Harvard President Lawrence Summers has sparked another controversy in a speech at the National Bureau of Economic Research. As the Washington Post reports:
Summers laid out a series of possible explanations for the underrepresentation of women in the upper echelons of professional life, including upbringing, genetics and time spent on child-rearing.
Summers suggestion that genetics, specifically some sort of innate differences between men and women, may play a role sent some audience members over the edge. Again from the Post
"I felt I was going to be sick," said Nancy Hopkins, a biology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who listened to part of Summers's speech Friday at a session on the progress of women in academia organized by the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Mass. She walked out in what she described as a physical sense of disgust.
"My heart was pounding and my breath was shallow," she said. "I was extremely upset."
Wait, it gets worse. Summers is apparently a sexist parent too:
Some women who attended the meeting said they felt that Summers was implicitly endorsing the notion that there are genetic differences that inhibit girls from excelling in math and science. They cited a story Summers told about giving his daughter two trucks as an effort at gender-neutral parenting. The girl soon began referring to one of the trucks as "daddy truck" and the other as "baby truck."
The point of the truck anecdote, said Hopkins, a Harvard graduate, seemed to be that girls have a genetic predisposition against math and engineering. "That's the kind of insidious, destructive, un-thought-through attitude that causes a lot of harm," she said. "It's one thing for an ordinary person to shoot his mouth off like that, but quite another for a top educational leader."
Now I'm no expert on gender differences, but unless there has been some blockbuster research breakthrough that I missed, there is substantial uncertainty as to why certain aspects of dominant gender roles are so stable over time, including male predominance in math science. Old-fashioned sexism almost certainly plays a role, but it may not explain everything. Indeed, I think most fair observers would suspect there is more to the story.
This is not a defense of such gender stereotypes -- nor does it say anything about the specific capabilities of any individual man or woman. If it is the case that men are more predisposed to excel at math than women, this does not mean that all men are better at math that all women, that women cannot be successful mathematicians, that women should not pursue math-oriented careers, or that sexism and gender-bias are irrelevant. It would simply mean that statistical gender disparities in given fields are in part the result of genetic predispositions. Genetics provides but one possible explanation for the observed disparity in male and female participation and success in certain fields. But it may not be the whole story either. It is quite possible that certain genetic predispositions are magnified or reinforced by cultural stereotypes and bias.
In the end, the reason why more men than women excel in math and science is an empirical question, and one worthy of careful examination. If genetic differences play a role -- and this is an "if" -- this is something worth knowing. The political and cultural sensitivity of the question should not place it off-limits to scientific examination. At least some in attendance recognized this. One last time from the Post
"I left with a sense of elation at his ideas," said Claudia Goldin, a Harvard economics professor who attended the speech. "I was proud that the president of my university retains the inquisitiveness of an academic." . . .
What Summers said "is controversial and should be debated," said David Goldston, chief of staff of the House Science Committee, who was also at the meeting. "But there ought to be some place in America where you can have a thoughtful, non-ideological private discussion."
See also Kevin Drum's thoughts here
Good That Lawrence Summers Isn't at Iowa State:
Iowa State University bans as "sexual harassment" a wide range of speech, including "derogatory or demeaning comments about women or men in general, whether sexual or not." Saying -- even quite accurately -- that women are genetically less likely to be good at certain things may well be seen as "derogatory or demeaning." (After all, it apparently made some biology professors feel like they were "going to be sick," made their "heart . . . pound," presumably not in a good way, made their "breath . . . shallow," and made them "extremely upset.")
Of course, saying that men are more likely (whether for genetic or other reasons) to be violent criminals, rapists, child molesters, sexists, or for that matter fools driven by their genital organs would also be "derogatory or demeaning," and thus sexual harassment.
Fortunately for professors who hold these views, "Interpretation of this policy will give due consideration to the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech." If you weren't a university President, but just a young academic hoping for tenure, would you get much comfort out of this promise of "due consideration," whatever exactly that means?
ANOTHER AGENDA ITEM FOR PRESIDENT SUMMERS:
One of the questions for Lawrence Summers now apparently is why only 4 of 32 tenure-track offers in recent years have gone to women. A seemingly obvious question--I wonder how many offers were made to conservatives/libertarians/Republicans during that same period? If Dan Klein's data on other elite universities is accurate for Harvard (and there is no obvious reason why not), the most likely number is zero (or at least less than 4), notwithstanding the fact that according to last year's election, some 51% of voters appear to be right of center (roughly the same percentage as there are women in America).
