The Intersection

i-f6a1cfdbddd590bc4bc0957f71d73fed-rosie.htmI’m publicly responding to a particular reader’s provocative comments because women-in-science is a topic that needs to be settled. Finally. After which, I’ll be moving away from the great gender divide for a while and back to science and policy next week. Here goes.

November 2, 2007

Hello there Gabe,

You may be wondering why I’m addressing you in this forum. Well, since you visited both blogs and stirred up quite a response, I figured you deserve to be in the spotlight.

To begin, I’m glad you read our blog and take enough of an interest to participate. My favorite aspect of The Intersection is that folks bring varied opinions that promote discussion. Lance and Neuro-conservative, for example, are regulars who we expect will chime in anytime we write about climate change. Fred always has an interesting book recommendation. And so on. I enjoy the challenge to think critically and turn ideas upside down daily with everyone.

Recently, you weighed in here:

Girls are just not good at science and math. I don’t see why people have a problem accepting that. Think of all the greatest discoveries in human history. How many women come to mind? Case closed.

Gee, I can think of a bunch.

And then you contributed to the dialogue at Correlations:

Maybe girls just aren’t very good at science and math. Not to be sexist, but maybe they’re just not.

While your sentiments are at best… charming – in the ironic and prehistoric sense of the word – I appreciate the way you actively demonstrate the purpose of studies on gender disparity. Why, it’s firsthand evidence of preconceived notions contributing to the problem.

So what’s actually going on and why all the hullabaloo? The statistics on ladies having a tough time in science and math certainly are no longer considered groundbreaking news. Of course, on a personal note, I say don’t cry for me academia. While there are undoubtedly hurdles, I’m having a great time here and plan to stick around the ivory towers for a while. Still, I strongly suspect the veritable nosedive in XX representation over time is, at least in part, a self-perpetuating cycle resulting from long-standing cultural norms and social expectations. There. I said it.

i-fca11d0595b120afd94c6d59ceb6bb94-cover.jpgNow bear with me Gabe, and read on after the jump…

Sure, we womenfolk became working girls like Melanie Griffith in the 80′s and even got the right to vote not so long before that, but social progress takes time to ripple outward. Most of us are still struggling to figure out how to balance family, career, and strive to achieve the pop culture Cosmo image of what we’re expected to be.

i-daa2c5145b6576f9f978232947aeea84-B000EHSM0O.01.LZZZZZZZ.jpgYou may be wondering how this is any different from what the fellas have to surmount and guys certainly have their share of difficulties. But still, the Y chromosomed among us are often encouraged to pursue science and engineering while we’re generally pointed in other directions. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the number of girls interested in studying science and technology is shrinking despite that the great gender divide is supposedly closing. Males are also often invited to engage vocally in theatric debates while generally the women are watching from the sidelines. It may be we simply don’t cause enough friction in the public arena for entertainment or that if we do make a fuss, we’re often called difficult or… ummmm, worse.

And then there’s the great big ick factor that occasionally rears its ugly head when you’re a girl in a testosterone dominated field. Gabe, how would you respond to casual jokes about your body, being told not to carry ‘heavy‘ equipment, or finding the patience to deal with counterparts who unintentionally treat you like a child all too often? Ever have to explain why you’re not married yet with kids, deal with a superior’s advances as a student, or wind up on a date under the pretense of a work meeting? Okay sure, these experiences can happen to anyone, but somehow, I expect they are more common among women. Might it be that sometimes the academic environment presents unusual obstacles for the double X? If so, consider that may also be discouraging bright young ladies in the field.

Note, even in the blogosphere, comments on my threads regularly discuss something concerning appearance, yet my co-blogger is solely regarded for the content of his posts. I’m betting there’s an unspoken possibly subconscious difference in the way information is perceived based on expectation of the author. But that aside, what’s up with those comments readers?

And so Gabe, while blaming the gender disparity on different innate abilities is an easy scapegoat in the numbers game [paging Lawrence Summers], I just don’t buy it. Danica doesn’t either. But then again, what do we know? We’re just girls.

Thanks for reading,
Sheril Rose Kirshenbaum

Forget preconceived notions of what to expect because today’s young women can and will accomplish what they dream if we encourage them to believe in themselves.

Comments

  1. #1 Sarah
    November 2, 2007

    When I was in high school, in the early 1990s, I remember vividly this episode at a speech meet: After a round, the judge–somebody’s mom–walked up to me and asked me what I wanted to to with my life. “I want to be a biologist,” I replied. She responded, “Oh no, honey, you’re much too pretty for that. You should be a model or a kindergarten teacher.” I’ve heard too many stories of female scientist friends who were hit on by professors or advisors at some point in their education or careers. And then there was an older friend of mine who had her a member of her tenure committee tell her that he was having a difficult time separating her work from that of her boyfriend, the department star. Never mind that their work didn’t overlap. This just a taste of the kind of crap women have to go through to become successful scientists. It’s no wonder that we lose so many along the way.

  2. #2 Linda
    November 2, 2007

    Sheril Rose Kirshenbaum,
    A remarkable post, hitting the proverbial ‘nail on the head’, and laying it all out so that even ‘sexist’ Gabe, and all the other Gabes might understand. Bravo…

  3. #3 agnostic
    November 2, 2007

    I won’t go through my whole song and dance on this topic, since it’s already in the previous comment threads.

