Saturday, March 11, 2006

Summers Redux

So tonight I went to dinner with James, Jill, & Stephen (who's going to be attending next fall -- yes!). We had a great debate going over who else we think will be accepting Stanford's offer, and some running bets -- either way we're going out drinking. Awesome time, and I'm so excited for next year's cohort!!

At some point James's roommate Tom joined us. There was one moment that I had to blog about (hence the title). I can't remember word for word, but I'll try to recreate the conversation and its sense. So after the topic of Lawrence H. Summers came up:

Me: Yeah, he was trying to use the example of his daughter playing with dolls and his son playing with toy trucks to stand in for biological truths, as if the kids weren't raised in America, with the TV commercials and the culture. [If you look at the transcript, he finds it significant that his daughters called trucks "baby trucks," just because he hadn't given them dolls to play with, so clearly they had no socialization that could possibly have influenced them to treat toys like dolls. Right?]

T: I don't think that was what he was saying.

Me: Well to look around society and then ascribe it to biology... it's kind of tautological...

T: Did you read the article?

Me: Yes.

T: I just read it a week ago, and my professor was saying that most of America wouldn't even understand the math.

Gradual dropping of the subject, especially as I don't want to get into an argument right as we're sitting down to eat.

OK. So first of all, Summers was just plain wrong. I don't care what math he was using, he basically says that more women aren't in the sciences because:

1. They have children/ want to have children

2. They don't have the same "high end" "aptitude"

3. Discrimination

And in that order. Yes, so basically, the biological function of childbearing, and the biological determinism of having XX chromosomes means that women are less able to compete in the sciences. Discrimination is added as if it's only an afterthought, as if we aren't coming out of thousands of years of women being barred from becoming intellectuals, or just ignored or discredited. So why exactly does pregnancy mean that women can't have high powered jobs? Last I checked, most women work through most if not all of their pregnancies (and keep in mind all the women that do massive amounts of house work and physical labor throughout). And there's no reason why society can't structure jobs to allow more leeway for parents (of BOTH sexes) to take care of their children. Further, no one's found a "science gene" that's only found on the Y chromosome. For the second premise, Summers cites one study, and his own calculations on standard deviation (which he admits are flawed), to estimate that the ratio is 1:5 in favor of men doing "high end" work. He doesn't seem interested in thinking about why such studies might be flawed, or explaining what exact biological factor could possibly determine scientific/mathematical ability. No mention of these fields of math and science being developed largely in male traditions, or the possiblity of IQ tests being geared toward favoring men's abilities (abilities that are either culturally or as he suggests, biologically created). So whatever math you pull out of our culturally bound societies, how on earth is that going to justify the following comments:

"So I think in terms of positive understanding, the first very important reality is just what I would call the, who wants to do high-powered intense work?"

"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."

You can read the whole thing here.

And here are some more enlightening and encouraging remarks from people who I think have done more thinking on the subject that Summers:

DAVID TARGAN: Well, I have a lot of thoughts. I know that in his apology, he, from what I gather, he said that we need to do more research on this, clearly. And the odd thing about it is that, if he had talked to members of his own faculty, if he had talked to people right next to him at M.I.T., there's so much research that has been done on – that can be acted upon right now on – if we need to do more research on gender differences, on – that's fine, but we know that so much of the variance in between – in terms of the difference between the numbers of men and women at the faculty levels can easily be accounted for by social factors, that – that he and other people have tended to minimize that if we just take some simple measures that are well-known and easy to do, relatively, we can make great strides. And the fact that he didn't seem to know this is rather striking.

AMY GOODMAN: This weekend it was – the whole controversy was discussion on the Sunday talk shows, and I was quite astounded to see "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," on ABC in discussion at the end of the conversation with George Will, Claire Shipman, others; and they were in agreement that this is about being p.c. on campus, that you’re not allowed to raise truths, basically, that we all know that there are differences between women and men. Professor Hopkins, your response?

NANCY HOPKINS: Yes, I think this is deeply concerning, and I hope we can correct this, because this is terribly important. This is not about academic freedom and this is not about political correctness at all. This is, as the dean just said, this is about flying in face of all the evidence (of which there’s massive evidence) and just giving your own personal opinion in spite of that evidence, when your opinion is actually very damaging, and you're a leader the education world. That's what this is about, and if Summers would release the tape of his talk, I think this could help a lot to make it clear that what he said was not appropriate.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what is the percentage of women at M.I.T., also professors of color at M.I.T.?

NANCY HOPKINS: Well, the percent of women faculty, you have to always look at particular fields, of course. So, you have to look at science versus engineering. You have – you know, and so forth. And these numbers vary a lot depending on the field you’re talking about. So, overall, at M.I.T. the percent of women on the science faculty, that's six departments of science, is about 14%, and the same percent in engineering.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you know the figures of professors of color in these fields?

NANCY HOPKINS: The percent of minority faculty is about 4%. So, it's very small. And what you see is, if you look the data, with women, you see that you train a lot of women and they gradually leak from the pipeline. With the minorities, you see that there's a drop after college, so that they’re not enough getting PhD’s.

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