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Calico Women and Larry Summers: part one

July 18, 2006


I don’t get very exercised over feminist issues. I don’t know why, unless it’s a vague feeling that the sisterhood can handle the jerks on their own. But Larry Summers’ ramblings early last year about women just not being up to math and science is on my mind this week. Partly because I stumbled across the neat blog On being a scientist and a woman. And partly because of a news feature in last week’s Nature, “Does Gender Matter?” Ben Barnes has an advantage writing on the topic. As a transgendered scientist, he’s looked at it from both sides, now. I think he gets the core of the reason for the disparities in academia spot on.

Having looked at it only from the male side, my experience throughout my professional life among engineers and ‘puter nerds had always been that the talents and ideas of women were regularly discounted and brushed off: usually by men and often by themselves. I could see the male brains clicking off when the girl began to speak at a staff meeting. Other guys mostly swore this wasn’t happening. I’m sure they were sincere; it was part of the ground for them and not the figure, just the sea they had always swum in, and they never saw it. Then I got to MIT – and I was delighted with the difference. There, every professional was listened to; when a woman voiced a problem or brainstormed a solution, the group never had to wait until a guy said the same thing before taking it seriously.

And yet, even in Bucky Beaverland, which seemed to me to have made a miraculous leap forward into a more enlightened century, when Nancy Hopkins performed a ground breaking survey of how science department resources were allocated, she found that women faculty came up with the short end of the stick. By wide margins. Even after adjusting for things like years of experience, papers and citations. Though even I, who had always prided myself on my sensitivity, got nary a blip on my sexism radar, the discrimination was still there, pervasive, massive, readable in cold hard numbers. I am therefore certain that Summers was dead wrong in placing “socialization” factors dead last among the causes of gender disparity in science faculty positions. And Barnes is dead right in placing it first. To the extent that there’s any difference in mean aptitude for science and math between men and women, it lies way way down in the noise. So far down that there’s no more reason to suppose that the tiny difference, if it exists, favors men than there is to suppose it favors women.

That said, here’s where I make myself a pariah.

One of Summers’ points – perhaps the one he felt at the time was his central point, though it was overshadowed by blunderbusses he fired elsewhere in his speech – may have a lot to it. He spoke specifically of a difference in innate ability “at the high end”. Most of the heat and light in the subsequent hue and cry flashed over the question of whether males typically have more innate aptitude than females at math and science. To which the answer is certainly “not so’s you could tell.” But that’s a completely different question from whether a higher percentage of males than of females have extremely high innate ability. One is a question about means; the other is a question about variances. And there is no dispute that the male population exhibits a larger variance on a batch of mental characteristics (notoriously including IQ) than the female population does. Many more male dumbos; many more male whizzes. You’d therefore expect the upper reaches of any profession requiring someone to excel in one of those mental characteristics to be topheavy with males. Just as you would also expect to see more males spending their careers at the wrong end of a broom.

Frankly, I don’t see any way around that logic. How to quantify it is another issue. I certainly hope the point continues to be overlooked, cause it’s a whacking great excuse for administrators all over academe to do nothing about the very real discrimination that’s out there. (You just know that West Rattail Community College will think of itself, for these purposes, as “the upper reaches” of the profession.)

Okay, so assuming I haven’t been tarred, feathered, and defenestrated: Where do calicos come into it?

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