    But one thing you mentioned, about a superior or colleague coming on to you — is that more likely in physics, math, and engineering, compared to psychology and literature studies, or business, law, and medicine? Honest question. The hypothesis that this phenomenon accounts for some of the sex gap predicts that it’s most likely in physics and math, less so in biology, and least of all in psychology.

    Off the top of my head, I’d bet it’s least likely in the hard sciences: it’s usually the social sciences and humanities whose profs are the most lax about teacher-student relationships, isn’t it? And hard science guys are more nerdy and awkward than law or psych professors, so even if they wanted to, they’d find it more difficult.

    I hate to have to state this out loud, but experience has shown it’s necessary: to those who don’t understand what a comparison is — providing examples of hard science superiors / colleagues who have come on to a female student is not relevant. What matters is the ranking of disciplines for this phenomenon — does it closely match the ranking of disciplines by female participation?

  4. #4 Fred Bortz
    November 2, 2007

    When I was working on To the Young Scientist: Reflections on Doing and Living Science (click my name for details) in 1995, I made a point of selecting diverse scientists because I had a diverse audience. But only in one case did I explicitly seek a woman.

    I wanted a female engineer because the stereotyping is strongest in the physical, mathematical, and mechanical areas. There is evidence that evolution has created male brains that are, on the average, better with spatial tasks and that female brains are, on the average, better with verbal tasks and nurturing. But the overlap in distributions is such that there are plenty of men (like me) who can be writers for children as well as physicists (like me). And there are plenty of women who can be experts in alternative fuels and speedboat racing champs (like Roberta Nichols, who is profiled as the engineer in the book) and excellent communicators and grandparents (like Roberta Nichols).

    The other women profiled came naturally. Carolyn Shoemaker, comet hunter extraordinaire, is a particularly interesting case, because her husband Gene was an outstanding scientist who paved the way for her to get started in her early 50s. When I interviewed them together in 1995, Gene’s pride in Carolyn’s achievements showed in every expression.

    Indira Nair, my closest friend in academic life, brought poetry and culture as well as a love for critical questions into her work. A physicist by training, she found her academic home in the department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

    My editor suggested Patricia Wattenmaker as an archaeologist, and I found her an excellent example for kids.

    And for the story of the famous “iridium anomaly,” Walter Alvarez directed me to his colleague Frank Asaro, who insisted that his retired colleague Helen Michel should be included. Frank was absolutely right. I couldn’t have gotten the whole story without her.

    The point is, if you want the whole story, you need to open opportunities to the whole of humanity. The young scientists of my audience included both males and females. I doubt that the males felt left out because I had the same number of women interviewees as men.

    On the personal level, as a mathematically precocious kid, I was put on the fast track to science and physics in particular. I never hit a serious bump in the road until after I had finished a Ph.D. and a post-doc, and I never seriously considered writing (though my much older sister had tried to persuade me to develop my abilities there) until I was in my mid-30s.

    The point of all this is to say that we do everyone a disservice by prejudging where a young person can go based on gender, race, or any other aspect of their background. Even if Gabe is right about the averages (and I don’t claim that he is), he is very wrong to judge individuals when the distribution of abilities is so broad.

  5. #5 agnostic
    November 2, 2007

    Re: being discouraged, perhaps for being “too pretty to be a ____” — first, let’s note that this particular phenomenon can’t account for much variance just because there are very few females to whom someone would say “you’re too pretty…” The same is true for males, of course. Even if 100% of attractive males and females were discouraged from science, it couldn’t have much of an impact on the sex gap.

    Also, note that this discouraging based on traits that you don’t expect a scientist to have is true for men too — “You’re too tall and charismatic to fiddle around with lasers. You should really go to law school.” Males are under a huge pressure to get a high-status job that pays a ton of money — much more than females are so pressured — and science does not come close. Law, business, finance, medicine, etc. — that’s fine, but science? Ha!

    The pressure comes from one’s family, one’s peers of both sexes, one’s own impulse for attaining prestige, and especially from the opposite sex — if you polled a large, random sample of females, would biologist or mathematician win out as more attractive / desirable compared to doctor or lawyer? Nope.

    So, the discouragement issue may be real, but in general it applies at least as strongly to men, and special cases of it can’t affect the average would-be female scientist very much.

    Last, many cases where a pretty, nurturing girl or dominant, charismatic guy decide against science don’t have to result from social pressures at all. The decision could be purely rational — the person evaluates themselves, consciously or not, and figures out what their comparative advantage is. If a guy is 6’11, full of muscle, and athletic, he may decide that, sure, he could go to college and study whatever he’s good at, but why not choose a career where his traits would make him most valued. In this example, he may decide to play basketball rather than study philosophy, even if he were good at the latter.

    Similarly, an attractive, ambitious female might say to herself, “OK, I’m pretty good at science and math, but I would absolutely crush my competitors if I went into PR or advertising.” She is merely “finding a niche” that she could thrive in the most easily, not succumbing to social pressures.

