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Monday, January 24, 2005

A Summers Storm in Winter

The other day, Harvard president Larry Summers caused a stir.

The president of Harvard University prompted criticism for suggesting that innate differences between the sexes could help explain why fewer women succeed in science and math careers.

Lawrence H. Summers, speaking Friday at an economic conference, also questioned how great a role discrimination plays in keeping female scientists and engineers from advancing at elite universities.


"It's possible I made some reference to innate differences," he said. He said people "would prefer to believe" that the differences in performance between the sexes are due to social factors, "but these are things that need to be studied."

There's a big discussion of this over at Asymmetrical Information.

Context is, if not everything, much. The context of the speech was a conference on "Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce: Women, Underrepresented Minorities, and their S. & E. Careers." Summers spoke at lunch, and specifically said he was going to "provoke" the participants. He noted that a number of factors could account for difference, including the long hours top scientists have to work, and the fact that women with children could be reluctant to put in those hours.

(Of course, no one ever brings that up when speaking of fathers who put in long hours, and we all know why that is: men (pace Lileks) usually manage to weasel out of childcare. Or, alternatively, women are culturally or biologically more inclined to place children above other concerns.)

Afterwards, Summers broached the possibility of innate differences. The NYT article makes his remarks sound reasonable in the context they were made, although that was not the universal opinion of the participants. (There wasn't a transcript; Summers spoke without notes, and I guess no one was recording his remarks.)

So I'm going to let Summers off the hook, here, and instead turn my attention to the peanut gallery, as represented by the commenters at Asymmetrical Information (and the numerous trackbacks thereto), and here at the Washington Monthly.

Many of the commenters are praising Summers for "bravely" going against the politically correct grain by saying what everybody surely knows. And after all, shouldn't these questions be investigated? We can't just ignore them because some people don't like the answers! That's contrary to the spirit of scientific inquiry!

Undeniably. But I'd be more sympathetic to their outrage if I thought they weren't more interested in sticking it to the PC "establishment" than they were in the actual answer. There's also the question of what, if anything, society (or Harvard) should do about it. If the differences are innate, why, we don't need to do anything about it! So sorry, ladies.

Let me mention a couple factors that I think have depressed the number of women in science. As you read, remember that the whole point of this discussion is to find out what we can do about this. Is there a way we can remedy it? Not everything is amenable to solutions by fiat.

In my experience, bright young men are encouraged to explore and express their gifts, whereas bright young women are encouraged to Sit Down and Shut Up. (As with everything I say here, this is by no means universal; it's only a trend I've noticed.) The "villains" here are not always men, but are frequently women. A consciousness of one's superiority is taboo in female society. Other women can accept the superiority, but the superior one herself must never acknowledge it. "You think you're better than us!" she is accused: a grave offense. You'd think that humility would be a very useful characteristic to foster, in anyone, but I'll explain below why it isn't.

Secondly, women are (or used to be) encouraged to think primarily of their future roles as wives and mothers, with careers coming a distant second. The summer before I went to grad school, my mother and I ran into a lady who'd been our neighbor years before. Her younger daughter and my sister had been very good friends. My mom told her that in the fall I'd be starting grad school, working toward a PhD in physics. "Oh," replied our former neighbor with an airy wave of her hand, "You'll get married and have ten kids and forget all about school!" She didn't say this accusingly, but as if this were a perfectly natural outcome. She wasn't the only one, either, and various aspects of this attitude kept popping up here and there. It definitely saps the morale a bit when any discussions of accomplishment (or anything else, really) get sidetracked by reference to the Holy Babies -- who has them, who doesn't, and when are you going to produce yours?

Thirdly, since science is dominated by men, male culture tends to be prevalent there, including some things that women tend to have a great deal of trouble with. The foremost of these, in my experience, is aggression. In science, it's very frequently not enough to be brilliant, you have to look brilliant. You have to get out there and dazzle 'em. For many people, this means giving people the elbow (sometimes literally) to get out in front of them. This is where the culturally-enforced female "modesty" comes into play.

It's difficult to write of this behavior without using the word "jerk", or worse, "asshole". I must remember that all cultures are valid, and that behavior which is perfectly innocuous, even encouraged, in one culture is prohibited in another. However, some men seem to be under the impression that big-dick swinging is itself a process of the scientific method. "That's the way it's been for years, honey," they'll tell you. "It's that way because it works." Uh, no. It's that way because it's that way. You have no idea what else will work, not having tried it.

Naturally, not all male scientists behave in this manner -- in fact in my experience the fraction is fairly low -- certainly lower than in the population at large. But I'm frequently shocked at how often the abrasive characters are given a pass by the much less abrasive men. I've seldom seen or heard of anyone having to suffer consequences for (what I would consider) overly aggressive behavior.

