Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

...and they can't drive worth s**t either

You've probably heard by now that Harvard President Lawrence Summers suggested recently that the scarcity of women in the hard sciences might be due to innate biological differences between men and women. This suggestion was one of several deliberately "provocative" remarks he delivered at a private conference (no transcripts were kept) at the National Bureau of Economic Research on the subject of improving the status of women in the sciences. Among his other ideas were that the stress and time committment was unusually high in the hard sciences and therefore more than many married women with children were willing to accept--and also, of course, that there might be actual discrimination at work.

The NY Times article refers obliquely to a, "sharp decline in the hiring of tenured female professors during [Summers'] administration," but offers no details or evidence. While the NY Times reports that Summers says his remarks have been "misconstrued" and that he has pledged to continue efforts to attract and retain female professors, they do not report that he repudiated the suggestion. Not surprisingly, the NY Times reports criticism has poured in from academic committees and professors everywhere. Some have outright accused him of bigotry (often citing the "sharp decline" as proof) while others have said that his remarks distract attention away from real discrimination that is occuring--and others have just scolded Mr. Summers for being stupid enough to accept an invitation to be the "provoker" at such a conference.

While I deplore any knee-jerk reactions to politically incorrect suggestions, the idea of any meaningful biological differences between men and women's intellects really has been fairly well discredited and it bothers me that he did not acknowledge this. It bothers me that he did not say that a competing explanation (discrimination) has a lot more evidence behind it. It bothers me that he has not stated unambiguously that his example was poorly chosen and he simply doesn't believe women are intellectually inferior to men in any way when it comes to the hard sciences.

And while I believe people should be free to speak their minds, I realize that being President of Harvard means Summers' voice is not wholly his own--he is a public figure in charge of hiring professors. As such, he has been rightfully criticized by Harvard alumni for not representing the views of Harvard very well--especially in that, given the limited resources available, as an administrator he really ought to know that it probably isn't worth spending money to study the baseless idea of male superiority in the sciences when the money might be better spent to fight well-documented discrimination.

Finally, in my years as a physics graduate student, I have witnessed discriminatory attitudes toward women in the hard sciences. Too many labs still have a fraternity-like feel to them, where you must be "one of the guys" to fit in and those who don't never get the good recommendations, conference opportunities, financial support, etc. I remember one woman in particular who described to me some of what it was like to be a woman in the sciences: her male peers were either too polite (or worse) to really wrangle with her over the issues--or they listened politely and then always went to someone else, ostensibly to "check" their answer. I have heard a lot of sexist remarks spoken quite seriously by physicists; I have heard the specific assertion that women can't do math as well as men. And I have heard remarks just like Summers' phrased as "provocative questions" by professors precisely so they could shield themselves with plausible deniability later.

So I think, for once, I find myself on the side of the "PC" crowd in condemning Mr. Summers' remarks. But Mr. Summers himself was trained not as a physicist, but as an economist/political scientist, which leads me to ask other Citizens: what have your experiences been in the social sciences? How to you fall on this issue?


Anonymous said...

This has been quite a hot topic on the message board from my fancy girls' finishing school (i.e., Wellesley).

A couple of people who went on to do graduate work at Harvard complained that the number of women tenure-track professors is pretty low (compared to similar institutions) and the mentoring/retention of female graduate students suffers accordingly. The comments were from both science and humanities students.

Rather than sniping about the mathematical and scientific abilities of women, I wonder if Summers ever considered that women and girls are subtly and/or actively discouraged from these disciplines. I don't agree with a lot of what Mary Pipher (Reviving Ophelia) says, but she has pointed out in some of her essays that the study of science and math take a certain amount of confidence and independence. Generally, these qualities are pretty much beaten out of your average junior high school girl, who is treated to an endless barrage of busywork where neat handwriting is more important than neat ideas (or correct answers).

These things get better with every generation, but just as Carly Fiorina's tenure at HP doesn't meant that the glass ceiling is gone forever, a couple of tenured women professors doesn't mean that everything is hunky-dory.

I won't comment further at the risk of withering my reproductive system...

-Seventh Sister

Raised By Republicans said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
US West said...

As a woman who studied social sciences at the graduate level, I can say that the only time I felt discriminated against was at The American University. But AU, at the time was a mess anyway and what happened there is that I had a very arrogant, young advisor (who ended up dating one of his female students) that I very much disliked.

I have had the experience of having to be validated by male opinions in the classroom. Often I would participate in discussion and feel dismissed until a man would pipe up and agree. At the time, I didn’t notice it. But I have a lot more since. And no offense, but sometimes it happens on this blog.

I have suffered some level of sexual harassment. But beyond that, I don’t think that my gender prevented me from achieving what I wanted. I have had people, usually men, tell me that discrimination occurs (especially with ugly women) but that because of personality, I don’t realize it. That is the thing about discrimination, only part of it is quantifiable (i.e. you discover your paycheck is different from your equally qualified male colleague, or odd hiring patterns are evident in the stats. Gee do I dare, as a woman, use numbers?). It is, partly anyway, subjective. So either I have been fortunate or oblivious. I am not sure which. But here are just a few additional thoughts:

1) Anyone who feels so threatened by women that he thinks he needs to do a scientific experiment to assure his superiority needs help.

