Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Girls and Math

I was reading this article when I was taken aback at the following sentence:

While speaking at an event, Summers stated that males are intrinsically smarter than females in science and engineering.

Back the truck up. Summers didn't say that. The link within that sentence, which links to another LiveScience report, says:

In a letter from Summers days after his controversial statements, he wrote: "Despite reports to the contrary, I did not say, and I do not believe, that girls are intellectually less able than boys, or that women lack the ability to succeed at the highest levels of science."

So what's the story? What did Summers actually say? And why would the LiveScience stories contradict each other?

Oddly enough, four years on I can't seem to find an exact quote. What I remember, though, was that Summers, speaking relatively extemporaneously, suggested that researchers should study whether or not there might be innate differences between the sexes. Here's the closest I could find, from the Harvard Crimson:

Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers has triggered criticism by telling an economics conference Friday that the under-representation of female scientists at elite universities may stem in part from “innate" differences between men and women...

Summers spoke from a set of notes—not a prepared text—so a transcript is not available. But in an interview with The Crimson this evening, Summers said that his speech was a “purely academic exploration of hypotheses..."

Early in his speech, Summers noted that women remain underrepresented in the upper echelons of academic and professional life—in part, he said, because many women with young children are unwilling or unable to put in the 80-hour work-weeks needed to succeed in those fields.

“I said that raised a whole set of questions about how job expectations were defined and how family responsibilities were defined,” according to Summers. “But I said it didn’t explain the differences [in the representation of females] between the sciences and mathematics and other fields"...

“Everyone agrees that working toward gender equity is vitally important,” Summers said this evening. He said that universities must address discrimination head-on, but that academics must also engage in “careful, honest and rigorous research” to understand the factors fueling the under-representation of females. “My speculations were intended to contribute to that process,” he said.

Perhaps it's just becoming part of the public consciousness that Summers stated categorically that women are inferior to men in the fields of math and science, but I'd like to think the press could be a little more honest, or perhaps just a little more accurate, in how it reports such things. What do they teach in journalism school anymore, anyway?


Eric Kendall said...

"So my best guess, to provoke you, 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 desire for high power and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination. I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong" --Lawrence Summers

Arnold Kling reproduced this quote in a February 2005 article he wrote on the incident for TCS Daily (www.techcentralstation.com). The full text of Summer's remarks was at one point posted at the address below on the Harvard president's web site, but it is no longer there (http://www.president.harvard.edu/speeches/2005/nber.html). Whether the document has simply moved to a new location or been expunged entirely, I do not know.

Darren said...


Middle School Secretary said...

Here is the transcript that I found:


Still there, I just read it.

Loni said...

My sophomore year, I had a professor of mine ask me why I was in college if I ever wanted to be a mother. “Because”, he said, “some day you will have to make a choice between having a career and being a good mother…you can’t possibly do both. You might as well save the money.”

Among a variety of other things that pissed me off about this conversation, the most outstanding was that I knew no one had ever asked him the same question. Chances are, no one ever asked Summers that when he was young, or you, Darren…in fact I think the majority of men in college don’t worry about the tradeoffs they will have to make as working fathers.

I read the transcript and I have to say that Summers isn’t all wrong in his speech. Sure women are predisposed to motherhood. We are, after all, biologically more equipped than men to carry children. But should one’s desire to play with dolls limit his/her ability to build a bridge someday? Does my nurturing mentality leave no room for physics? This is where the social aspect comes into play.

Summers says that there are a higher percentage of women in graduate programs in the sciences and then points out that the percentage drops off when one looks at the number of women in upper-tier positions within the field. This is the result of a society that encourages women to enter these fields, but still does nothing to make being a mother any easier. Women are set up to be let down in this system, and it is this view of parenthood (not just gender-specific marketing, classroom dynamics, or textbooks) that needs to change.

