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January 23, 2005

The press has recently given a lot of press to incident where the president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, mentioned that perhaps biology has something to do with the fact that there are fewer female scientists in the Math/Science/Engineering fields. The discussion at Harvard where this all came out was meant to be a thought-provoking discussion offline, and for that reason was not recorded. Here's a reference to a column at Powerline that talks a bit more about the issue.Jason brought this up a while ago but I didn't comment because I felt the issue was more complex. As Renee mentioned in her comment, it was taken out of context. I've read numerous articles where he defends what he said. He says the object of the comment was to invoke discussion, and he never said that boys are better than girls at such topics -- just that maybe biology plays a factor in why there aren't as many women in those areas. I often say, half jokingly, that males and females are different. Duh, right? Well, more and more, society is trying to make them the same, rather than different-but-equal. I for one, think men and women were made to be different; they were made to compliment each other in a variety of ways. Humans aren't alone in having differences, as this article points out numerous differences between the sexes. Does the fact that they're different make one better than the other? Of course not. The link off the Powerline to Linda Chavez' column in the Washington Times mentions that

"On average, women perform better on verbal tests, while men demonstrate greater visual-spatial capabilities, and these differences are more striking at both the lower and upper extremes of intellectual ability."

The different sexes tend to excel in different areas, but that doesn't make one overall supreme. However, what really made me want to comment on this was the feminist reactions (or should I say overreactions) that are mentioned. For example an MIT professor who walked out claimed she was would have "either blacked out or thrown up" if she had stayed to hear more comments. The better one though was mentioned in Chavez' column:
"For years, feminists have tried to explain away these achievement differences by suggesting girls are not encouraged properly to pursue math and science. Lately, some have even started blaming how these subjects are taught: too much emphasis on competition and being "right," too little on collaborative learning and nurturing self-esteem."
I wanted to scream after reading too much emphasis on...being "right." Hello people! That what science and math and engineering is about. It's not humanities where you can argue any point of view. Would you want those responsible for maintaing the nation's nuclear arsenal to not care if their calculations are right? This was a real-world example that I was involved in and some numbers were very slightly off. Sorry feminists, but being left out for wanting to redefine science is not discrimination.

Posted by charr at 10:23 AM
Reader Comments

Here's another article that hits on a lot of topics, but in many areas they side with what I've often thought: that "societal and cultural factors" play a bigger role, in that women tend to show a more negative reaction to math/science and are perhaps less attracted to the "coldness" of those areas.Interestingly, the article also hints that there may be some subtle discrimination that happens. Who knows?

Posted by Cameron at January 24, 2005 3:58 PM

I have a BA degree in sociology and a BS degree in computer science. My emphasis has been on gender differences in computer science. For the research I've done independently and from other compiled sources, I can say that the way women begin from an early age to perceive differences in form and content of things around them is by and large a socially-constructed process which is to a smaller extent (guessing: probably 15% in certain people who are prone to expressing their genetic tendencies) due to nature. About science: lots of natural science people are confused about the structure of knowledge (with the exception of CS people studying automata theory and linguistics). For many years, I didn't appreciate how fractured science could be, but after the "required reading" of Thomas Kuhn and others, there's a new appreciation for what it means to say, as you mistakingly do, about "being right". The tangible example of nuclear precision that you give (end result) is not the same thing as the process that allows the technician to implement that process (i.e., the person who went to school and got a degree in nuclear engineering, etc. and works at Los Almos) Of course, science is "precise" in that we can repeat the same empirical results of a process. About science discrimination: Discrimination is defined as using an ascribed, innate trait (like being a woman)--given a antipathy or prejudice by a person making a claim("women can't process 3D information as well as men")--to prevent the person from exercising a choice in a situation. [taken from Feagin & Feagin's classic definition of discrimination]If that antipathy can't be proven, then anyone who prevents a woman from doing a task is discriminating against her. Linda Chavez's "conservative" treatment of the classic woman vs man argument in the tired "nature vs nurture" debate is just as it's been from 30 years ago--YET, more women are entering the sciences at higher rates, relative to 30 years ago, than men. I'd give this "problem" about 40 more years before engaging this converation about gender and ability to perform certain science tasks relative to men.

Posted by AL at February 4, 2005 2:51 PM

Al, thanks for your comment, it sounds like you've done a lot of research in this area. However, it does little to disprove anything I said or to show that I was "[mistaken]". In regards to science, you talk about the "right" process. I never said there was a right process. What I quoted was "being right" -- as in having the right answer. In science, the correct answer doesn't go the best debater. As for discrimination, I never discriminate about anyone in my column -- nor does Dr. Summers -- he merely brings up an idea for debate. Evidence shows there are fewer women in that field, and Dr. Summers offered a possible suggestion. Another possible suggestion I offered is that maybe they aren't interested, which may go hand-in-hand with your social upbringing idea. If one were to say "I won't hire you because you are female" in some form or another, that would be discrimination. There is nothing in my column, nor what Dr. Summers allegedly said that resembles that.

Posted by Cameron at February 4, 2005 8:16 PM

As a female and an engineer, I find arguments pertaining to whether women are capable of handling the pure sciences contemptible. I find arguments pertaining to whether women are capable of understanding correct (or "right") scientific concepts even more so. In science there is a right and wrong. You cannot seriously debate certain scientific principles without displaying a marked ignorance of these principles. And while there are scientific theories and postulates, the act of debating these theories and postulates requires a deep understanding of proven "right" scientific concepts upon which those postulates and theories are based. To use my own field as an example, there simply is no debate as to whether water flows downhill. When I say that water flows downhill, I am "right." Again using civil engineering as an example, there are right and wrong processes in design and construction. Now, I will agree that women and men are "hard-wired" differently. But that doesn't mean that women aren't capable of understanding correct scientific principles because the left or right sides of our brains are different. It may mean that women (and men for that matter) aren't predisposed to want to learn certain subjects, which is an important distinction.

Posted by Jan at February 5, 2005 9:03 PM

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