  6. #6 Zuska
    November 2, 2007

    Fred, your book sounds very interesting. I wanted to comment on this remark you made: “I doubt that the males felt left out because I had the same number of women interviewees as men.” Actually, a very disturbing phenomenon is that when women become more represented in any forum – in a classroom, at a meeting, on a conference panel, in a book on scientists – their representation doesn’t even have to get close to 50% before (some) men start to feel that they are OVER-represented, that there are too many women.

  7. #7 Philip H.
    November 2, 2007

    Miss Sheril,
    Since, as you know, I have daughters (one is likely to get a Nobel and the other an Oscar if current interest holds), I say thanks. We men are indeed too willing to overlook women’s challenges in this day and age, as we are often too willing to overlook the challenges of minority ethnic gorups, socio-economic classes, etc. I’ll just add that some of the detractors who have replied to your women in science posts seem to fall all too readily into the Kirshenbaum Theory – “Anyone appearing normal on the surface is either faking it or terribly boring. I suspect the former 99% of the time.” You could add the Philip H. coralary – Anyone appearing to deny discrimination and unequal representation as a basis for a social condition is often a member of an agrieved group with self-loathing issues.

    P.S. I’m working on a line of t-shirts and bumperstickers – what’s your standard cut?

  8. #8 Luna_the_cat
    November 2, 2007

    Agnostic: I speak here from personal experience, not citation of study, and as we all know, anecdote!=data/. However, my personal experience has been that you are dead wrong in both of your assertions.

    In the social sciences, women are far more common in the field, and men will come under more fire for exploiting their position if they hit on female students. Making anything from sexual comments to sexual attacks on female students has, in my experience at several universities, always been more common in the hard science fields of physics, engineering and chemistry.

    And as for pressure for the “pretty” to avoid the sciences — no. Sorry, but simply no. Good looking men may have law, politics or PR suggested to them, but no assumption is made that they can’t or shouldn’t go into the sciences if that is their passion. On the other hand, for pretty girls, there is a deep and abiding assumption that they should be making a living in some field which will exploit their looks — and they are frequently warned by well-meaning people (who are, sadly, not always wrong) that being “too pretty” in science means that they will not be taken seriously.

  9. #9 Sandra
    November 2, 2007

    Sheril,
    I LOVE you for this post. Too often I don’t read comments and they’re lost in the thread. We need to openly acknowledge when someone like this character behaves so badly. I have a private blog myself and realize the protocol is to ignore trolls, but I like that you called this person out.

    It’s so easy to make these kind of statements under the shroud of anonymity in blogs, so I say you rock for calling him out!

    I hope Gabe replies and I’ll be watching, but I bet he’s too much of a male chauvinistic coward.

  10. #10 anon
    November 2, 2007

    I don’t know why you bother engaging this guy…. waste of time.

  11. #11 John Williams
    November 2, 2007

    Excellent, excellent post.

    Engaging Gabe in the conversation is definitely not a waste of time. Gabe’s opinion is flat-out wrong and he needs to be told. As the father of an extremely bright and beautiful 12-year-old, I want everyone and anyone to know that she can contribute to the scientific world if she wants. She can be and do whatever her heart desires. That’s my wish anyway. It’s part of my job as a parent to help somewhat with that through encouragement and participation. When I hear someone say that women and girls ‘just aren’t that good at science and math’ I just shake my head and hope that the under-informed and uneducated mindset is wiped clean from the gene pool.

  12. #12 Tony Jeremiah
    November 2, 2007

    CogDialy presents an excellent overview of a psychological research article (Halpern et. al, 2007) covering this topic:

    http://scienceblogs.com/cognitivedaily/2007/09/why_arent_there_more_women_in_1.php

    Reference

    Halpern, D.F., Benbow, C.P., Geary, D.C., Gur, R.C., Hyde, J.S., & Gernsbacher, M.A. (2007). The science of sex differences in science and mathematics. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 8(1), 1-51.

  13. #13 D
    November 2, 2007

    “Note, even in the blogosphere, comments on my threads regularly discuss something concerning appearance, yet my co-blogger is solely regarded for the content of his posts. I’m betting there’s an unspoken possibly subconscious difference in the way information is perceived based on expectation of the author. But that aside, what’s up with those comments readers?”

    Guilty as charged. At least some of the time. But is that really so bad? I mean no harm by it, but you’re an attractive woman. If anything, I think by being such, you encourage science to appeal more broadly to nonstereotypical science and math “geeks”. But after reading this post, I will not make comments along these lines in the future.

    A look at your sidebar though, will answer your question to readers about such comments. And that cannot be understated.

  14. #14 freds
    November 2, 2007

    Here are some data. I’ve been teaching biology at one of the California State University campuses for 34 years. For at least the last ten years, the top two to four students in my classes have the ladies. I cannot recall the last time that a male has had the top score at the end of the semester. I teach genetics and cell biology.

    The intensity of the coeds is impressive. They are highly focused and hard working. And they are stunningly bright; I’m not talking about just being overachievers here.

    We are recruiting more women into science research careers but the predominant choice still remains medicine, pharmacy, dentistry, and vet medicine. My guess is that the women want to take some time out for having children and they see some autonomy in the medical careers.

