Friday, January 21, 2005

Her brain's not built for tenure

There is something in the way Harvard's president, Lawrence Summers, has been pilloried in the press over the past few days for his comments on women and science that bothers me. What Summers allegedly said (there is no transcript) at a workshop on the under-representation of women in science and engineering is that there may be a social reason apart from outright discrimination that prevents women scientists from rising to the heights of the academy-- perhaps, he suggested, young women with children are unwilling to commit to the 80-hour weeks that young men are willing to undertake, so they don't rise as fast or as far. His other, more inflammatory, explanation is that there may be a biological difference between the sexes that helps account for men's seemingly greater affinity for the hard sciences.

[As an aside, I can't help gleefully thinking about how this episode will send even more able women scientists to dear old Princeton, where the president is herself a distinguished molecular biologist]

Naturally, top women scientists at Harvard and around the country have taken umbrage at Summers' remarks, and rightly so. They have reached the upper echelons of the disciplines in spite of the fact that some influential administrators such as Summers suspect they are constitutionally handicapped. But I'm not sure that the reflexive outrage being reported in the newspaper (with one female professor saying Summers' remarks nauseated her) is useful. I don't think it contributes anything to the conversation about how universities ought to hire and to promote, and worse, it threatens to make Summers look like the open-minded victim of the politically correct, instead of a prejudiced guy who hasn't given a lot of thought to the topic (as I suspect he actually is).

It seems to me that the first thing we need to ask is: What is the purpose of the conversation the conference attendees were having? Do we WANT to increase the proportion of women at the top tiers of academic science, because we place either a social value on equal representation or an intellectual value on the unique modes of thought that women bring to the table (the flip side of the biological difference argument)?

If we do, indeed, think either society or science would benefit from increasing the proportion of women in professional science, then it would probably be a mistake to simply castigate Summers and focus only on overt discrimination. Take Summers' social argument: as a young woman interested in both an academic career and a family, I can well believe that other people like me might want to avoid 80-hour weeks. But if that’s the case, it’s the expectation of 80-hour weeks, and not reasonable young people, that we need to change. Let’s make the structure of an academic career more compatible with non-career pursuits for both men and women. That might help redistribute the burden of family life so that both partners could contribute to it and derive satisfaction from it equally.

The biological difference argument is another matter. Summers’ suggestion on that score seems to be that the status quo reflects natural law and therefore is just fine, thank you very much. Women aren’t terribly good at science, bless their little hearts, and trying to insert any more of them into the ranks of science professors would just contaminate the rarefied air of American science (as it happens, by the way, women are also biologically predisposed to make 70 % of what men make for the same work).

The problem is that there really isn’t any means of assessing “competency” in math and science that doesn’t fall back on the very socially-mediated distinctions whose merit we are trying to assess. How do we know men are better at science? Because most science professors are men. Because more Nobel Laureates in science are men. Because men publish more scientific papers. As if any of those things were a straightforward index of competency! Anyone who’s been anywhere in the vicinity of academic politics can tell you how many other factors (charisma, connections, clarity of writing, trendiness of topic, for starters) factor in to such accomplishments.

Of course, there is our old friend, the standardized test; the way high school boys outscore high school girls on standardized math and science tests is one of the data Summers allegedly drew on to support his claim about biological difference. But according to standardized tests, American schoolkids in general are pretty incompetent at science relative to their peers in other countries. Yet rather than being satisfied that Americans are biologically wired to stink at science, we lament that American kids aren’t being taught as well, that we’re not nurturing a love of math and science in them. And kids in poor neighborhoods, black and white, do worse on standardized tests than kids in rich neighborhoods. Maybe those suckers genetically predisposed to poverty are also genetically predisposed to stupidity?

I can’t think of any way to assess competency in science that is not hopelessly contaminated by social variables, so Summers’ “hypothesis” about biological differences is in its essence untestable. Not very scientific, in other words.

Recommended reading:
1. This Boston Globe article
2. Margaret Rossiter’s Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940 and Women Scientists in America: Before Affirmative Action, 1940-1972.

9 comments:

phip said...

Not one of your better articles, Lumpenlogocracy. Full of the same party line reaction that it calls unhelpful!

Irrespective of my hot-headedness, there is something about the way Summers has been pilloried that bothers me, too. But something different. The workshop was designed with the goal of fostering new dialogue about this issue without those speaking fearing retaliation. To accomplish that, everything was off the record. They were going to roll up their sleeves and find the answers we've all sought, without getting mired in politics. Exactly what happened anyway.

We know that men are statistically taller than women, and we know the reason is biological. He was taking that fact further, and suggesting that maybe the lopsided distribution of women in sciences has to do with gender-specific differences in brains. It wasn't a motion that women be declared "not smart enough to do math". It was one of the crraaazy new ideas that this workshop was supposed to foster.

From an article in the NYT about Summers' public apology:
"We cut right to the chase," said Lizabeth Cohen, a history
professor who participated in the meeting. "He regrets what
he said, and I hope that he will prove that by taking
constructive steps. We're going to be in intense discussions
with him over the next week."
It sounds like he's been convicted a crime! Pilloried really is an apt term for this. He makes a suggestion on an issue he seems to have thought quite a bit about, from what I've read and heard. He cites several recent studies of school and test performance related to gender. And for it, the nation is in an uproar! He is made to apologize and is led around renouncing his heresy in challenging what certainly looks like rote PC dogma. And even though it was off the record, the entire media is full of experts calling him an ignorant and dangerous anachronism.

