Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Why There Are So Few Women in the Hard Sciences: Part I

Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard University, gave a controversial speech at an economics meeting last Saturday:

The president of Harvard University, Lawrence H. Summers, sparked an uproar at an academic conference Friday when he said that innate differences between men and women might be one reason fewer women succeed in science and math careers. Summers also questioned how much of a role discrimination plays in the dearth of female professors in science and engineering at elite universities.
He offered three possible explanations, in declining order of importance, for the small number of women in high-level positions in science and engineering. The first was the reluctance or inability of women who have children to work 80-hour weeks.

The second point was that fewer girls than boys have top scores on science and math tests in late high school years. ''I said no one really understands why this is, and it's an area of ferment in social science," Summers said in an interview Saturday. ''Research in behavioral genetics is showing that things people previously attributed to socialization weren't" due to socialization after all.

This was the point that most angered some of the listeners, several of whom said Summers said that women do not have the same ''innate ability" or ''natural ability" as men in some fields.

Asked about this, Summers said, ''It's possible I made some reference to innate differences. . . I did say that you have to be careful in attributing things to socialization. . . That's what we would prefer to believe, but these are things that need to be studied."

Summers said cutting-edge research has shown that genetics are more important than previously thought, compared with environment or upbringing. As an example, he mentioned autism, once believed to be a result of parenting but now widely seen to have a genetic basis.

In his talk, according to several participants, Summers also used as an example one of his daughters, who as a child was given two trucks in an effort at gender-neutral parenting. Yet she treated them almost like dolls, naming one of them ''daddy truck," and one ''baby truck."
Summers' third point was about discrimination. Referencing a well-known concept in economics, he said that if discrimination was the main factor limiting the advancement of women in science and engineering, then a school that does not discriminate would gain an advantage by hiring away the top women who were discriminated against elsewhere.

Because that doesn't seem to be a widespread phenomenon, Summers said, ''the real issue is the overall size of the pool, and it's less clear how much the size of the pool was held down by discrimination."

This speech has caused a sensation, or, rather, two sensations. One is the fact that Summers referred to genetic explanations of gender differences. The other one is the fact that at least one woman got up and left the room in protest of the speech. The first sensation, or rather furor, is a debate about what Summers might have meant and whether he was just presenting a theory for further inquiry (as he himself stated) or whether he was actually making a biased statement. The second furor, mostly on various right-wing blogs, is whether the behavior of the participant who left is in fact evidence of women's greater emotionality and inability to engage in logical dialogue.

There is so much material in all this for me that no way will I just write one post on it. To prolong the excitement as long as possible (a sort of an intellectual foreplay), I'm going to blog on Summers' three theories on Tuesday (looking forward to that!). Today I'm going to blog about the reactions I just described.

It is indeed true that proper scientific inquiry requires that all possible theories are discussed, and from that point of view Summers' bringing up the genetic difference theory is perfectly acceptable. What makes it somewhat less so, for me at least, are the pieces of evidence he quotes in its support: one an anecdotal piece about his own daughter, and the other one on a medical condition called autism.

Anecdotal evidence is, by its very definition, not applicable as something we can generalize to large populations. I can find anecdotal evidence for most every single social behavior. It is not hard to do, and it is surprising that Summers would launch into what he himself calls a provocative speech while being so poorly prepared to back up his suggestions.

The example on autism is equally unsuitable. Many things are genetically determined, at least partly, and to state that they are so does not throw light on the genetic inheritability of other seemingly unrelated things.

On the whole, I'm wondering why Summers didn't equip himself with the many studies that exist in this area, not to mention the recent research in genetics which suggests that the way genes and the environment interact might be much more complicated than we currently understand.

All this is important to explain the furor over Nancy Hopkins' departure during the speech. Hopkins was one of the authors of an MIT study into gender inequalities, and it is possible that she is considerably better read in the field than Dr. Summers appears to be. She may have walked out because she realized that no constructive dialogue would be forthcoming. Of course, she may have walked out because she was fuming, too. Or she may have been fuming and aware of the futility of further debate.

Michelle Malkin (a conservative pundit) assumes that she was weeping, or at least that's how she titled her blog on the events. I see no evidence to support the weeping-argument. Malkin also argues that if Hopkins' behavior is indicative of what she teaches her female students, academia is better off without women. Taking her arguments to their logical conclusion, journalism would also be better off without women, given Ms. Malkins' own behavior.

The reactions to Dr. Summers' speech have been most revealing, though. It is interesting how very hungry certain commentators are for anything that would back up their opinions, and though this is visible on both sides of the debate, it is more pronounced on the wingnut side. Thus, "emotions" suddenly crop up as somehow meaningful in a debate about scientific ability; as if men don't have emotions (such as anger) that might affect behavior. All human beings have emotions. Only us goddesses can turn them off at will and write all this without even once feeling annoyed...
Original link to the story via feministing.com