    The tenure track process is still stacked against women. Taking time off for pregnancy and early child rearing is still seen as a negative on the career path to tenure and promotion. Even though we have women in senior administrative positions in my university, we do not have faculty child care facilities. So we have a way to go to make academic careers more attractive to women. There is, after all, one glaring differences between men and women. Women have babies and they want to nurture them. Until the academic workplace fully accomodates that reality, it remains a sexist workplace in my opinion. I have seen some of my women colleagues pay a severe personal price while trying to combine their academic duties with parenting, sometimes with exhaustion and enormous stress.

    In my experience, women are wonderfully talented. But their absence in academic science reflects life choices, not ability relative to men.

  15. #15 SLC
    November 2, 2007

    In the recent brouhaha over the poorly chosen remarks of James Watson realtive to Africans, the sexist comments he has made on many occasions about Rosalind Franklin were much worse. There are many people who have concluded that the late Ms. Franklin was just as deserving of the Nobel prize as Dr. Watson was.

  16. #16 G Felis
    November 2, 2007

    And this sort of sexist nonsense is hardly limited to academia. What it takes for a woman to succeed in the workplace – any workplace, including laboratories and universities – can be viewed as an empirical question and has been the topic of considerable scientific research. The results: Women need to take charge, but not be pushy. Women should foster cooperation and communication, but not be overly nice. In other words, women should do whatever it is they do to accomplish whatever they want to accomplish – because they’ll be perceived negatively and undervalued compared to men no matter what they do or how they do it.

    Conveniently enough, several studies in this area are cited and discussed in this Nov. 1 New York Times article. In study after study, researchers found that exactly identical behavior will be taken to show good character and leadership in men and to show inferior character and lack of leadership in women.

    And, while I initially applauded the Times for publishing this insightful article, that applause came to one of those sudden and awkward halts (you know the kind: *clap-clap-clap-clap* [pause] *clap* [longer pause] *quiet clap* [silence]) when I noted that the story was tucked away in the “Fashion & Style” section of the paper. Repeated studies showing how women are perceived as inferior to men in matters of power and leadership no matter what they do doesn’t count as “real news”? They couldn’t even run it the Tuesday “Science” section? WTF?!?

    *sigh*

    Looks like there’s at least a one or two troglodytes like your commenter Gary amongst the NYT managing editors…

  17. #17 G
    November 2, 2007

    Oops. I meant “…like your commenter Gabe…” No insult intended to Gary, whoever you are. :-)

  18. #18 Gabe
    November 2, 2007

    Dear Sheril, Gill, Intersection readers, everyone in the world,

    I am writing to apologize for my stupidity. I’m a chauvinistic pig. Basically what happened is my brilliant beautiful gf Gillian forwarded me this website because we go back and forth about gender and ability in science and engineering. I like to piss her off and since the post was such a big deal, I commented with my standard reply.

    I had no idea anyone would care about my comments and I now realize the impact of blogs and the huge audience on the internet. I’m a jerk and I’m sorry.

    Gill insists I comment again here to apologize, which I probably would anyway if I wasn’t so embarrassed that I came across as such a jackass. I can’t believe I’m being compared to Watson now. I guess I deserve that.

    Basically, I do think that maybe men and women have different natural abilities, but by no means do I doubt that women are incapable of great discoveries.

    I don’t deserve you Gill and you’re intelligent and amazing. Please don’t stay mad at me over this.

    Thank you for writing me the letter Sheril, sometimes it’s worth making someone think about the result of their actions and the power of words. I’m just really sorry everyone.

  19. #19 Evil Monkey
    November 2, 2007

    Wow. Huh. Don’t see that every day.

    You check the IP addresses? That the same Gabe? :)

  20. #20 Linda
    November 2, 2007

    Gabe,
    If you are really sincere, your comment is a small step in the right direction to reclaim your self-worth. Small steps accumulate to equal GIANT progress… Keep it going.

  21. #21 Megan
    November 2, 2007

    I am proud of this post. Aside from being chummy with Sheril, I am also glad to see this brought up in such a thought-provoking way.

    It speaks worlds about your compassion for those who just don’t ‘get’ what feminism actually means, and your tact as a communicator to convey the message without attacking your readers. Well said. Also, I have thoroughly enjoyed the feedback from academic-types, especially male faculty who see what’s being done to their female colleagues.

    Although I have no desire to pursue a family including children, I absolutely sympathize with female academics who do have the right to do both. And, my choice to not procreate should not be an “asset” for me in my career! I think Universities should make it a part of policy to not penalize faculty hires for the pursuit of a family, as part of a University-wide anti-discrimination policy….

    Hmm… Sheril’s got me thinking again…

  22. #22 Kristine
    November 2, 2007

    One point that hasn’t been brought up, and with which I have personal experience, is that a pitfall for women in male-dominated fields is a lack of enthusiastic and engaged female mentors. Not to say that my experience with male mentors has been poor. Unfortunately, to the contrary, my only experience in academia with a female mentor was terrible, while I have been fortunate to have several great male mentors.

    As a female in a male-dominated science (molecular biology), I was searching for a female role model that I could relate to on a more basic level than with male counterparts (referring back to Fred’s comment on life choices). I wanted to study with and observe how an amazingly intelligent, accomplished, and (academically) well-regarded woman scientist was able to balance her life. What I found was shocking to me – she was brilliant, but she was also introverted, passive-aggressive, demeaning and all-around jaded.