2) There were people who ran genetic studies once to prove their superiority. We started by calling this Eugenics so that it sounded nice and scientific, free of political implications. We ended by calling them Nazis.

3) Women bear some blame for discrimination. Many won’t stand up for themselves, some don’t have the ability, and others just don’t have the motivation. And I can tell you that some of the worst discrimination against women comes from other women. But some of the greatest mentoring can come from women as well. I’ve been fortunate in that regard.

A lot of this has to do with the environment you grow up in. I am beginning to think that having co-ed schools where boys and girls are educated separately but socialize regularly is the best idea for both. (See #4). From my own experience, I think this prevents people from getting locked into the notion of “gender limitation”. I grew up in a female dominated household and thus, I don’t have the “normal” notions of female limitations. We did everything from yard work to fixing cars, to moving furniture. My poor dad couldn’t keep up with it all, so we had to pitch in.

4) I agree that in schools, many girls are trained to hide their brain. Female assertiveness and aggression is different from that of males. When I taught in the classroom, boys would raise their hand every time I asked a question. I’d see the girls raising their hands quietly, politely. Boys would practically fall out of their chairs, jumping up and down. The girls, intimidated by this behavior, would slowly lower their hands. And oddly enough, rarely did the boys have the correct answers. For them, it was about getting recognized for simply being there. For the girls, it was about pleasing the teacher with the right answer. I see the same type of thing in work environments. All of this has been studied and confirmed by sociologist and psychologists.

5) More useful studies have come out that show how differently women negotiate their salaries and benefits. Women don’t often argue for more money, they figure out how much they need to live on, and ask for some reasonable sum above that. Mend ask for way more than they want and often get way more than anyone should. But the point is, they ask. They also ask for perks, like extended vacation, different work schedules, etc. Men, from my experience, seem to be more enterprising that way. And I have taken upon myself to learn this from men. I think research like this is great. Because this is the type of information we can work with and act upon. And it doesn’t throw punches at anyone, but allows everyone to become just a little bit more aware of differences and how to adjust to them. It gives us more tools so that we can all play more fairly.

6) My gender can also be a big help. In the government, there are a lot of older men who want to play “father figure” and they really like helping young women in the work environment. I will admit that I am not completely innocent of ignoring that leverage and occasionally using it.

Raised By Republicans said...

A friend of mine who was in the History department at our university was actually admonished not have children by both male and female faculty and grad students in her program. She was told it would be a sign she "wasn't serious" or some such nonsense. She dropped out and now has two kids and rewarding job in a museum "on the continent."

In the political science department that I attended there is mixed news.

Bad news first...I've heard numerous rumors of female students driven out of the department by harsh treatment or sexual harassment by a couple of professors in particular.

Also, one female professor sued the department for discrimination because she thought she was being under paid. I heard she lost the case largely because she was among the three or four highest paid faculty in the department and was being promoted faster than the normal schedule. But I'd be remiss if I didn't report it. Interestingly, her work is sometimes critised for being "too mathy" and inaccessible to most political scientists.

Finally, my cohort of PhD students started with about 35 students, about a third of them were women. Only 8 of us or so finished. And if my memory serves (with so much atrition, I lost track of who started in the same year as me), only one of the 8 is a woman.

Now the good news...three of the most widely acknowledged "stars" in the department (not including the aforementioned litigant) are women. One of them does fairly technical work with lots of calculus and matrix algebra. Putting her on my dissertation committee is one of the smartest things I've ever done and political scientists across the country have congratulated me on my wisdom in doing so. The other two are widely regarded as among the top if not THE top names in their respective specialities. All three are highly sought after as mentors by both male and female grad students.

Also, the women grad students who do manage to survive or avoid enough of the harassment to finsh get better jobs on average than the men who finish. More than two thirds of women I'm thinking of off the top of my head (its a HUGE program!) got tenure track jobs at "Research I" universities. The others have tenure track jobs at teaching universities or jobs with independent research institutes or internationally known consulting firms. The national rate for such success is about half that even from a department like this one. One recent female entrant onto the job market from our department was in the happy position of rejecting job offers from 4 of the top 20 political science deparments in the country and accepting an offer from one of the top 10.

Bottom line: I suspect that things in political science are a little better than in physics and other natural sciences. But there is a long way to go.

What needs fixing (aside from the obvious ending of overt job discrimination):
1) End harrasment of women students including assuming that being on a dissertation committee is liscence to give family planning advice.
2) Departments and in particular dissertation committees need to be more understanding of family needs for BOTH male and female students but given our society's tendancies female students will need the most accomodation.
3) Spouses of graduate students (especially husbands of female students) need to understand that academic careers nearly always require moving, often to unglamorous midwestern college towns. Academics cannot say "I want to live in San Francisco" or "I want to stay in Boston" and expect to find a job. We have to go where the few available jobs are. I've seen spouses' geographic inflexibility kill more than a few academic careers before they even got started - mostly of women but men also.

I'm sure I've left stuff out but this is getting long. I'll leave it to others to point out my omissions.

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