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Sexism And Science

By R Ramachandran

12 March, 2005

The major controversy sparked off among the members of the academic community in the United States, particularly women scientists, by the observations of Lawrence Summers, the President of Harvard University and former Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, on the subject of under-representation of women in the fields of science and engineering, is yet to die down.

Ignoring, or perhaps ignorant of, the enormous body of social science research to the contrary that exists, Summers posited, on January 14 at a conference of the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), that innate differences in aptitudes, along with familial pressures and employer demands, rather than socialisation and discrimination, were the reasons for fewer women making it to the top in the sciences and engineering. Summers even compared the low number of women to the numbers of Catholics in investment banking, whites in the National Basketball Association, and Jews in farming.

Though Summers later issued a carefully worded apology, saying that if he could turn the clock back he would have spoken differently, and urged the university to take a proactive stance in recruiting women, the damage had been done. In fact, the National Organisation for Women (NOW) in the U.S. called for Summers' resignation. According to NOW, the number of women faculty recruitment at Harvard had declined over the past four years, after Summers became Harvard President in 2001. Of the last 32 tenure posts, only four had gone to women. "Summers' suggestion that women are inferior to men in their ability to perform at maths and science is more than an example of sexism," said NOW's president Kim Grandy. "It is a clue [as] to why women have not been more fully accepted and integrated into the Harvard faculty since he has been President," she said.

The renewed outcry is understandable because the release of the transcript of his speech on February 17 shows Summers in poorer light than what earlier media reports, based on the recall of some of the women participants, suggested. His actual utterances imply that he sincerely believed in the sexist remarks that he made, ostensibly as "hypotheses" solely to provoke further discussion and research on an issue that he, as the chief of a top U.S. institution, was really concerned about.

The transcript reveals Summers' claim in his speech that he had made an effort to think about the issue of women's under-representation in science and engineering in top universities and research institutions in a serious way. "My best guess," he said, "of what's behind all of this is that the largest phenomenon by far is the general clash between people's legitimate family desires and employers' current desires for high power and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialisation and continuing discrimination."

Summers released the transcript reluctantly and under pressure from some Harvard faculty members, after having refused to do so earlier in the wake of the controversy that his talk had generated. In fact, those scientists and academicians, particularly women, who joined issue with Summers then through their writings and arguments in the U.S. media now seem to be angrier. Everett Mandelsohn, a Professor of History of Science at Harvard, who was one of the faculty members who had criticised Summers at a faculty meeting, remarked that he now understood why Summers wanted the transcript to be kept secret.

Summers had remarked that, since Harvard drew only from the very top, it was understandable why there were fewer women in these fields. He cited the following reasons in the order of relative importance: (1) Reluctance or inability of women who have children to work the 80-hour-week that top posts demanded; (2) Fewer girls had high scores in maths and science standardised tests at the high school level as compared to boys, which was indicative of an innate difference between the sexes; and, (3) Lack of evidence for discrimination, upon applying economic principles of supply and demand.

The basis for the second reason was that even though the median scores of girls and boys were comparable, girls' scores tended to cluster around the mean, while boys displayed greater variance, with a large number of high scores. This, he said, indicated "intrinsic" (read genetic) differences that inhibited girls from excelling in science. Indeed, Summers had cited an anecdote about his daughter that despite his effort at gender-neutral parenting, the girl as a child used to call her toy trucks "daddy truck" and "baby truck", thus showing tendencies related to family care. The basis of the third was that there was no evidence of other institutions stepping in to grab top women who were discriminated against elsewhere.

Referring to the anecdote, Nancy Hopkins, a Harvard graduate and now a biology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said to The Boston Globe: "That's the kind of insidious, destructive, un-thought-through attitude that causes a lot of harm." In fact, Hopkins, who was the first to speak about the Summers incident to the media, had walked out of his speech "out of disgust". "It is one thing for an ordinary person to shoot his mouth off like that, but quite another for a top educational leader," she said.

STRONG rebuttals and counter-arguments to the rationales offered by Summers have flowed constantly since the day he delivered his infamous speech. Attacking Summers' first premise, Susan Hockfield, a neuroscientist and the president of MIT, said: "The question we must ask as a society is not `Can women excel in math, science and engineering?' - Marie Curie exploded that myth a century ago - but how can we encourage more women with exceptional abilities to pursue careers in these fields?"

Dennice Denton, an electrical engineer at the University of Washington and one of the women present at the meeting and sharply critical of Summers, wrote: "There is evidence to the contrary. Today, myriad women are at the top in their fields. This year's [2004] Nobel Prize in Physiology to Linda Buck, for example. Four of the 10 campuses at the University of California are run by women, who are all highly respected in their fields."

Virginia Valian, a Professor of Psychology and the leader of the Gender Equity Project at Hunter College in the City University of New York (CUNY), on the other hand, pointed out that there was no data showing that 80-hour work is essential for academic excellence. "It is a folk belief still awaiting verification. There is also a vast array of data indicating that women who do put in 80-hour weeks do not reap the same rewards as men. Numerous controlled studies show that women's successes are frequently attributed to luck rather than skill and that women are more poorly evaluated than men with precisely the same experience and credentials," Valian says.