    Both men and women look for more than accomplishment in their mentors; they look for someone they can relate to and model themselves after. I certainly could not relate to my advisor and she was more of a case study on how I should NOT model myself. I think the reality for women in male-dominated fields is that we just have fewer positive and willing female mentors.

  23. #23 TrekJunkie
    November 2, 2007

    In our department, the person that brings the most money, by far, is a woman. She has done so consistently for the last four or five years, and she has an endowed chair to show for. She is a star in her field (immunological responses to fungal pathogens). Still, it does come at a cost to her family life. Her husband is the chair of the surgey dept at the med school (two high power positions), so when the marrige ended, custidy of the kids were a very contentious issue.

    We have made progress too. I new faculty member was supposed to have gone for tenure, while pregnant. We decided not to count this year for tenure and some of us planned from the beggining of the semester to assis in her courses.

    At the assistant and associate level, we’re almost 50-50. The difference is bigger at the full professor, but ove the next four to six years, it should balance out.

  24. #24 Sheril R. Kirshenbaum
    November 2, 2007

    Gabe, (and yes Evil Monkey – same Gabe)

    I’m glad you’ve written back and am encouraged that you’ve taken responsibility for earlier comments. As Linda eloquently wrote, ‘small steps accumulate to equal GIANT progress… Keep it going.’

    To readers,

    I’ve enjoyed following comments today – there have been many interesting contributions in this forum reflecting such varied experiences. I do believe the academic climate for women is changing for the better… And I recognize that the pace of social change is slow. It’s through actions like admitting when mistakes have been made that we may move just a bit closer to narrowing the gender gap.

  25. #25 fergus
    November 2, 2007

    To Gabe and any others who may be interested in the question of biological difference versus gender difference, the definitive work is surely Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’. It should be compulsory reading for all students; this way, many of the persistent misunderstandings about the ‘difference’ between boys and girls might, one day, be consigned to the dustbin. Beyond this, I’d also recommend Levinas’ ‘Totality and Infinity’ for a genuinely egalitarian solution to the problem of ‘differentiation’. For anyone who thinks that feminism is no longer necessary, here is a warning; the struggle has not ended; it has barely begun.

  26. #26 Azkyroth
    November 2, 2007

    ne is likely to get a Nobel and the other an Oscar if current interest holds), I say thanks. We men are indeed too willing to overlook women’s challenges in this day and age, as we are often too willing to overlook the challenges of minority ethnic gorups, socio-economic classes, etc. I’ll just add that some of the detractors who have replied to your women in science posts seem to fall all too readily into the Kirshenbaum Theory – “Anyone appearing normal on the surface is either faking it or terribly boring. I suspect the former 99% of the time.” You could add the Philip H. coralary – Anyone appearing to deny discrimination and unequal representation as a basis for a social condition is often a member of an agrieved group with self-loathing issues.

    Something else I’ve noticed. People who advocate the idea that the present underrepresentation of women in technical and intellectual fields, and in positions of power, are the product of inherent biological differences and should be accepted are actually making four claims, as follows:

    1): “There are biologically-based differences in the neurology and/or psychology of men and women”
    2): “All observable gender differences in behavior, cognitive abilities as demonstrated by job performance as evaluated and/or by testing, social roles, or socioeconomic circumstances are due to such factors.”
    3): “Observable gender differences in behavior, demonstrated abilities, social roles, and socioeconomic circumstances are ‘natural’ or ‘inherent’ and thus probably immutable, or, at least, no effort should be made to change them.”
    4): “Approaching the question with the assumption that any differences found reflect differences in the ‘natures’ of men and women rather than social constructions is a viable approach unless and until that hypothesis is not merely smashed but turned into some form of degenerate matter under the weight of contrary evidence.”

    They have only managed to find support for the first position, and some of that strikes me as questionable, though I’m not really qualified to evaluate it (my questions rarely receive an answer of substance, however). However, they act as though all four of these claims were vindicated by finding any support for the first one. This, to me, is a smoking gun that their position is rooted not in a desire to understand the universe as it is but to have their personal prejudices vindicated and their privileged positions in society preserved.

  27. #27 agnostic
    November 2, 2007

    Azkyroth — go back to your junior high school debate team where you think you can just impute all manner of vile intentions to your opponents, hoping the audience is too stupid to notice. Readers of this blog didn’t flunk out of 2nd grade, y’know.

    are the product of inherent biological differences and should be accepted

    I dare you to produce a quote where the speaker says that underrepresentation should be accepted — that is an “ought to” statement, and we’ve been making factual observations so far. “Ought” and “is” are separate matters.

    All observable gender differences

    Again, I challenge you to produce a quote where the speaker uses the universal quantifier. You don’t have to bother, because I already know what these people say: some variation in outcomes between sexes is due to variation in genes, some to variation in environment.

    On the other hand, I could quote many who say that all differences are due to environment, and not at all to genes. Here’s Elizabeth Spelke:
    http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/debate05/images/pinker.slides/pages/pinker_Page_04.htm

    are ‘natural’ or ‘inherent’ and thus probably immutable, or, at least, no effort should be made to change them.

