Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Multiplication and division.

I've had a couple of conversations this week about the comments Lawrence Summers made some months ago about women and science. The more I talked about it, the more I realized that what bothered me most about the situation wasn't Summers's comments. It was the widespread reaction to them.

So this guy may or may not be a bigot. But given that 1. we know that more men than women have successful careers in math and science and 2. we know that there are real differences between men's and women's brains, it doesn't strike me as totally crazy to suggest that responsible science ought to at least consider neurology when looking for explanations of sociological inequity. I say this as a woman good at both math and science, and as someone aware that there really are significant biases at all levels of math and science education whereby female students have a harder time getting the same attention from teachers than their male counterparts typically command. And those biases need to be addressed, and I don't know how to address them other than by making educators aware of them.

Maybe the fact that more men than women are successful in math and science careers is all sociological. Except... what if it isn't? What if the differences between men's and women's brains account for at least some of the career and activity preferences exhibited by the two sexes?

I don't know the answer, but it seems scientifically irresponsible not to at least consider it.

Except that, in the end, maybe it's sociologically irresponsible to consider it.

On the one hand I'd rather see the president of the world's foremost university advocate for open scientific inquiry that is not slave to political expedience. On the other hand, let's say we discover that yes, on the whole, boys are more inclined to be good at or enjoy math than girls are. What does that really buy us? Does it just buy us a justification for our local fourth grade teacher's tendency, or our graduate professor's tendency, to devote more energy to her male students than she does to her female students? Because if that's the case, that's a disaster.

Whatever the case, reasonable people will evaluate students or job candidates on the merits of their own accomplishments and talents as individuals rather than as members of some group ostensibly predisposed one way or another. That's true now and it's always been true. The problem arises because no one is perfectly reasonable.

I'm interested in what other people have to say about this. I'm frustrated by most of what I've read about it because it seems to miss the point. The point isn't that it was sexist of him to suggest that men might be better than women at math. It's not crazy for the president of a major university to suggest that neurobiological explanations might be worth considering as a partial explanation. The bigger question is what answer might satisfy us. Do we want to learn that yes, there is some neurological basis for the social patterns we see? Boys really are better at math on the whole, and that's why women are underrepresented in the sciences? Or would we rather learn that the differences between men's and women's brains have absolutely nothing to do with the troublesome pattern of underrepresentation, and that we, in 2005, can't seem to get the sociological biases under control that might ultimately rectify the inequity?

What are we looking to hear?


Blogger grumperina said...

Blogger has been having a comment-ache for the past few days, so if this is showing up for the second time, feel free to delete one.

You're brave for commenting. I've been refraining from blogging about this, and from having conversations about this in general, especially since I'm here in the heart of Summers country. I don't think he said anything noteworthy, to be honest, and the media's reaction is making me grimace. You know how some people will do anything to be different? They'll pretend to like different clothes, different music, they'll try to be all edgy, while being quite conservative in private... that's how I feel about PRC (People's Republic of Cambridge): supremely ultra-liberal just to stand out, jumping on any statement that's even 5% old-fashioned in nature because that's their outward style. I'm ranting on someone else's blog, apologies.

As for differences between men and women that lead to unequal success as scientists - yeah, they exist! In particular, Summers noted that women often spend more time raising children and less time on their careers. I hope this isn't news to anyone. As you mention, just give equal opportunity and recognition to female scientists and science students, and let them make their own choices. If they stay home with the kids, they may not get to be a tenured professor. If they have someone else look after the kids (husband, relatives, daycare), they may become tenured after all.

Equal opportunity and recognition in classrooms, not equal results. Why force equal results, or be ridiculed for pointing out that the results aren't equal, if they aren't "meant to be" due to neurological and social factors?

7:27 AM  
Blogger heathalouise said...

I do struggle with this, especially since everything that Summers said directly contradicts what is expressed in the cultural studies/critical theory fields. I'm a big believer in the social construction of reality, so I find any sort of essentialization of female vs. male problematic.

