February 18, 2005

Larry Summers: Womens are just dumberer!

Via Armando at Kos, I see that the Office of the President of Harvard University has released a transcript of his 'polemical' comments last month. (You should know by now that this is going to be long.) He talks about three reasons why women are underrepresented in academia and industry, particularly in science and engineering, in what he believes to be descending order of influence (that is, (2) plays a bigger role than (3), and (1) plays a bigger role than either of them):
  1. Women are (for whatever reason) less likely than men to choose the demanding career of an academic or scientist.
    Comment: This factor cannot be isolated from the broader cultural standards Summers discusses in (3). Even among middle-class liberal folks striving for gender equity in their households, there is strong anecodtal and sociological evidence that women tend to spend much, much more of their time cleaning, cooking, and caring for children than their male partners do. This, in my opinion, clearly does not reflect some kind of innate mothering instinct, but instead the way men and boys are raised: wives end up cleaning, cooking and taking care of their children because husbands don't pull their own weight around the house. Meanwhile, there's the double standard that a dirty house with crappy food and neglected children reflects negatively on the wife, not the husband, independently of how much they work outside the home. Given this cultural situation, it's entirely rational for women to forgo a career that involves 40 years of 80-hour weeks.

    On the other hand, I believe we are rapidly approaching gender equity among physicians, and female lawyers also seem to be quite common, and these fields are just as demanding as academia. This doesn't negate my point in the last paragraph so much as indicate that the situation is much more complicated than Summers seems to think.

  2. The innatist thesis:

    The second thing that I think one has to recognize is present is what I would call the combination of, and here, I'm focusing on something that would seek to answer the question of why is the pattern different in science and engineering, and why is the representation even lower and more problematic in science and engineering than it is in other fields. And here, you can get a fair distance, it seems to me, looking at a relatively simple hypothesis. It does appear that on many, many different human attributes-height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability-there is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference in means-which can be debated-there is a difference in the standard deviation, and variability of a male and a female population. And that is true with respect to attributes that are and are not plausibly, culturally determined.

    [This is followed by a long and obscure statistical argument, which I've summarized in the header for this point. Then he gives some asinine anecodtal evidence about his daughters calling toy trucks 'daddy truck' and 'baby truck' and how people fell into traditional gender roles in experimental communes shortly in Israel. Then he explains why he thinks all the discredited research into evolutionary psychology has shown there are innate differences:] When there were no girls majoring in chemistry, when there were no girls majoring in biology, it was much easier to blame parental socialization. Then, as we are increasingly finding today, the problem is what's happening when people are twenty, or when people are twenty-five, in terms of their patterns, with which they drop out. Again, to the extent it can be addressed, it's a terrific thing to address.

    Comment: Again, there is no way to separate this factor from the simple cultural issues in (3). Indeed, the fact that women succeed as science and engineering majors in college, ie, do well with the math and science itself, and only fail to develop careers in their field after graduation, ie, once they have to deal with the scientific and engineering establishment, seems to me to clearly support the case that there is discrimination against women as professional scientists and engineers, and undermine the innatist argument.

    He finishes up this point with a pathetic qualifier, but the damage has already been done. I have to agree with Armando over at Kos, the guy is either an idiot or a misogynist or both.

  3. Women are discriminated against both during the hiring process and in the workplace.
    Comment: So long as this is expanded to include other, more general cultural and sociological factors, I agree that this is a major problem to be addressed. However, as I've said above, I do not believe there is any justification for sharply separating this point from the other two: discrimination and double standards put differential pressures on men and women, allowing the former the luxury of dedicating themselves to their careers in ways the former cannot, which both (groundlessly) lead to beliefs in innate differences in ability.

It should be clear by now my fundamental critique of Summers' deeply ignorant and offensive argument: the three factors he identifies cannot be sharply delineated on an empirical level. Cultural factors are simply too pervasive to conclude that women and men have inherently different preferences and abilities. Which is what feminists have maintained for about sixty years now.

Edit: Fixed some odd spacing. There's a shorter summary of his inanity here, link via Atrios.

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