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Thanks Larry, but No Thanks

rmalfi's picture


Thanks Larry, but No Thanks

Some say that gender equality is no longer an issue in the workplace. I've heard it myself, from the mouths of friends. Feeling, myself, that this statement is incorrect, I struggle to understand the source of this sentiment. Perhaps this belief is partly derived from the fact that an increasing number of women seek higher education. Perhaps it comes from seeing women like Hilary Rodham Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and Condoleezza Rice in leadership positions. There is no doubt that women have come a long way, that they've overcome many obstacles to enter positions formerly closed to the female sex. What remains to be seen, however, is a State of the Union Address where the room is 30 to 50 percent women. In this article, I wish to focus specifically on women in the sciences, but it is important to keep in mind that the ongoing dialogue presented here should be taken beyond this field into discussions about other professional areas and the workplace as a whole.

The story hardly begins here, but this is a good starting point: Once upon a time, in January of 2005, the former president of Harvard, Larry Summers, gave a talk at a conference about women in the sciences wherein he elaborated upon hypotheses that could explain the lack of women in the fields of physics and engineering. Though the overarching goal of his lecture was to provoke further research and discussion regarding the issue, he postulated some ideas that are remnant of the days when phrenology was used to determine intellectual superiority. Larry Summers, in this speech, says, "[I]n the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and ... those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination." Recognizing that he offered other explanations for the absence of women in this field, I still think it rather brazen of him to put such emphasis on innate ability, given how little is truly understood regarding this issue. Clearly, Harvard thought so, too. Larry was asked to leave.

Despite getting fired, Larry did ultimately get what he wanted. His comments sparked debates, research, and an ongoing dialogue that has ceased to die after two plus years. While I am glad that so much attention has been brought to this issue, I fear what may come out of this debate. Amy Bug, in her article "Gender and Physical Science," describes the "ebb and flow" of women's overt participation in the sciences throughout history based on societal acceptance during a given period of time. For instance, "one period of flow began during the Renaissance, when humanism allowed some of the ancient gender-biased prejudices to be questioned... [b]ut in the eighteenth century... there were attempts to deny that women had ever contributed to the development of the sciences..." (pp. 223). These ebbs have been persistent over time and include a period of about 50 years in the 20th century in Europe and the US (1920-1970) (Bug, 224). Differences exist between men and women. I, personally, have no doubt about that. What I fear is that researchers will go so far as to map these differences onto the issue presented here, and that this will instill in the minds of young women in physics and engineering that they are not capable of achieving. The scientific community, sparked by the words of a fired economist, may inadvertently create an ebb (or perpetuate an ebb, as the case may be).

An example of my fear in practice, is the debate between Steven Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke, both professors of psychology at Harvard University. Pinker argues in this debate that innate sex differences may, indeed, play a role in the absence of women from the fields of physics and engineering. To back his opinion, he draws from examples that range from monkey behavior to the SAT. Touching on the first example, he says that "many primate species... show a sex difference in their interest in physical objects." He drives the point home (past the driveway and into the wall of the house) by saying that "[a]mong baby vervet monkeys, the males even prefer to play with trucks and the females with other kinds of toys!" Yes, we get it, Pinker. Boys and girls are different. While I agree with him here - men and women are undeniably biologically different - it is his segue from different to more and less capable that bothers me. Pinker uses the SAT as an example of a test that has "an enormous amount of predictive power... [that is] the same for men and women." I guess that's lucky for his point, because on average there is a 40 point difference in favor of men in the math SAT (Pinker). He implies that women, overall, get higher grades because they are "contientious" and that boys, in general, score higher on the SAT math section because they are more capable of applying mathematical knowledge to unfamiliar problems, which "of course, is close to the way that math is used in actually doing math and science" (Pinker).

There are many problems with Pinker's claim. One, the SAT is a test designed by people to test the aptitude of other people. I'd like to know what people, specifically, are responsible for the development of this test. There are many people who question if science, itself, is gendered in the way it is performed. Those people would probably also be willing to accept the possibility that this test could be gendered in its very creation, and I have to say, I think I'm sailing in their boat when it comes to this issue. I do not question that males are, on average, more adept at the SAT math section. I question the nature and design of the SAT. Pinker (and many others) claim that men and women possess differing spatial/mathematical thought processes. According to Pinker, "for some kinds of spatial ability, the advantage goes to women, but in ‘mental rotation,' ‘spatial perception', and ‘spatial visualization' the advantage goes to men." This information does not necessarily confer that men are better than women at physics and math - it may mean that the SAT is designed to test male reasoning. Because women may perceive space differently does not mean that they can't do physics. In fact, some physics theorists might say that this means that science is gendered (as well as the science aptitude tests), and that the singular view we have of science is narrow and limiting. One such theorist, Karen Barad, says that "[s]cientific knowledge is not an arbitrary construction independent of ‘what is out there," since it is not separate from us" (Barad, pp. 185). Essentially, the body (the knowledge-seeking agent), the instrument of measurement, and reality are a part of a whole knowledge, and those pieces cannot be separated from one another. Barad might therefore argue that the construction of a test, as well as the theory and practice within a field of science, cannot be separated from who we are. She might agree that since physics has been traditionally male dominated, they have played the largest role in what physics "is."

Getting away from the theoretical side of this issue, there is a particular item of factual information that speaks directly to the issue at hand and it needs to be addressed. One item is what Amy Bug called the "leaky pipeline" which refers to "the disproportionate way that women leave the discipline at all levels" (pp. 223). She also notes that though the proportion of women earning Ph.D.'s in physics rose from 5 percent in 1975 to 10 percent in 1990, this statistic "is negated if one looks only at U.S. women... Their participation, as a percentage of all physics Ph.D. recipients in the United States, was virtually unchanged during that time" (pp. 223). This begs the question, what does culture have to do with the success of women in the field of physics? What does the structure of institutions, education systems, and the workplace overall have to do with the participation of women in this area? As a scientist myself, I can appreciate Pinker's use of statistics to explain the phenomena at hand. However, I cannot accept that this issue can be fully explained by looking at standardized test results or what monkeys or even human babies do. We can never really know how biology plays a role until we have eliminated the possibility that a history of discrimination, a perpetuation of social stereotypes, and the structure of the workplace factor into women's involvement in these scientific fields. And the truth is, we may never be able to do that.

I don't think Larry is a bad guy. I understand his motivation for unleashing such controversial comments (in a rather controversial forum, I might add). He wanted answers. Unfortunately, he was asking for the wrong kind of answers. We shouldn't seek to prove that differences in men and women make them better or worse at different jobs. We shouldn't settle for the absence of women in physics. That would truly be setting us back. What we should seek to know is how those differences are or are not accounted for in the scientific workplace and if these differences are truly accounted for in the way that we practice science. So, thanks Larry, but no thanks.


Kathleen Hoynes Malfi's picture

Larry, et. al

Great article! As a one time Psych major myself, I agree with your points. Sadly, some 'in the know' only look at one area of Psychology, and fail to include all the data on Developmental Psych into the mix of waht makes us all tick.
Good analysis Rosemary:)