"In Europe and elsewhere, scientists do not work 80-hour weeks and are no less productive than U.S. scientists. Among women scientists, mothers are no less productive than women without children," wrote Vita C. Rabinowitz, a Professor of Psychology and co-director in the Gender Equity Project at Hunter College. "By framing the issue as one of women's ability and willingness to work hard, he insults women and treats society's problem of caring for children as a woman's problem," she added.

In her perceptive article in The Washington Post, Valian questioned Summers' other premises as well. "Summers is not alone in his lack of awareness of the compelling evidence of the power of small differences in how we treat boys and girls, men and women. Yet those differences, I would argue, provide a better hypothesis than innate sex differences to explain the gender gap in academic jobs in science."

"Nor is Summers alone," she continued, "in being unaware of the large set of experiments showing that well-intentioned people, intelligent people, people who believe in meritocracy - people, in short, just like many successful college presidents - consistently underrate women's abilities and overrate men's". She pointed out that the differences in math test scores did not account for the observed gender gap in who chose to major in science. The gender gap persists even when you take test scores into account. "We cultivate and nurture mathematically inclined boys. And children - like adults - have a tendency to fulfil expectations. We expect boys to excel in math and treat them accordingly. Shouldn't we do the same for girls?" she asked.

In a joint article in The Boston Globe, the Presidents of the MIT, Stanford and Princeton universities (two of them women) wrote that recent research had shown that different teaching methods could lead to comparable performances for males and females in high school math.

"One of the most important and effective actions we can take is to ensure that women have teachers who believe in them and strong, positive mentors, male and female, at every stage of their educational journey... Low expectations of women can be as destructive as overt discrimination and may help to explain the disproportionate rate of attrition that occurs among females as they proceed through the academic pipeline," they wrote.

In a statement signed by 10 academicians, the Wisconsin-based Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI) drew attention to findings in modern genetic research that complex interactions of genetic inheritance and environmental conditions contribute to the expression of genetic traits. "Our past experience with eugenics," it said, "the effort to apply simple genetic concepts to solve and explain complex socially constructed conditions, should warn us against such simplistic extrapolation."

Countering Summers' third premise, WISELI argued thus: "Unfortunately, Summers posits a model of rational decision-making that frequently does not hold in practice and does not take into account real-world constraints that prevent talented and exceptional women scientists from seeking positions at other universities. Summers' reliance on neoclassical economic theory also fails to recognise the fact that discriminatory treatment may be widespread across academe; that there may not be a school that does not discriminate." In this context Valian has remarked that particularly well-endowed private universities like Harvard have considerable resources with which to indulge their "taste for discrimination".

These reactions do seem to have had an impact on Summers. In a letter to the Harvard faculty, he said: "My January remarks substantially understated the impact of socialisation and discrimination, including implicit attitudes - patterns of thought to which all of us are unconsciously subject. The issue of gender differentiation is far more complex than comes through in my comments and my remarks about variability went beyond what the research had established."

The controversy has certainly revived the debate on the gender gap issue and brought it centrestage in academic discourse once again.

Dennice Denton said: "The good news is that the international reaction to President Summers' statements represents a global `teachable moment'. Individuals and organisations around the world are revisiting the issue of equal representation of women in science and engineering."

The Board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) was quick to issue a statement following the furore over Summers' remarks. It said: "Recent discussions concerning women's participation in science and engineering (S&E) lead AAAS to reaffirm its long-standing commitment to increasing the participation of women in S&E education and careers... . We wish to make clear that while, historically, gender has predicted participation in S&E careers, there is no evidence - nor has there ever been - that it predicts aptitude in science."

Criticism against Summers' views also found echo in the new research work presented at the annual AAAS meeting on February 18 by scientists at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. Under the Athena Project of the Royal Society of London, an online survey of more than 6,500 scientists working in 40 universities and various publicly funded institutions found that men still occupied the lion's share of key positions in the academic science in the U.K.

Even though women scientists are more ambitious than their male counterparts, women lacked the support and encouragement needed to progress in their careers, the survey found. A significantly lower percentage of women than men surveyed felt that their departments valued their contributions.

The controversy made an impact in the U.S. Senate as well. Senator Ron Wyden brought up the issue of enforcing Title IX of the U.S. Education Act, which requires that any institution receiving federal funds must make sure that women and men are treated equally. According to Wyden, Title IX was the appropriate instrument to tackle the issue of creating more opportunities to advance equitable treatment of girls and women in science and math education. "Universities do not need an equal number of slots for men and women on the science faculty. But there absolutely must be an equal shot at all the slots for both," he said. He pointed out that the federal government was not doing its part to ensure that Title IX is enforced for women and girls with the ability and desire to work in math and science.

What about the situation in India? While it is distinct from the situation in the West, the hurdles that women scientists in India face in the pursuit of a scientific career, particularly in the physical sciences, mathematics and engineering, are very similar to what the above research (and indeed several other surveys in the West) has found.











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