    Up to the word “immutable,” we just have a factual observation and a guess about what would happen if we tried to change things. After “or,” we have a bizarre clause that makes it sound like the “ought to” idea — that no effort should be made to change them — is even related to the first part, which it is not, “ought” and “is” being separate matters. Moreover, the phrase “at least” makes it sound as if saying we ought to do nothing is somehow more believable or supportable than the factual observation that genetic variation plays a role. WTF? as they say.

    You might impress your law school buddies with balderdash like this, but scientists loath lawyerly horseshit, so just cut it out.

  28. #28 Seth
    November 2, 2007

    When I was at Harvard Grad School of Education, and Larry Summers was President, I always wondered why he focussed on women and science and not men and education. He never offered any of his suggested reasons of why 75% of the student body at the Ed school were women. I wonder if he would have said men were less capable genetically to teach?

  29. #29 Dad
    November 3, 2007

    In my youth, a woman generally chose one of two career paths–schoolteacher or wife. There were exceptions and those who followed the less traveled path usually faced a rocky road. Today, I can see that things have changed for the better and opportunities exist today that were not available in the past. However, reading this and following the thread, the fundamental problem remains – people still discriminate against other people. When will we ever learn to accept each other for the individuals we are?

    I raised my children to be self-sufficient and to follow their dreams. Their dreams lead them to paths where they want to make a difference and improve this world for the next generation. My son, with his new wife, empowers the youth of Boston in social awareness and community. My daughter, who recently married my son, wants to promote awareness along many fronts. Sheri, this was a great blog! Well done!

  30. #30 Azkyroth
    November 3, 2007

    I dare you to produce a quote where the speaker says that underrepresentation should be accepted — that is an “ought to” statement, and we’ve been making factual observations so far. “Ought” and “is” are separate matters.

    Done. (This specific quote is admittedly couched in terms of inevitability rather than whether it is “acceptable” per se; nevertheless, it is quite obvious from the rest of his posts that he does in fact believe this).

    Actually, the sum of Jason’s posts on that and a couple other threads are a pretty nice encapsulation of the attitude I’m deriding. Perhaps I should clarify, however, what I mean by “advocates”; I suspect if the population being sampled were limited to reputable scientists the position you have articulated would be more predominant, but various groups and individuals who purport to convey scientific findings to the public often focus on supposed biological differences and their supposed inherency to the point where not only is the supposed biological basis unquestioned but qualifications like “of course, these are averages, not absolutes” is given a parenthetical mention in many educational materials (I don’t, unfortunately, remember the title of the specific video that one came from).

    And incidentally, the habit of Jason and others of deriving (or trying to sneak in) “ought”-type statements around arguments about gender differences is one of the major things that bothers me here.

    go back to your junior high school

    Considering that my criticisms, which were neither addressed to you specifically nor, according to you, representative of the position to which you subscribe, provoked such an angry and contumelious response, you have a keen sense of irony, sir/ma’am.

  31. #31 Azkyroth
    November 3, 2007

    (Waiting for my first comment to appear).

    An additional note: I said “biological” for a reason, since there are certain science reporters, popularizers, etc. who are quite fond of attributing measured differences in cognitive abilities to the simple and direct action of hormones on the brain (generally without additional details, apparently preemptively disregarding the possibility that different levels of encouragement leading to different levels of practice, the effects of priming, and so on might have an effect); I believe the explaining-your-answers page for this is a good example, though it’s been a while.

    (By the way, exactly which third party were you trying to impress with that previous comment?)

  32. #32 poke
    November 3, 2007

    I think there’s a few causes of the gender gap that tend to be overlooked. One is just that science isn’t appealing to anyone regardless of gender. I suspect that unappealing careers lag behind appealing careers when it comes to gender disparity; the impetus for change isn’t as strong. This is probably part of the explanation for why women are well represented in at an undergraduate level but not at a graduate level; being a science grad student just isn’t particularly appealing to anyone.

    A second potential reason is that science, compared to other academic disciplines, attracts many more foreign and immigrant students from cultures where gender discrimination is much stronger. As such the discipline won’t reflect the gains made in our culture as strongly.

  33. #33 Nick Anthis
    November 3, 2007

    Note, even in the blogosphere, comments on my threads regularly discuss something concerning appearance, yet my co-blogger is solely regarded for the content of his posts.

    To be fair, Chris was named one of 2005′s 10 Sexiest Geeks by Wired magazine….

  34. #34 Dark Tent
    November 3, 2007

    The problem with the claim the “Girls are just not good at science and math” is that it is not at all clear what “good” means. Good is rarely if ever defined in this context. In fact, the whole claim that “Girls are just not good at science and math” is really quite vacuous.

    Sure, mathematical ability is important for both math and science but even if it were the case that males outperformed females on specific standardized tests, what would that prove?

    Mathematical aptitude is important, but it is clearly not the only, or even the most important element to being a good scientist or even mathematician.

    That is true regardless of gender.

    Some of the greatest mathematicians in Einstein’s time could undoubtedly have done the math that he did. They could have, but, of course, they did not — because it was the ideas that were most important of all.

