking it apart trying to figure out how it works and then not being able to put it back together again. Women don’t get enjoyment out of tinkering with a car or a lawnmower engine. Repairing and collecting tube audio is another male domain.

    Speaking about collecting, that brings up another male trait which is useful to engineering. Males are totally anal when it comes to minutiae. Think of the details in stamp collecting, baseball card collecting, record collecting – slight variations which require multiple specimens for a guy to call his collection complete. In engineering, the “devil is in the details”. Business folks and, to a lesser extent management, get totally frustrated with engineers because they tend to deal in generalities and broad brush strokes while engineers will always come back with “it depends”. “You want option A, it will cost this much; you want option B, it will cost this much more; you want options A & B and it will cost the least.”

    Another big difference is that males dream big in scope and power which contributes to making big engineering advances and technology jumps. Women are content to think in a smaller scope about their home and close relationships. Women are content to use technical instrumentalities and, as long as they function, don’t spend much time thinking about improvements. Even if a male is involved in something mundane as engineering a new can opener, he’ll get a rush if he has a chance to examine and discuss the engine of a muscle car, satellite communications, or an installation that uses 1000 HP electric motors.

  • namae nanka

    Women Earn Almost 50% of College Math Degrees


    One of the sites you linked mentions:

    “The percentage of women at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., who graduate with a computer science degree (a field where national numbers for women are especially low), jumped from an average 12% in recent years to more than 26% in 2010, 43% in 2011 and 38% this year. ”

    How exactly is that happening? (besides changing the course so that it appeals to women more)


    Or take a look at MIT when Marilee Jones was still the dean of admission(and was hired for gender-equality reasons):


    If you remember NSF from the first link:

    ““About 80 percent of engineers are men.”

    “Yet fully half of the recipients of the NSF engineering grants in 2004—
    when $541,700,000 was handed out—were women.” Conversely, the ratio of women to men matched up in the balance of the profession matched up among the NSF rejects but not in the way you might have expected it to.

    “Among the honorable mentions of students who were not awarded NSF engineering grants, but were exceptional enough to be acknowledged, fully 80 percent were men in the last contest,” I wrote. “Thus, the agency’s rejections are a mirror image of the profession, even if its awards are highly unbalanced.” ”


  • namae nanka

    “The more serious people claiming a social reason for the discrepancy would argue that a vicious cycle takes place. ”

    They are not really more serious, but more indulgent in sophistry.


    “Anyways by the time the kids are teens, boys are more likely to have positive feelings toward math and thus more likely to have developed strong math abilities.”

    Same could be said of video games. And this is a new battlefield for feminists.


    besides more from the Harvey Mudd link above:

    “The schools’ strategies vary, but a key component is to create opportunities for women to apply their talents and skills to matters that appeal to them. Harvey Mudd College, for example, overhauled a required introductory computer science course to allow students more choice in how they apply principles being covered.

    “Many of the guys would be just as happy in a class that focused exclusively on video games and robots,” says department chair Ran Libeskind-Hadas.”

  • cogitansiuvenis

    For your viewing pleasure

  • Free Northerner

    Thanks. I’ve put it on my Amazon purchase list; it looks interesting.

  • Free Northerner

    I don’t think #1 would matter. If a women enjoyed D&D she’d meet a lot of like-minded friends. The chance of a woman finding a high- status male playing D&D (like Vin Diesel) is about the same as a man finding a dent women, very low, so there’s no SMV explanation.

    #2 might be somewhat correct for some nerdy activities, but D&D is a cooperative game, not a competitive game and females are no more into cooperative nerdy activities than competitive ones.

    #3 is a distinct possibility and could account for a good chunk of the gap.

    I think the last reason though is overplayed. Almost any university program (other than nursing) was at one time a boy’s club, yet women dominate almost all of them nowadays.The boy’s club argument just doesn’t hold weight.

