Harvard President Lawrence Summers is in trouble — again. At a recent conference on “Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce: Women, Underrepresented Minorities and their S&E Careers”, Summers made comments that deeply offended some women in the audience. “When he started talking about innate differences in aptitude between men and women, I just couldn't breathe because this kind of bias makes me physically ill,” said Dr. Nancy Hopkins, MIT biology professor. Conservative columnist George Will, in a typical efflorescence of politically incorrect stereotyping, termed Dr. Hopkins’ reaction to Summers’ provocative suggestion “hysterical.” Tut, tut, George! But, well…he has a point. Dr. Hopkins’ outburst does look like a gender-updated version of Tom Wolfe’s mau-mauing.
Apparently what really upset Dr. Hopkins was Summers’ story that when that his infant daughter was presented with two trucks she immediately treated them as dolls: One she called “daddy truck” and the other “baby truck..” (Experience with little boys of my acquaintance is that most of them would have at once crashed one truck into the other, accompanied by chortles of delight.)
What is really amazing is not Summers’ anecdote, but the fact that even a suggestion that some differences between little girls and boys are built-in is shocking to some female academics.
But Summers went beyond developmental psychology into the forbidden zone of interest and ability differences:
· Top positions on university math and engineering faculties require extraordinary commitments of time and energy, with many professors working 80-hour weeks in the same punishing schedules pursued by top lawyers, bankers and business executives. Few married women with children are willing to accept such sacrifices, he said.
· Summers also cited research showing that more high school boys than girls tend to score at very high and very low levels on standardized math tests, and that it was important to consider the possibility that such differences may stem from biological differences between the sexes.
So, women may be generally less willing than men to devote their whole lives to academic competition. And there may be fewer women at the high end of ability in math and science. Just how controversial are these ideas?
In fact, women academics themselves make the first observation; and the second is a well established fact from the much-quantified area of ability testing:
In a December 2004 Chronicle of Higher Education report on women in higher education, a leading woman professor is quoted as saying “Women are scared away because they don't see how they can put together a life that satisfies their personal and professional goals…They see that the best jobs are obtained by people who want to only do science and give it 100 percent.”
And later in the same article “Many would-be female scholars, particularly in the sciences, seem to believe that children and a hard-charging research career don't mix.” and “…[population biologist Anna Sears] surveyed 258 male and female graduate students at Davis in 2002 and learned that women were much more likely than men to abandon their plans for an academic career.”
And as for the relative dearth of women at the high end of math and science ability, a handy review article is L. V. Hedges and A. Nowell (1995) Sex differences in mental test scores, variability, and number of high scoring individuals. Science, 269, 41- 45, the abstract of which says: “Sex differences in central tendency [average], variability, and numbers of high scores on mental tests have been extensively studied…although average sex differences have been generally small and stable over time, the test scores of males consistently have larger variance. Except in tests of reading comprehension, perceptual speed, and associative memory, males typically outnumber females substantially among high-scoring individuals.”
And performance on science and math tests doesn’t exhaust the psychological differences between men and women. For a longer list, take a look at Doreen Kimura’s Sex and Cognition (MIT/Bradford, 2000); or contemplate the fact “that 95% of all hyperactive kids are boys; or that four times as many boys are dyslexic and learning-disabled as girls” as Andrew Sullivan pointed out in the English Sunday Times.
So, although men and women are equal on average in their math and science abilities, there are more very able men than very able women. (There are also more male dummies...) Whether these differences are cultural or innate is of course a very large question — but it is a question that is utterly irrelevant to the general issue of why women are underrepresented in the hard sciences at elite universities. If universities hire according to ability; and if elite universities hire preferentially from the higher end of abilities; then males will predominate.
The same conclusion follows if universities hire and promote on the basis of productivity. If productivity is correlated with time spent, then faculty who spend all their time on their work will tend to do better than those who do not. Thus, hiring and promotion will favor Joe, with no side interests over Fred who likes to play golf three afternoons a week. Joe will also do better than Mary, who spends a substantial amount of time with her family.
President Summers has a few critics who offer more than a fit of the vapors: “sociologist [Yu Xie, whose work was cited by Summers] says Mr. Summers made an illogical leap at the meeting by inferring that the underrepresentation of women in the top ranks of science and math could be due to differences in ability. ‘He made a simple analogy that high achievement means participation in math and science careers,’ Mr. Xie says. But research, he adds, shows that at the highest levels of mathematical achievement, women are still less likely to pursue math and science careers.” (Chronicle of Higher Education, January 28) Good point — or is it? Does Xie’s claim make it more or less likely that women in science will be (on average) as able as men?
There are only two ways to resolve the impasse created by ability and interest differences between men and women. Either we have to get used to the underrepresentation of women in some disciplines (no one seems concerned about their overrepresentation in others!); or we have to give up the idea that our best universities should compete for excellence. It’s by no means clear which view will predominate in today’s America.