    Being a good scientist involves “intelligence” on many different levels and one’s life experiences (even one’s dreams!) can also play a role.

    How does one even begin to measure (to say nothing of quantify) things like creativity?

  35. #35 Steve Sailer
    November 4, 2007

    Gosh, you are really debating a heavyweight in this Gabe fellow! It was very, very brave of you to take on the best.

  36. #36 Dark Tent
    November 4, 2007

    Steve:

    It appears to me that Sheril is not taking on the person so much as the attitude.

    Others just took on “The Best”TM (at Harvard) — and “The Best” simply came out looking foolish.

    If you think you can do better than The Best, by all means, have at it.

  37. #37 Sheril R. Kirshenbaum
    November 4, 2007

    To be fair, Chris was named one of 2005′s 10 Sexiest Geeks by Wired magazine….

    Indeed. And don’t imagine for a moment I’m not incredibly proud of my co-blogger! Wired’s list is entirely different because by embracing ‘geek’ culture, it serves to promote the notion that science, math, and engineering are cool – which percolates out to include the people on the ground engaged in those professions. I love Wired for doing this because it’s a step toward changing perceptions of what we value as a culture – especially for younger readers thinking about what they want to pursue.

  38. #38 Tony Jeremiah
    November 4, 2007

    Re: To be fair, Chris was named one of 2005′s 10 Sexiest Geeks by Wired magazine….

    The perception of geeks as being physically (and possibly socially) unattractive is, strangely, at odds with psychological research showing that the implicit assumption is a direct relationship between intelligence and beauty. In fact, sociologist Satoshi Kanazawa (who frequently publishes theories and research on controversial topics) wrote a paper on why physically attractive people should, theoretically, be more intelligent.

    His reasoning at it appears in his paper abstract:

    ***********************************************************
    “Empirical studies demonstrate that individuals perceive physically attractive others to be more intelligent than
    physically unattractive others. While most researchers dismiss this perception as a ”bias” or ”stereotype,” we
    contend that individuals have this perception because beautiful people indeed are more intelligent. The conclusion that beautiful people are more intelligent follows from four assumptions. (1) Men who are more intelligent are more likely to attain higher status than men who are less intelligent. (2) Higher-status men are more likely to mate with more beautiful women than lower-status men. (3) Intelligence is heritable. (4) Beauty is heritable. If all four assumptions are empirically true, then the conclusion that beautiful people are more intelligent is logically true, making it a proven theorem. We present empirical evidence for each of the four assumptions. While we concentrate on the relationship between beauty and intelligence in this paper, our evolutionary psychological explanation can account for a correlation between physical attractiveness and any other heritable trait that helps men attain higher status (such as aggression and social skills).”
    ***********************************************************

    While there seems to be a chicken/egg issue with the reasoning such as the extent to which high-status men are also physically attractive, and, physically attractive women are also intelligent (somewhat counteracted by other research showing that attractive persons are afforded more social leniency due to the what is beautiful is good bias), it does make a thouoght-provoking read.

    Many of Kanazawa’s controversial articles (including the one presented here) are found here:

    http://www.lse.ac.uk/collections/MES/people/kanazawa.htm

  39. #39 Laurie D. T. Mann
    November 4, 2007

    Geesh, some people are so mired in the ’50s…

    Yes indeed, girls are so bad at science that about half the people in med school are female.

  40. #40 ChrisC
    November 5, 2007

    My favourite theorem of all is Noether’s theorem, which I learnt when doing a course in higher mechanics, but later saw applied in high energy and particle physics. It relates natural symmetries (for example, if you look at a picture and then move it to the right, it looks the same ) to conserved quantities. It’s incredibly powerful and very beautiful.

    It was discovered by Emmy Noether (who is listed in the website Sheril gave, although her first name is given as Emily, which is incorrect), a woman working in science in the early 1900s who could not hold a paid position due to her gender, despite her obvious talents.

    Einstein wrote her obitury:

    “In the judgement of the most competent living mathematicians, Fraulein Noether was the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began. In the realm of algebra in which the most gifted mathematicians have been busy for centuries she discovered methods which have proved of enormous importance in the development of present day younger generation of mathematicians.”

  41. #41 Lance
    November 5, 2007

    Having been humbled by the brilliance of many female scientists and mathematicians I have no doubt that many women possess the intellect and proclivity for scientific thought. In my personal contacts with female scientists and mathematicians I have noticed a relative difference in ability levels when it comes to spatial manipulation and visualization skills.

    The women that I have studied with often posses a greater ability to manipulate symbolic representations and follow long derivations. I have benefited from the insights I have gained from these women. When partnered with some of these women I often carry the load when it comes to dynamic physical modeling and vector manipulation.

    Perhaps this difference in abilities is related to evolutionary roles. Perhaps men were more active in hunting which requires greater spatial abilities, while women were more focused on social and planning activities which would favor greater mastery of symbols and logic.

    I am not claiming this as some empirically verified grand theory, just my personal observation from working and studying with maybe ten or fifteen female colleagues.

    I do wonder whether there is parity in interest in the sciences between the genders. Of course there is the question of how much of this is caused by societal and cultural biases.