But, as you said, Kieran, that does not mean there shouldn't be research--medical, sociological or otherwise--into the topic.

9:17 AM  
Blogger Kieran Snyder said...

I want to make sure I'm clear here: "equal results" are really important. This is why I struggle with the sociology of it all. We know that girls are more successful with math and science when they have mentors. Any mentors, but especially women. This makes sense: people -- all people -- tend to follow the models before them. The more similar those models are to the student's own identity, the easier the model will be to follow. Success engenders success.

By the same token, defeat engenders defeat.

There are certain biological constraints on what a particular person can accomplish. No matter how much I practice, I'm never, ever, ever going to play basketball like Larry Bird. (Hell, I'm not even going to play like Spud Webb.) But it's a huge jump moving from the notion of an individual's limits -- we all have 'em -- to the notion of an aggregate's limits. Because whatever truth we find here, it's only going to be statistical. So in the end the truth matters, but maybe not that much. I'm not sure it makes any difference to the way we ought to proceed as a society.

10:02 AM  
Blogger grumperina said...

Oops, let me clarify. When I say “equal results,” I mean equal numbers. Equal numbers of male and female mathematics professors, for instance. How do you know that such equality is achievable? That there are as many gifted female mathematicians as there are male ones?

As for equality of position, status, recognition, respect – absolutely. Equal results in that regard are unquestionably important.

11:10 AM  
Blogger Kieran Snyder said...

I don't know that that kind of equality is achievable, but I also don't know that it isn't. And unless we have specific evidence to the contrary, it is crucial that we proceed as though it is.

11:33 AM  
Blogger Kieran Snyder said...

I don't know that that kind of equality is achievable, but I also don't know that it isn't. And unless we have specific evidence to the contrary, it is crucial that we proceed as though it is.

11:46 AM  
Blogger grumperina said...

I agree with the last thing you said, 100%. L. Summers got bashed for saying that current inequality (in numbers, status, everything) may in part be due to biological differences. And what if it is? Encourage men and women scientists equally, support and respect them equally, provide equal opportunities, equal salaries and position advancement, and see what comes of it. And if under such conditions (which, I agree, are far from reality right now) only 30% of tenured science faculty are women, maybe it's biological and social differences between men and women. And I just don't think there should be a big brouhaha for saying that out loud.

1:02 PM  
Blogger onlybrody said...

This is more a failure of science than a failure of women.

I acknowledge that people must make choices in life. But having a family, among other things, is so basic to being human. While I agree that devoting more time to research may result in more work, I question whether it necessarily leads to work that is better. A scientist who devotes some time to other things, whether childrearing or fantasy football, won’t necessarily cripple their ability to conduct good research in the time they devote to science. I am willing to bet that a balanced life in fact leads to better, smarter research, if only less of it.

When standards for tenure are so excessive that they eliminate capable candidates who make balanced life choices, they risk hindering the advancement of the sciences by limiting the number of participants in scientific communities. So this isn’t merely an issue of giving everyone equal opportunity and recognition regardless of gender. We should be critical of the way science is organized and the demands it places on its participants. More work is better, but a larger community produces more work. Science will attract its most qualified scientists only when it meets the needs of a broader range of society.

4:18 PM  
Blogger Kieran Snyder said...

You (Jason) make some pretty good points. I wonder how far you'd take it: how much faith would you place in the findings of a scientific community composed of a million people each working for fifteen minutes a week?

I'm only being a little glib. You're right that work-life balance is important. People who burn out, or who don't experience the rest of life, aren't going to be as effective. There's a line somewhere and I don't know where it is. But I know that if I'm making a hiring decision, in academia or in industry, and I'm making an all-else-is-equal choice between someone for whom work is the first priority and someone for whom work is the second, I'm gonna choose the person for whom work is the first priority.

(Now granted all else is rarely equal, and it may be the case that for many people making work a number two priority makes them a more desirable colleague -- more balanced, more pleasant to work with, whatever. This is a real factor.)

9:28 AM  

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