Larry Summers, the president of Harvard, has incited some debate about whether innate gender differences contribute to why relatively few women become professional scientists or engineers.
William Saletan defends Summers and provides some details about what he actually said in his recent article Don’t Worry Your Pretty Little Head, The pseudo-feminist show trial of Larry Summers:
“He spoke after the morning session of a conference called “Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce: Women, Underrepresented Minorities, and their S. & E. Careers.” He offered three possible reasons for this gender gap. The biggest, he suggested, was that fewer mothers than fathers are willing to spend 80 hours a week away from their kids. The next reason was that more boys than girls tend to score very high or very low on high-school math tests, producing a similar average but a higher proportion of scores in the top percentiles, which lead to high-powered academic careers in science and engineering. The third factor was discrimination by universities.”
Summers’ words may have been blown out of proportion, but I would expect a University president to frame a better argument.
1) Spending time away from your kids. Girls and boys decide whether or not to pursue math and science long before they are aware of the details of how much time different careers might require of them per week. Also, more women these days decide not to have children. I would guess that if you lined up those stats, it would still not explain the disproportionate number of women. And most importantly, why must we assume that you have to work 80 hours per week to be successful?
2) High test scores in high school. Setting aside the fact that biology now has a far greater number of women than men pursuing undergraduate degrees, with respect to other fields that are still dominated by men, it would have been fantastic had Summers used the opportunity to highlight that the problems really start in elementary and high-school education. By the time students get to Harvard, there are already fewer women than men pursuing engineering and computer science. Perhaps Summers sees this as inevitable, but discrimination against girls in early education is well-documented. We could do a lot better in educating all children in math and science in this country. I also wonder: do high test scores in adolescence necessarily correlate with great scientific research later in life?
3) Discrimination by universities. Why spend 80 hours away from your kids if you aren’t going to get anywhere in your career? People who underestimate the effects of discrimination have probably not experienced it themselves.
There is clear evidence of biological differences between men and women, aside from the obvious sex organs and hormonal fluctuations, some research has shown that the corpus callosum (the major pathway that connects left- and right- brains) is more developed in women. While some might argue there is biological evidence that women are smater, I feel strongly that the debate is inane. Some people are smarter than others. We must teach each of our children as if he or she were the next Albert Einstein or Marie Curie.
In closing, William Saletan notes: “But the best signal to send to talented girls and boys is that science isn’t about respecting sensitivities. It’s about respecting facts.”
“Facts” like our innate differences cause girls to not excel at math and science. Seems like fuzzy science to me.