More fundamentally, if a faculty of say 100 members only had 2 or 3 women on the faculty, surely there would be little hesitation by many in ascribing this to disparity to pernicious discrimination against women, and that "more needs to be done" (as President Summers is hearing in the current howls of outrage). And, fact, presuming discrimination from such a gross disparity will frequently turn out to be correct, especially in setting such as nonprofit universities which are insulated from market pressures (one reason why unions historically discriminate so much). Certainly the numbers give rise to a presumption that is correct often enough to put the burden on the other side to show that it is being responsible and applying the same standards and efforts to the recruitment of women as men.
But if this is so, why is it that if a faculty has only 2 or 3 conservatives/libertarians, a similar presumption does not apply? Surely such a gross disparity at least gives rise to the same prima facie case of ideological discrimination, doesn't it?
Note that the difference cannot be that sexual discrimination is obvious but ideological discrimination is not, in that the nature of academia is that the centerpiece of the academic exercise is the ostentatious display of ones' ideas, so everyone knows your ideological views.
So, President Summers, while you are looking at faculty diversity issues ...
It has been pointed out to me that if President Summers is reading, I hope he doesn't take my observation to be evidence of the innate inferiority of conservative and libertarian scholars.
Summers Storm Subsiding:
Harvard President Larry Summers has apologized for his controversial statements about the relative lack of women in math and science. I critiqued the outrage here. Preposterous Universe disagrees and has a good round-up of other commentary here. One interesting aspect of the controversy is that the lack of a written transcript of Summers remarks have left them open to a variety of interpretations. That'll teach him not to speak off the cuff!
Of the comments I've read and received, I also found the following to be particularly interesting:
I took a heavy math load at Smith and it was all taught in a "female" way - the school took the position that women
learn and process differently and thus should be taught differently. Their position was that women have an approach and talent distinct from men and the "male" approach to teaching has shut women out of these fields. I don't know if I buy it, but I do know that I learned
much more in Smith classes than I ever had before.
I don't necessarily have a problem with the gist of what Summers is saying - the question is whether he thinks women cannot be mathematicians/engineers, or if they approach these subjects differently, and what the data actually proves. . . .
Another thing - the woman who said she felt "shallow of breath" - seems very much like a victorian fainting spell. I question whether that reaction is good for women, either. Women before us faught hard to be taken seriously. Don't let one comment knock you down. That
shows no strength at all.
Summers Apology etc.:
I really don't see why Larry Summers needed to make an abject apology for merely suggesting the possibility that, along with other possible factors, including discrimination, innate differences between men and women may play a role in the disparity between men and women going into the sciences. To my knowledge, the subject of the influence of male-female differences on career choices and competencies is widely debated within academia among those who specialize in related fields. And we've certainly come along way from the day when the "experts" thought it was okay to raise a boy born with mangled genetalia as a girl because he would simply be socialized as a girl and never known the difference, given that all male-female differences are "socially constructed" (though I continue to hear the latter line from individuals "educated" at our elite universities [edit: though never from anyone who majored in science]).
I can see the argument that perhaps statistical generalizations will give aid and comfort to those who are inclined to begin with to discriminate against the group in question (even though logically they are given no quarter by the generalization: even if, for example, Jews are less likely than Gentiles to be tall enough to play professional basketball, you don't turn down Dolph Shayes when he shows up at training camp). But I think the outrage expressed goes beyond that. I find that people have difficulty understanding that broad statistical generalizations don't justify leaping to conclusions about individuals. I once heard of a professor who gave a faculty workshop at a major law school in which the speaker pointed out that adoptive and step-parents are far more likely to abuse their children than are natural parents. The speaker noted, of course, that the vast majority of adoptive and step-parents don't abuse their children, it's just that they are far more likely to compared with natural parents. Nevertheless, informed sources tell me that adoptive and stepparents in the audience were gravely and personally offended, and accused the speaker of promoting Nazi-like theories of biological merit. I simply can't understand this logic. How do you get from "the vast majority of adoptive parents don't abuse their children, but are more likely than biological parents to abuse their children" to "you, as an adoptive parent, are under suspicion" for abusing your child? And unlike the continuing nature/nurture debate with regard to women's career choices, my understanding is that the higher rate of abuse among non-natural parents is a documented fact, but that didn't stop the outrage.
On the other hand, because so many people, even very smart law professor-types, do seem to have problems with how statistical generalizations relate to individual cases, maybe Summers did indeed put his foot into his mouth. By even suggesting the possibility that men and women, as broad statistical groups, have different natural interests and talents, Summers was inevitably interpreted by many as saying "maybe it's okay to discriminate against talented women in math and science." Part of being a university president is not just being clever and saying interesting things, but understanding how your public audience, logically or not, will react to what you say.
And finally, an interesting First Amendment question: if a female scientist who is denied tenure at Harvard decides to sue, can use Summers' speech as evidence of Harvard's discriminatory intent?