    The D&D hypothesis is not something that’s been scientifically validated, so it doesn’t really prove much, but I think it’s fairly indicative of the overall trends.

  • Free Northerner

    Not liking it was not meant to be definitionally narrow. Not being curious as to how, not being detail-oriented, and not dreaming big would all be inclusive within “not liking it”. Perhaps a better phrase could have been used.

  • Free Northerner

    “How exactly is that happening? (besides changing the course so that it appeals to women more)”

    That’s interesting I haven’t seen that before. I also don’t have a clue as to why, as that link seems to be the only info on that, and it seems it’s only for math degrees.

    The rest of the information is interesting.

  • just visiting

    Lol, well, I spent two years playing D&D, but I’ll have to admit, it had more to do with a huge crush on the DM. (INTJ chicks have a thing for smart guys.)

  • Shay

    Or there’s this. And the millionity female D&D and other “complex” board games types out there.

  • anonym

    Harvey mudd and other colleges are now offering remedial classes in the introductory introductory computer science subjects in their freshman year to women. I do not know what happens at junior and senior level computer science classes.
    Furthermore Harvey Mudd college has already started to impose quotas to bring gender parity in their computer science program. The feministas in the department are very pleased by this development.

  • vichussmith

    How many PEOPLE play D&D at this point, anyway? Also, women not playing D&D proves that women, WORLDWIDE (you know, half of the human population) don’t like math? No matter what example you want us to use, fact is, you don’t have solid numbers on how many women participate in different types of gaming.

    On top of that, D&D is definitely more involved than a video game, but it’s not like it’s damn college chemistry. What a goofy blog.

  • Yinello

    I don’t really understand the use of D&D in this article.

    Men are in general more encouraged to play fantasy games like D&D. When you look at marketing campaigns either on posters, card boxes or television, you’ll often see guys who are enjoying themselves. Even in the surrounding, people aren’t surprised if a guy plays D&D but are if a girl does.

    I disagree with your saying that if girls like math as much as guys do that they would play D&D as much as a guys, simply because math isn’t the only factor involved. You say they aren’t restricted, but they are restricted socially. Plus let’s not forget the fact of how some ‘nerds’ act around women; making them feel uncomfortable and thus less inclined to busy themselves with activities as D&D.

    And let’s not forget that D&D is a game that not everyone has access to, has time for or even knows about. It’s not a universal unbiased measuring tool. So how can you use this, or any other game or math entertainment for that matter, to measure if girls like math as much as boys?

    Following this same line of reasoning, I could claim that guys aren’t physically flexible because they don’t do as much ballet as girls do.

    Last but not least I would like to say that I think it’s important that girls need to be encouraged to do more in the math area and maybe even be encouraged to dabble and enjoy the fantasy worlds that D&D and other areas offer. More than once have I encountered women who were curious, but were pushed away because of the idea that it’s ‘guys only.’

  • Lautrichienne

    This is why I am really starting to despise STEM majors. Why do the majority of you have so little self awareness? You can’t stop and think for one second that maybe bad science and assumptions Just Like This is the sort of thing that keeps women away from certain parts of Geek Culture? Not because you’re “smarter”, not because your brains are wired differently and are therefore superior…but because misogyny is rampant in STEM/Geek culture and this attitude is a surefire way to keep anyone with a vagina far, far away from people like you?

    I run a tabletop group that’s all women. I run my own roleplaying chat where we use electronic dice. I am up to having three published roleplaying books packed full of my art including coloring work for New Horizon. And I’m getting really fucking tired of STEMjerks telling me my lady brain is too small to play games.

    As someone said above, 50% of math degrees go to women. You can repeat bad science all you want to rationalize away the reasons so few women want to be in the company of people like you all.

    But you have to grow up someday.

  • Amy

    The reason I don’t play D&D is because my local group is full of neckbeards like the author who make it really fucking difficult for me and other women to feel comfortable around them. I love tabletop gaming. I love MUDs. What I don’t love is guys trying to explain everything to me like I don’t know how to do basic addition. What I don’t love is guys blatantly staring at my tits when I’m just trying to have fun and play a game. What I don’t love is guys concluding that because their horrible geek culture is extremely alienating to women, women are unskilled and inferior.

