Hypotheticals are for suckers

Scrappleface is on the case of Harvard President Lawrence Summers, who suggested at a conference that innate abilities, rather than social factors, might explain why fewer women succeed in science and math careers or rise to the top as science and engineering professors at elite universities. Summers said, “these are things that need to be studied.”

Scrappleface writes:

Harvard University President Lawrence Summers today sent a dozen roses to MIT biology professor Nancy Hopkins after she nearly fainted last week during Mr. Summers’ remarks about potential biological differences between the sexes which might explain why fewer women succeed in science and math careers.

Ms. Hopkins told The New York Times, “When he started talking about innate differences in aptitude between men and women, I just couldn’t breathe.”

If she hadn’t walked out of the conference, she said she “would have either blacked out or thrown up.”

Mr. Summers expressed regret today that the female scientist was “hurt by my brutal suggestion that further research was needed to find reasons for the observable phenomenon of male dominance in science and math. I hope the dear lady can forgive me for bringing up such coarse subjects in mixed company. In the future, I shall show more sensitivity in the presence of the fairer sex.”

Summers now says he was speaking hypothetically.

James Lileks joins the fray:

Women do not lack “natural ability.” It’s more likely they lack natural interest. Not all. But many, perhaps most. It’s quite possible — bear with us, this is brave stuff — that gender roles actually spring from innate differences between men and women. They’ve become ossified over the years, creating social constructs and artificial barriers.

Lileks notes that he “works from home, usually in the company of his 4-year-old daughter. He has spent much time teaching her how to use the computer for solving math problems, which she does with great pleasure. Wearing a tiara and a feather boa.”

Here’s a Scientific American article on differences between men and women in how they solve problems.

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  1. I he had brought actual research to back up his claims I wonder how many would still have walked away? I am convinced that there will always be subjects where a statistical difference in performance between men and women will occur. Perhaps changing behaviors and the learning environment will reduce these differences, but I am convinced some are biologically inherent. That is not an excuse for implying one sex is better than the other, just that on average they’re different. The real question is whether it can be shown these differences are large enough to warrant a decision to abandon exceptional (and expensive) recruitment efforts to to bring more folks from one sex or the other into a specific field. With that said, it seems to me that these decisions are more likely to be made at the mid and low tier universities than at elite institutions like Harvard that should have little trouble finding qualified candidates of non-traditional sexes in a field.

  2. Interestingly, this type of behavior in women was once called “swooning.” It was a staple of the Victorian novel.

    At one point in the dreary history of feminism, this swooning behavior was the very mark of oppression. Feminist literary critics never failed to point out how this indoctrinated young women in weakness and submission.

  3. Richard Brandshaft says:

    I don’t know if it’s innate inability or if women just don’t want to do it, but I think it is time to wonder if we can keep blaming stereotypes and discrimination for the dearth of female techies.

    The nature-vs.-nurture argument about sex roles is unending; it is so hard to know anything, there are few pesky facts to constrain political polemics. But we can observe that some sex differences are more resilient than others.

    For example, the notion that the man pays on a date seems built in. The spurt of feminism in the 1970s suppressed it briefly, but it sprang back.

    On the other hand, the notion that women are unsuitable for certain jobs collapses under attack, and stays collapsed. (Jobs dependent on sheer physical strength excepted.) This process has been going on since before I was born, and is continuing.

    When I graduated with a BSEE in 1963, there were serious discussions about whether women were suited to engineering, and the major engineering honor society did not admit women. Now we know better — everyone knows there are many good female techies.

    But while blanket statements about female unsuitability have collapsed, the number of female techies remains stubbornly low, after at least 20 years of affirmative action under various names. (I didn’t keep track of affirmative action programs at the time, and there was nothing to fix dates in my mind for what little I did know. Someone more knowledgeable please correct me on the “20 years.”)

    The reason there were few female techies seemed obvious 40 years ago. But after the shortage has survived decades of assault, it may be time to wonder whether the “obvious” is wrong.

  4. On many measures of ability, men and women average the same, but the variance is higher for men. In other words, the bell curve is wider for men.