One of the questions asked referred to Europe, which on average has more women in the sciences while we are still behind. These are also countries where a stay-at-home dad is not a stigma and it is more accepted as a woman not to have children (hence a declining population growth rate for many northern European countries).

But instead Summer’s jumps to differences in aptitude. He seeks to categorize female intelligences in order to find biological reasons for why women’s brains are inferior in these “higher” subjects. Frankly, if I knew I was going to have a man like that as my professor, I would haul ass over to the poetry building as well.

Darren said...

Again, I don't see that he stated categorically what you say he stated. I see his statements in the context of "we should look into this and see if there's any validity". Who knows, there just might be differences in the mental makeup of men and women. In fact, given our biological differences, I think it's somewhat absurd to refuse to accept that there might be differences. Whether those differences result in a difference in aptitude--well, I'd let the results of the proposed studies tell me that, because I don't know either way.

Loni said...

There may be differences in the mental makeup of men and women, but he's using that to justify an inequality while dwarfing the psychological factors and the overwhelmingly obvious deterrent that eventual motherhood has on women who seek high-powered careers.

I assume that he would be using statistical and categorical data to "look into" these trends and I'd be curious to see what methods he thinks will be used, especially since most IQ tests favor white men and he wants to isolate the intelligence factor, aside from societal, familiar, or psychological aspects.

I don't like seeing science used to justify a disproportion of this nature mainly because it harkens back to craniometry, antropometry and other forms of scientific racism.

I also admit my personal dislike for a hypothesis that is referring to my head and my abilities in the field I am entering based solely upon my gender. I won't pretend to be impartial.

Gina said...

You probably didn't want a spin-off discussion on this, but I get so tired of the "women are socialized to be mothers" crap. It's biology, not sociology. No one told me I had to be a mother or that I had to quit my job to be home with them. It was my own free will laced with a major biological yearning that I was quite happy to indulge. I have degrees in biology and conservation biology; I enjoyed my work in the field, but left it with glee to be a mother - never did anyone expect or tell me to do that. As I reentered the workforce I chose jobs that allowed me to be home with them after school because that is what I wanted. And, it is wrong to state that men never think about how having kids will impact their professional lives. I believe that they probably do not do this much before the babies arrive, but afterwards men consider what is best for their family in their professional decisions all the time (and of course some men and some women do not). My husband could be making a lot more money working in Dubai, but knowing that this is not a place where we would want to raise our children, he passed up the chance. Was he socialized to do that? In part, yes! He learned to make decisions that were best for his whole family from his wonderful parents.

I can't pass up the opportunity to comment on the silly statement that women shouldn't waste their money on education if they want to be a mother. There are more reasons to be educated than anyone cares to read, but at risk of stating the obvious - if a stay-at-home mother wants or needs to reenter the work force, she can land a much better job if she has an education. Duh.

Darren said...

After my son was born my own priorities changed; that's when I became a teacher. I figured it was a decent enough job that would give me plenty of time to spend with my son--I don't regret making the change.

Loni said...

And if you read what I've said, you'll see that I have NOT said that an education is a waste of money for future mothers. If I believed that, I would have heeded my professor's advice and dropped out by now.

In fact, I have said that the desire to have children IS biological but that society has not made it easier for women to be mothers AND pursue their careers, thus the disparity between men and women, not in grad programs, but in the actual fields of engineering and mathematics.

Furthermore, maybe reentry into your field was easier for you, even though you went part-time. But I know that most people (even if educated), find themselves behind in the work place after taking as much as 5 years off. I also believe that this is a position that more women find themselves in than men and a question that more women ask themselves DURING their educations. Darren, I know you to be a very dedicated father, but in my experience I have found few men who make the same, albeit-justified, sacrifices to be a good dad.

I'm open to differences in opinion, but would you please read what I've said and read the transcript of Summer's speech provided by the third commenter before you make statements about what I haven't written.

Darren said...

Is your last sentence directed at me? If so, I'm at a loss to find what I said about what you didn't write.

Loni said...

It's not directed at you.