Whenever the discussion turns to the lower achievement rates of women in science, there is the proverbial elephant in the room that nobody talks about. This elephant bears a strong resemblance to Larry Summers.
Summers, as you might recall, was driven from his position as the president of Harvard University for raising the question whether innate differences between the sexes might account for men’s dominance of science.
While many in academia might feel that the issue has been sufficiently resolved with his chastising, there is still plenty of evidence to suggest that he was onto something. Some people have actually noticed that the sexes differ in a variety of ways. Some have even detected a tendency for men and women to think and approach problems in different ways. (This viewpoint is limited to nearly everybody who has ever known a member of the opposite sex.)
What was forbidden to Summers is wholly acceptable for the very side that chased him from office.
One of the “more-women-in-science” movement’s leading lights, Susan Rosser, the dean of Georgia Tech’s college of arts and sciences, spoke on the topic at UNC-Chapel Hill recently. According to Rosser and other feminist proponents of the movement, the “real” explanations why men dominate the world of scientific inquiry are cultural traditions, overt sexual discrimination, and unwitting bias—not biology.
Rosser identified a number of factors that, she said, contribute to the disparities in science: women’s tendency to dislike competition, their need to feel some sort of connection with the subject they are studying, their tendency to not isolate problems without context, their desire for social relevance, and the insecurities they tend to feel in such a male-dominated world.
It almost seems as if she was saying that women are too emotional for the world of science the way it is presently constituted. If Larry Summers had dared to suggest such a thing along with his other comments, getting hounded out of his job by campus feminists would have been the least of his worries—he might have been stomped to death and dragged through the streets until there was nothing left of his lifeless body.
Rosser and others cite numerous studies that indicate there are no differences in mental abilities between the sexes, including the fairly established idea there is only a negligible difference between the average IQs of males and females. Yet there is powerful evidence on the other side that, even if averages IQs are the same, the mental processes are different.
Most important is another established concept (it was Summers’ observations about this tendency that drew the ire of his antagonists)—that males have a greater variability in intelligence. They are more likely to have very high IQs or very low IQs, even if the averages are the same. And very high IQs are something of a prerequisite for making scientific breakthroughs and technical innovations. (Very low IQs are also a frequent contributing factor in other endeavors that men tend to excel at more than women, such as going to jail.)
The fact that men dominate the uppermost levels of scientific achievement—they are much more likely to attain professorships in some areas (92 percent of all engineering professors with PhD.s in 2001 were male) and to attain patents (89 percent of patents are issued to men, according to Rosser)—perhaps is testimony to the high side of this IQ variability.
Other research suggests that the differences run far deeper than Western cultural influences. One advocate of this more traditional “nature” (versus nurture) view is David Geary, a cognitive developmental psychologist at the University of Missouri who specializes in mathematical learning and in evolution. Speaking at an American Enterprise Institute forum on this very issue, he pointed out that males in the vast majority of species tend to be more competitive, a result of mating patterns in which males must compete for the attention of women. Think of male mountain sheep ramming their heads together in mating season to assert dominance—that pretty much sums up the male outlook when it comes to competition. Females of any species rarely exhibit such mind-numbing competitive streaks.
Rosser wants competition de-emphasized, to make the classroom more comfortable to females. She would also like to see less classroom focus on concepts like “right and wrong” and “black and white,” a bizarre notion to promote in a world where synapses fire neurotransmitters or they don’t, the molecules combine or they don’t, and the software compiles or it doesn’t.
High native intelligence and the competitive impulse are not the only things that determine the proclivity toward scientific inquiry. It is also a matter of individual preferences, according to Geary. He said, “It’s also important to consider …what you’re good at. So, what you decide to do, what you like in school, the occupations you may choose later on, is going to not only depend on what you’re good at relative to other people, but what you’re good at relative to the other skills that you have.”
He explained that quantitative reasoning, and spatial abilities are the “best skill” of 23-24 percent of men, but only “about 6 percent or so” of women. Numerical reasoning is what “9 percent or so of men” do best, but is the best skill for only “2 or 3 percent of women.”
Geary said that women excel at language skills, however. In other words, the research cited he cited pretty much matches the long-held assumptions of much of the population.
How should society conduct itself in light of this issue? Particularly since many people, including Rosser, are saying that our future well-being as a nation depends on producing more scientists and engineers. Should we favor Rosser’s side, which declares that the statistics are the result of men’s domination of society and their imposition of an inferior status on women? And that women are a tremendous “untapped resource” in the production of more scientists, whom we should therefore focus upon in education? Rosser suggests a drastic reordering of science education—one that will draw in more girls and women by making the field more amenable to their needs.
For instance, one of the women-in-science movement’s main goals is to produce a more “family-friendly” workplace, with fewer demands placed on time so women scientists can have fuller lives. Rosser spoke of women’s needs to form friendships with women outside the world of science and to participate in other activities. Yet scientific discoveries and inventions are exceptionally difficult tasks that often require extremely long hours and single-minded pursuit of the goals—such family-friendly policies might actually hurt the nation’s need to discover and innovate by reducing the focus on the accomplishment of difficult tasks through dogged determination.
Some of Rosser’s observations are quite sensible: different perspectives can be valuable when looking at a subject, and experiments should be conducted on all relevant groups in a society, not just white males, because of their different biologies. And there are fields of scientific study where women seem to gravitate naturally: veterinary medicine stands out; 79 percent of all veterinary students in the country are now women.
Yet, perhaps males are the true untapped resource . Their abilities and historical interest in science are unquestionable. But white male participation in scientific careers has been roughly stagnant for several decades. Women are flooding into the universities while men are lagging behind—currently 58 percent of all college students in the country are female, and women are pursuing degrees in science and technology at rapidly increasing rates. For instance, from 1966 to 1996, the percentage of women earning bachelor’s degrees in engineering rose from only .4 percent to 17.9 percent, in the physical sciences from 14 to 37 percent, and in biology and agricultural sciences from 25 percent to 50.2 percent.
Therefore, at the undergraduate level, women’s presence in most areas science already far exceeds the four-to-one ratio of “best skills” offered by Geary. It would seem that an increase in the number of scientists could best be achieved by encouraging more males to pursue their best skill, rather than pushing more young women into careers that might not match their natural interests.
For the labor market in many ways resembles the world of trade. Just like countries (perhaps more so), individuals in the labor market are often best off (and happiest) when they pursue their own “comparative advantage.” And if somebody is better at language skills than quantitative reasoning, and therefore less interested in scientific matters, it is often best for all concerned if he or she does not study to be an electrical engineer.
Perhaps the key to producing more scientists in our society is not some sort of feminist Manhattan Project to produce more women scientists, but rather to promote science universally to all young students, and let those who have talent and inclinations in a given field pursue them. Let men and women contribute in the proportions that occur naturally. Despite the intentions of central planners everywhere, it is probably best if society organizes itself along such free market principles even if the results don’t match preconceived notions of political correctness. To insist that women achieve some sort of numerical parity or better in all fields of science will hurt women, science, and society.