    So, if you select for average or better abilities, you should get equal #’s of men and women. If you select for ability far above average, or for far below average, you’ll get more men. So I suspect that observations that men predominate in “techie” courses and positions is largely the result of these positions requiring above average skills in math and logic. Nobody’s noticing all the boys that flunked out of remedial math.

    On the other hand, techie courses are hard. Innate ability only gets you so far, and the homework in engineering courses will take even a genius many hours. There likely are cultural, if not biological, reasons why highly skilled boys will take on such hard work, while girls of equal skill might opt for something easier.

  5. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Now isn’t that just like a woman?

  6. I blog at Gene Expression and as you can imagine we’re all over this topic. If you’re interested in reading a different perspective on this you can follow these links: one, two, three, four, and five. The last link shows data on differences in day old newborns.

  7. Mike in Texas says:

    Now isn’t that just like a woman?

    LOL@ Walter Wallis

  8. It’s clear that Summers’speech was not the typical presentation of a single research position. He explicitly stated that he was throwing out several provocative theses from the current climate of inquiry. It was not just another researcher’s presentation, but a keynote/kickoff speech.

    The female professor who walked out was totally off base, in my opinion. Behind the humorous “isn’t that just like a woman” reaction lie decades of disdain and distruct for humorless, unrealistic, rigid feminists. That was the impression she gave – which was counterproductive to her own professed cause.

    When I studied mechanical engineering, there were 3-4 women in a graduating class of 40. They were no less talented or hard-working than we men. I did notice that most of the women were minorities, some of whom echoed the male minorities in their claim that “in engineering, even if I don’t speak so good English, I can still get ahead.”

    Engineering is definitely one of the more difficult undergraduate courses of study – but hey, so are pre-law and pre-med, and there does not seem to be such a dearth of women in these challenging fields.

    Much of the research indicates a sexual divide between spacial thought and language-based thought. It would be interesting to see if this difference is expressed in the various engineering disciplines – for example, mechanical and civil engineering (like architecture) require spatial thinking, where chemical engineering and computer science are less so, and more linguistic in nature.

    I think a lot of it is socialization and cultural expecatations. Taking my own comuunity as an example: there are many female computer programmers among Orthodox Jews – because the culture values intellectual acheivement for all, and programming is seen as a clean, practical profession for working mothers.

    We also have large numbers of male teachers – again, because of the cultural value given to scholarship.

  9. Steve LaBonne says:

    The fundamental problem is that achieving proportional representation has always been sold as a surrogate for eliminating discrimination, but evidence that it’s actually a valid surrogate is sparse to say the least, and there are good reasons to believe that it isn’t one. Isn’t it time for some fresh thinking on these questions?

  10. Never mind… Summers has gone into full grovel mode.

    “It is not the first time Summers’ sensitivity has come into question since he became Harvard president in 2001.”   Oh, no! They’re questioning his sensitivity.

  11. Steve LaBonne says:

    Nauseating. It’s the ability of self-seeking phonies like Hopkins to extract public groveling for any deviation from PC orthodoxy that keeps the whole scam going. Shame, shame, shame on Summers for being intimidated.

  12. Walter E. Wallis says:

    A nation that does not make the highest and best use of every talent available to it is not going to prosper. Look around you and weap for the talents wasted, the lives condemned by ignorance.

  13. Steve LaBonne says:

    A nation that insists that every identifiable group must be proportionately represented in every niche of society cannot possibly make the highest and best use of every talent. Weep for the politically correct stupidity that replaces real equality- which is equality of opportunity- with a quasi-totalitarian insistence on equality of outcomes.

  14. “Shame, shame, shame on Summers for being intimidated.”

    That’s the most ironic thing I think I’ve ever read.

  15. Steve LaBonne says:

    I know what you mean- a far larger portion of the shame should attach to Hopkins- but there has to come a point when public figures start standing their ground in the face of this kind of crap. It takes two- both a Hopkins and a Summers- to play the PC-contrition game; no contrition, game over.