On the other hand, women are told constantly, from infancy, that People Are Watching. They are judging your looks, your clothes, and your behavior, and they will remember any unpleasantness or peculiarities, and hold them against you. So your function at all times is to be pleasant and avoid giving offense.

Several years ago I was interviewing in a large scientific institution, and I talked with one of the senior female members. We talked about the difficulties of women in science, and she said (heavily paraphrased) she was a Southerner, and had been raised to be a Lady, and she didn't think she should have to change her personality in order to do some science. Surely, she said, I felt the same way.

I told her that I did indeed know what she was talking about, but (again, heavily paraphrased) I would gladly turn into an asshole, if that's what it took to make a good scientist, but I didn't know how.

(I'll point out here that a scientific society completely dominated by women, with a traditional woman's culture, would not be paradise either. There'd be a premium placed on consensus, and playing well with others. Therefore we'd have to have lots of meetings about what sort of projects were worth doing, and we'd have to all be in agreement. And whatever we couldn't all agree on nicely would have to be thrown out, which would leave practically nothing. And any scientist who explored other avenues on her own, without the approval of the group, would be subject to censure for defying the collective will. In other words, it'd be a lot like the UN.)

So, what's the end result of this reckless waste of bandwidth?:

1) Part of what Summers said was certainly true (need for studies) although a woman might suggest he could've put it more carefully. Part of what he said (about his daughter and the trucks) was just fatuous.

2) On the other hand, Nancy Hopkins of MIT, did women no favors:

Nancy Hopkins, of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was one of the academics who walked out of the conference.

She said that, had she not done so, she "would have either blacked out or thrown up".

That quote's a little niffy; a Google news search turned up many quotes from her along those lines, all different. The WaPo reported that she said, "I felt I was going to be sick...My heart was pounding and my breath was shallow...I was extremely upset." The Chicago Sun-Times said it made her "nauseous" -- with quote marks in the original. Nevertheless, it's clear the poor thing needs some smelling salts and a lie down. Is it that raging hormonal imbalance again, sweetie?

3) On yet another hand, or perhaps a foot, men who gleefully trot out studies showing that men have better spatial abilities on alternate Thursdays during the full moon when there's an R in the month, and this completely explains any preponderance of men in science, so tough luck, girlies, are idiots.

4) The real question is, what can be done about this? There's no use wringing our hands over it if (as seems very unlikely at this point) discrepancies are entirely due to innate abilities, or forces beyond institutional control. For example, I don't believe the government can or should try to counteract the female tendency to concentrate on children over career. (This is not out of any demographic concern, but simply because it's a choice, whereas being discriminated against is not.)

5) Now, I know it seems to the conservatives like political correctness has ruled forever, and feminists have had society by the throat since the late Mesozoic, but it is not true. I'm old enough to remember when a female scientist or engineer was an uncommon and usually unwelcome sight. While some men were welcoming, and others at least tolerant, others resented us as an intrusion onto their male domain. That's always seemed ridiculous to me, but it's true: some men looked at their work environment as a chance to escape from women, and here women were coming to clutter it up! And this was only in the late '70s.

Most of these men had little if any idea of what women could do, and cared less. Left to themselves, they'd always somehow find a man for a job, no matter how qualified a woman might be.

6) And that's why I believe that affirmative action-type programs still have value (or, I should say, they did in the late '70s/early '80s). Spare me any indignation that the "best" person must be chosen for the job. When you've winnowed it down to the top five or ten candidates, there is no "best" -- they're all pretty much right for the job. At that point you have to go by less quantifiable factors, such as who's going to be a better "fit" to the local environment. This is where the women, no matter how qualified, generally got it in the neck, "Oh, but she just wouldn't make a good fit!" This is doubly useful, inasmuch as women would swallow that sort of thing easily, being a little more obsessive on the subject of fitting in.

(I must point out that there are those who somehow believe that affirmative action, rather than serving to prime the pump (so to speak) for women and minorities, ought to be some sort of permanent fixture, a redress for past grievances. Ha ha ha. No. One day it should be dismantled. But I don't know that we've come to that day yet.)

Blogging U. Chicago physicist Sean Carroll has an interesting post on this topic. He references this earlier post of his on the same topic, in which he says, It might be that the only way to achieve gender equality in science is to completely overhaul...society, which strikes me as a big project...

I agree with that last: I believe that the major factor in the under-representation of women in the sciences is not good old-fashioned mustache-twirling wickedness on the part of the male Establishment, but rather a continual low-level societal discouragement. Preferential hiring of women is not going to remove this discouragement all by itself (though I think it will help a little), but getting rid of it really isn't amenable to large-scale governmental action, or great lashings of cash.