    You probably should have taken more humanities classes because your writing is atrocious and you make vast logical leaps, none of which make sense or hold any water. Also, didn’t they teach you to cite *reliable* sources in your precious STEM classes?

  • Blue

    1. D&D and the examples you’ve listed aren’t truly mathematics. There’s no proofs, matrices, topology, etc – nothing that would be useful in the hard sciences anyways. It’s adding up a bunch of numbers and multiplying them by some other numbers, which most engineerings/physicists would use a calculator for. As far as math goes, it’s incredibly simple and incredibly boring… And not at all the type of math in a STEM field.

    2. Actually, the “lightning-throwing” nerds don’t “dominate” STEM. There’s a lot more of them in STEM fields than other fields, but I know more people into hardscore sports, Dr. Who, FPSs or MMOs individually than D&D players. It might be that the delta in percentage individuals into D&D is highest for STEM, but with such a small group that would seem to indicated D&Ders tend to like STEM, not that STEM types tend to like D&D.

    3a. Re: Social rewards. You can’t discount this that easily. The problem with the whole idea of “like-minded friends” is that the chance of meeting a guy who wants something more is very, very high if you’re going through channels like a university board games club, due to the autistic factor and the gender ratio. That additional drama caused as a result is a cost that isn’t outweighed by the pro of meeting friends, when such friends could be met through many other channels.

    3b. D&Ders aren’t that like-minded anyways. I’ve been in groups where I liked everyone there, and I’ve been (briefly) in groups where dealing with the people there became a chore.

    Context: I used to play D&D along with one of my best friends, until we left highschool. We both rank at least in the top 97% in various measures of intellect, so we’re definitely not limited by that regard. She ended up being head of her local wargames club until drama of the sort I mentioned above caused her to leave. I stopped playing because I didn’t consistently have time between working out, my courseload and my boyfriend to commit every week to sessions, and because I’d rather be writing code, in the workshop, or playing D3 in my spare time than attempting to play with the local wargames chapter where I’ll most likely get hit on or stared at.

  • 2Weird2Live2Rare2Die

    No, dipshit. MATH is what people who enjoy doing math do for fun.

    D&D is a pastime which involves, at most, very simple addition and subtraction. You must have a very low opinion of the female intellect indeed to believe those concepts to be a hurdle for women. But if they aren’t what keeps women away from tabletop gaming, what could be? Oh yeah! Assholes like you!

    Please never mention D&D again; people like you make the hobby look bad. On a related front, if you could move to a cave in the mountains humanity at large would be similarly grateful. Cheers.

  • Free Northerner

    INTJ chicks are pretty awesome.

  • LVail

    I’m a woman. I have a Math degree. I love D&D. BUT….

    I solve the problem of “playing with the boys” by being the GM. Nothing puts all those neckbeards in place like a woman who understands complex adaptive systems, has a very active imagination, and can on a whim manipulate the math and the scenario to ensure their character dies a slow…painful…death.

    My favorite memory was my 13 year old daughter solving a problem I presented the party that saved the party’s collective asses that the 5 men—all of them older than her and most of them in their 20s—some couldn’t figure out.

    Now she is almost done with her BA degree and she still loves gaming.

    That’s one more for that statistically abnormal bucket.

    90% of the people I know who play games of any sort are, indeed, men.

    Of those 6 women I know who play…I’m the only one who is in a STEM field.

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    An interesting cluster is Computing, D&D, and music. That is, music with melodies and harmonies, as opposed to doof-doof dance music.

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    You’ve got a gold mine of links going, here, FN, and an interesting post. Thanks for the thought-stimulation.

  • Anonymous

    There is certainly a lot to learn about this issue. I love all of the points you made.

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