WHAT IF SUMMERS HAD SAID:
"The distribution of natural endowments for math abilities for men show the same mean but greater variance than math abilities for women. Therefore, men will be disproportionately represented at the tails of the distribution relative to women. In other words, there are likely to be more men in society than women with unusually poor and below-average math skills."
Some evolutionary theorists have predicted exactly this sort of effect--that because of the nature of mating strategies (e.g., high status men mate much more than average or low-status men, whereas average-status men only mate marginally more than low-status), men may gain adaptive benefit from having greater variance in their genetic abilities, whereas woman benefit from less variance because of the much smaller marginal benefit from extraordinarily high abilities. In evolutionary terms, pretty much any woman would have an opportunity to mate with some man, but not every man will necessarily have the opportunity to mate with a woman, and high-status men mate with many women (prior to the social evolution of monogamy).
I haven't followed the empirical evidence on this closely, and from what I know, the jury is still out on whether this is scientifically accurate. But if it is true, and it is certainly plausible, one prediction of the theory would be that men would be overrepresented both at the very top of competitive professions ("stars" in academia, medicine, chefs, violinists, etc.) as well as being overrepresented in the dregs of society in terms of being intellectually below-average and prone to dropping out of school, prison, substance abuse, violence, and other correlates to that state. By contrast, under the hypothesis, woman will tend to be more consistently average or above-average than men in these same occupations. And it is obviously meaningless and silly to suggest that it is somehow "better" to be overrepresented at the extreme tails and underreprested around the averages than the opposite. I don't know whether it is true that men are overrepresented in the dregs of society, but casual empricism suggests to me that it is a plausible description of the world.
The hypothetical statement, it turns out, is therefore functionally identical to the bastardized interpretation of Summers's statement. But somehow I suspect it would be less outrageous if he had said it in such a manner to denigrate the propensity of men to be losers in the genetic lottery.
A reader points me to the federal Bureau of Prisons, which, for what it is worth, reports that 93.2% of inmates in the federal prison system are male.
Pinker on the Summers Controversy:
Steven Pinker, author of The Blank Slate, provides some sensible commentary on the Summers controversy to the Harvard Crimson, including: "People who storm out of a meeting at the mention of a hypothesis, or declare it taboo or offensive without providing arguments or evidence, don't get the concept of a university or free inquiry."
Will Saletan (Slate) on Sex Differences and Math and Science:
A well-written and interesting article. I'm no expert at all on this subject — I've read a few books that have touched on the issue, but I'm basically just a mildly informed layman on this. Still, it seems to me extremely plausible that men and women, like males and females of other species, would as a group have different innate temperaments, behavior patterns, and skill sets. As Saletan points out,
[This is not] a statement that girls are inferior at math and science: It doesn't dictate the limits of any individual, and it doesn't entail that men are on average better than women at math or science. It's a claim that the distribution of male scores is more spread out than the distribution of female scores — a greater percentage at both the bottom and the top. Nobody bats an eye at the overrepresentation of men in prison. But suggest that the excess might go both ways, and you're a pig.
Of course, in the past many people have vastly overestimated innate sex differences. But this isn't reason to assume today that the differences simply don't exist. And it's certainly not a reason to try to prevent honest and informed discussion of this subject, or to condemn people simply for raising this question.
Gender and Brain Function:
The New York Times
has an interesting report on what scentists who study gender and brain function have to say about the differences between the brains of men and women:
When Lawrence H. Summers, the president of Harvard, suggested this month that one factor in women's lagging progress in science and mathematics might be innate differences between the sexes, he slapped a bit of brimstone into a debate that has simmered for decades. And though his comments elicited so many fierce reactions that he quickly apologized, many were left to wonder: Did he have a point?
Has science found compelling evidence of inherent sex disparities in the relevant skills, or perhaps in the drive to succeed at all costs, that could help account for the persistent paucity of women in science generally, and at the upper tiers of the profession in particular?
Researchers who have explored the subject of sex differences from every conceivable angle and organ say that yes, there are a host of discrepancies between men and women - in their average scores on tests of quantitative skills, in their attitudes toward math and science, in the architecture of their brains, in the way they metabolize medications, including those that affect the brain.
On an unrelated note, all this talk of brains reminds me of the greatest comic movie ever made
Summers Speech; Nancy Hopkins:
Some interesting background reading on Nancy Hopkins, the MIT scientist who helped create a brouhaha by walking out of Larry Summers' controversial speech on women in science ["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."] It's actually funny, in a tragic-comic kind of way, that a "scientific" institution like MIT would appoint a complainant to investigate the validity of her own complaint, and not demand any actual data to back up the results of the investigation.
UPDATE: Cathy Young sends along a link to her excellent Salon piece on the MIT controversy, and the debate over women in science more generally.
What is it with elite universities and internal investigations with preconceived results? (Via Instapundit)