What happened to the quest for new answers at a workshop? I just get the feeling some people would rather be "speaking truth to power" and "nauseated" than trying to find and fight the causes of systemic imbalances. We can't blindly legislate balance, a la affirmative action. We have to actually uncover the root causes, and develop progressive solutions.

But then, I'm only eighteen. Rebuttals are welcome If I'm way off here. And sorry for dissing your article.

phip said...
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phip said...
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thirdpartydreamer said...

I don't read your comments as "dissing," phip. There is nothing unreasonable or ad hominem about your response; more than anything, I'm shocked to discover that someone is actually reading this thing.

You point is well taken, and illustrates the problem with the tenor of the debate at present. I agree with you that this should not be an argument about what is and is not acceptable to say publicly, or semi-publicly, in this case. The academy ought to foster debate, not tamp it.

My argument, though, is that Summers is wrong. I don't buy the assumption that standardized test scores, or the disposition of power inside or outside the academy, reflect innate ability unmediated by environmental factors. So if Summers is going to convince me of the biological argument, he's going to have to come up with better evidence than that.

Arguments from biology for complex features of human societies (often justifying the current power structure) have a long and ignominious history. Rather than shutting them out a priori, though, we need to challenge them robustly and see how they stand up.

thirdpartydreamer said...
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Ambivalent_Maybe said...
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Ambivalent_Maybe said...

Sort of in agreement w/ Phip, sort of not. I think the criticism of Summers sounded very knee-jerk and reactionary. From what I read, he was merely reviewing reasons that have been given for the underepresentation of women in the sciences, not saying that he himself suspected that there was a biological basis for the underepresentation. So I think some of his critics are overreacting.

But, on the other hand, the idea that there is a biological basis for women not being in the hard sciences is completely without basis, so I also can understand why Summers's critics might be a little weary of hearing this theory. It's a bit like having to rigorously refute the flat earth theory. Sure, there are some physical differences between men and women--like men generally are taller, etc. But to draw an analogy between such basic physical characteristics and such a complicated set of emotions, behaviors and social circumstances as "liking the hard sciences" is, I think, patently ridiculous.

What's more, even a slightly expanded historical perspective is enough to show that women have not always done poorly compared to men in the sciences. Indeed, in the late 19th century, educators and scientists were greatly concerned that there were more women than men in high school and college science and math classes, and these women were consistently out-performing their male peers. One of the reasons posited for this was, of course, that women were more biologically and tempermentally suited to the quiet and patient study that science and math required.

Lo and behold, around the beginning of the 20th century, as women were being pushed out of professional organizations in science and engineering, new 'domestic science' programs were instituted for women in high school and college. These programs taught 'science' as it related to the realm of activity women were thought biologically suited for--care of the home. Women were actively encouraged to enter domestic science classes, and away from 'hard' science and math classes. By the 1930s and 1940s, men predominated in science and math classes. Women, of course, just didn't have the right brain, or the right temperment, to succeed in the fields where it once feared they were destined to dominate.

For a nice book on just this subject, see Kim Tolley. _The Science Education of American Girls: A Historical Perspective_ (New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2003).

Although I don't have a citation for it, a similar 'biological basis' argument was made about a certain urban racial group and the sport of basketball. In the 1920s-40s the sport of basketball was dominated by Jewish players, playing in their own 'Hebrew leagues' and later in the NBA. It was said that the jews had some sort of biological edge over other races, what with their uncanny ability in passing and shooting. Now it is African-Americans who predominate in the urban ghettos where many jews used to live (and play a lot of basketball), and who also are said to have a biological affinity for the sport.

Ambivalent_Maybe said...

(Sorry about all the 'removed' posts--we had some problems with double-posts, and my own poorly edited post. No ideas were squelched, no dissent dissed.

- Ambivalentmaybe
- weblog administrator)

sacrifice pawn said...

Not to muddy the waters here, but it might be of use to consider how women have been pushed to the margins in other fields of study as well. In the arts, for example, men have been about as dominant through the ages as they have in the sciences. Only in the last couple of decades has the gender gap in visual art, for example, started to narrow. Are we to assume that there just weren't any women artists talented enough to compete with the men over the last few centuries? Of course not. The societal structure has historically been controlled by men, and women have rarely been encouraged to succeed in anything but domestic roles.

Even in our relatively open-minded modern world a woman who devotes 80 hours a week to science, painting, business - anything outside the family realm - is looked at as a little strange by a large segment of the general public. ("What's wrong with her? Why isn't she at home raising kids?") A man spending the same amount of time is more likely to be considered "driven" or "dedicated". I would say that it's hard to overestimate the effect of society on these issues. There is still a long way to go in tearing down these social structures that hold women back.

I don't want to put restrictions on what Lawrence Summers or anyone else says or thinks, but there is a dangerous sort of circular reasoning at work here. If the person at the top of a university thinks that men might be genetically predisposed to excel in science compared with women, might they not tend to give men the best positions in the science departments? Thus men predominate at the top of the field, thus men must be better at science?

Back in 2002 Lisa Leslie of the LA Sparks became the first woman to pull off a slam-dunk in a WNBA game - something that might have been considered impossible ten years ago. We need to get away from the idea of putting limits on people's potential to excel - whatever the field; whatever their gender, race, or class.