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.
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.