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The Wrong Question

sky stegall's picture

 A Reaction to the “High-Powered Job Hypothesis” All my life I have thought of myself as a kind of scientist – from my childhood curiosity about the world to my matriculation at a “School of Science and Mathematics” to my physics degree from Bryn Mawr College, I have identified myself as being interested in and, to some degree, talented in the natural sciences and math.  I have not, however, ever identified myself as the high-powered kind of scientist pulling down six figures working and perhaps teaching at a major research institution.  I would infinitely rather do a job that allows me more freedom in my interests, more time to myself, and more flexibility in my profile – I want to be able to go home and forget about work sometimes, have a life outside of science, and I definitely do not want to travel around giving colloquia and conference talks.Do I have this preference because I am a woman?  Is it because of biology’s or society’s restrictions on me that I have chosen not to battle my way into a prestigious position?  Or is it just because I, personally, am not drawn to that kind of work?  I know what I feel and believe and have to say about that, but obviously I am not the one the world is listening to.  Larry Summers is.Or was, I should say.  He was removed from his position as president of Harvard in part because of his 2005 remarks about women in those jobs, which worries me.I am not upset by the fact that he was fired, really.  I am upset because, in the two years between his speech and the time I read it personally, all I had ever heard was that Summers implied women are intellectually incapable of performing at a high level in math, science and technology, and I think that neither was that his most important point (or even really what he was trying to say), nor is it the question we need to think most critically about.I have recently had the opportunity to look at some of the research, results and opinions coming out of that question, both psychological and neurobiological, and I find myself deeply concerned.  We have found there are differences in female and male brains.  Bits of our brains come in different sizes, we have different assignations of neurons.  Males and females react somewhat differently to different kinds of stress or stimulation.  We react to imbalances differently.So what?It worries me to see so much concentration on the so-called “science” of gender differences, for the simple reason that no matter what we know about the brain, we cannot affect much change on it.  While I understand that this research can be incredibly helpful in terms of treating men and women differently in terms of medicine and mental health, I do not believe it gives us particular insight into the reasons why there are so fewer women than men in high-powered science, technology, engineering and math (I will use the term STEM) positions.  I think it detracts from more pressing and perhaps more solvable problems.I wish people were paying more attention to Larry Summers’ first potential reason why there are fewer women in that community – what he calls the “high-powered job hypothesis” (from “Remarks…”).  Summers explains this hypothesis by saying that “the most prestigious activities in our society expect of people who are going to rise to leadership positions in their forties near total commitment to their work.”  He points out that in these positions, one is expected to think about the job even when not at work, and that this “is a level of commitment that a much higher fraction of married men have been historically prepared to make that of married women.”  That, I think, is a far more interesting and useful question to address – why and how does gender affect that particular decision?The question is more interesting to me personally right now because I am serving on a search committee for Bryn Mawr’s physics department and have had the opportunity in the last two weeks to meet with and interview two male and two female candidates for the position of full-time tenure-track professor.  Obviously, Bryn Mawr is not a top-tier research institution, but parallels can be seen.  These are men and women in their very late twenties to mid thirties in search of a STEM job that will demand an incredible amount of time and effort of them, intellectually, emotionally and physically.  While we cannot use anyone’s personal or family situation for or against them in the decision-making process, there are some things we cannot avoid knowing.  For example, one of our male candidates is married with children, one female is just recently married, another female has a significant other, and the other male is single.  It is clear to us from his comments that the male with a family is willing to move his family around to be close to whichever university he gets the best offer from, whereas our female with a boyfriend has said she wants to stay close to him (he is at Yale) regardless of what offers she gets.  While these experiences by themselves would indicate something specific, we must be careful about drawing conclusions because the sample is so small.  Let me relate some very different experiences – two years ago, we ran a search for more or less the same thing (a fundamental theorist).  The two physicists we offered the position to – first a woman, then a man – both turned us down.  The woman had already received an offer from a more powerful research institution and went on into precisely the kind of high-powered job Summers described.  The man, however, told us he had decided to leave physics to be a “house-husband” because his wife had gotten a dream job on the west coast.  Where are the gender roles now?What matters to me here is not so just that women are choosing their families or outside lives over STEM jobs, but that people are, that people feel like they have to, they can’t have both.  If this is the case, and while I have not seen research on the subject I do have some experience with it, I think we should look at why that is, and what we can do about it.  Further, we may find – and this is what Summers was saying – that more women than men are choosing their families in exactly this situation, which points us back to a very basic cultural question.Does our culture expect or require women to take care of the family and men to take care of the business?  I would say yes.  I would also say that that is the root of this particular problem – that women are being told they should stay home with the kids while the men do science, whether or not the women are brilliant PhD’s, which is weird and scary and old-fashioned (the feminine mystique, perhaps?)… but perhaps addressable.I was so proud of the candidate two years ago who chose to take care of his kids and family while his wife got the job she really wanted.  As much as I hated to lose such a brilliant, talented physicist and professor, I was pleased to hear that for someone, at least, the paradigm was not immutable.  I wish that man luck and I hope he finds a way to show other people that the traditional roles are not the only ones available.  You can be a brilliant physicist and not work an 80-hour a week job.  You can be a woman and not have to stay at home and preserve the family balance.  You can be anything you want, regardless of what you are or the way your brain is structured, as long as you stand up for who you are and what you want.  I am a scientist, a physicist.  And I am a woman.  And because I am independent and stubborn, I will make the choices that I want and be happy.  But because I understand that not all of us are going to stand up for ourselves, I am more than willing to stand up for my sister-scientists, and take into account in my department’s search the demands of the job and the choices these candidates are making.  The question, for me, is not whether or not women’s brains are as capable of math and science as men’s may be.  The question is whether we, the academy, as a culture, are forcing women out by making the jobs inaccessible for anyone who wants to have a life or a family.  I think the answer is yes, and I think that is what’s so outrageous from Larry Summers’ controversial remarks.  Larry Summers quotations from “Remarks at NBER Conference on Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce,” 01/14/05