    I’m all for encouraging girls and women to pursue a career in the sciences or mathematics. I’m not keen on social engineering that demands equality of results. It seems unlikely that the huge gender disparity in physics for example can be explained purely on the basis of an anti-female cultural bias, but who knows?

  42. #42 Fred Bortz
    November 5, 2007

    Lance notes:
    “It seems unlikely that the huge gender disparity in physics for example can be explained purely on the basis of an anti-female cultural bias, but who knows?”

    It is an interesting question, and some people do go overboard in their quest to match incomplete and imperfect data to their ideological bent.

    Such was the case in a 1999 book I reviewed called The Gendered Atom: Reflections on the Sexual Psychology of Science by Theodore Roszak, Foreword by Jane Goodall.

    I think Roszak could have opened the door to some interesting discussions if he hadn’t offended the people he was most likely to persuade in the early chapters.

    An excert from my review:

    Roszak’s answer is both unequivocal and controversial. “Exploring the scientific unconscious as boldly as Freud ever probed our erotic impulses, feminist psychologists have discovered a deep sexual warp even in the hard sciences, a bias that arises from the peculiarly masculine character of professional science,” he contends. “The connections are complex and elusive, but they suggest that our understanding is gendered down to the level of the prima material.” Even theories as fundamental as the atomic nature of matter have been distorted by observation through a gender-biased lens.

    Click my name for the full review and links to other books that touch on the issue of gender and the physical sciences, primarily their technological applications and engineering.

  43. #43 ks
    November 5, 2007

    I think Gabe deserves an update to your post notifying those tuning in late that he has apologized.

  44. #44 Azkyroth
    November 6, 2007

    Even if there does prove to be a slight difference in average ability between men and women in certain cognitive tasks (the ones you describe, I think there’s some support for that, though there are a lot of confounding factors including the plasticity of the brain itself), I think it can safely be said that the “huge” part of “the huge gender disparity in physics” is due to cultural biases.

    Roszak’s answer is both unequivocal and controversial. “Exploring the scientific unconscious as boldly as Freud ever probed our erotic impulses, feminist psychologists have discovered a deep sexual warp even in the hard sciences, a bias that arises from the peculiarly masculine character of professional science,” he contends. “The connections are complex and elusive, but they suggest that our understanding is gendered down to the level of the prima material.” Even theories as fundamental as the atomic nature of matter have been distorted by observation through a gender-biased lens.

    Unless by “peculiarly masculine character” he means “composed mainly of men” this looks like some incoherent feel-good postmodernist drek – at the very least defining WTF he means by “masculine character” is in order. (Actually, even if he does mean that, he would appear to be assuming a degree of homogeneity in the mindsets of all male or all female humans that is completely at odds with my own experience and which I have never seen data supplied to support).

  45. #45 Fred Bortz
    November 6, 2007

    Azkyroth notes: “this looks like some incoherent feel-good postmodernist drek”

    Indeed, if you read my full review (click my name), you will see that I think most readers will share that opinion.

    I criticize Roszak for missing an opportunity to engage with those readers who might be willing to accept at least part of his thesis. He manages to turn them off with inflammatory and unnecessary accusations rather than inviting them into an argument with provocative but intriguing statements.

  46. #46 agnostic
    November 6, 2007

    Done. (This specific quote is admittedly couched in terms of inevitability rather than whether it is “acceptable” per se; nevertheless, it is quite obvious from the rest of his posts that he does in fact believe this).

    Hahahaha, that’s what you got — a comment on a blog, w/o even an email address or webpage for his name? Dude, I meant someone who actually is part of the debate — a tenured prof, a journalist, maybe a blogger, etc. Everyone knows there are all sorts of weirdos on the internet; it was pretty clear I meant for you to produce a quote from someone relevant.

    And in this case, the guy isn’t even the crank you want him to be — as you admit, he says zero about whether this “ought to” be the case or not, suggesting only that the real world might stubbornly resist our efforts at social engineering. So your quote fails on two accounts.

    Risible.

  47. #47 Azkyroth
    November 6, 2007

    Dozens of comments, actually.

    And why should I produce “a quote from someone who is actually relevant” to support a statement that, as read, is perfectly applicable to weirdos on the internet? Do I need to copy-paste the definition of “advocate” for you?

    Additionally, his insistence on declaring the present social order inevitable despite the relatively fledgling nature of both research and, in many veins, social reform efforts, especially coupled to his being A) male and B) a jerk, is difficult to explain unless he does in fact find this state of affairs agreeable.

    Finally, you never did answer who you were trying to impress with your sneeringly juvenile potshots.

  48. #48 Azkyroth
    November 6, 2007

    You know what, “agnostic”? Don’t answer that. I’ve said my piece as pertains to my actual argument, and I have neither an interest nor a stake in the argument you apparently wish we were having. Additionally, you have imperiously demanded that I distill years of living with my eyes and ears open into a small, easily digestible package for you, or at least spend an extended time retracing my mental steps to find a citation that will still fit between your goalposts after you move them again. I am neither intellectually nor personally engaged by you, and you’re not paying me; consequently, attempting to satisfy your demands is not worth my time. You of course will doubtless spin this as a victory. Your demeanor suggests that you don’t have very many of those, so I shall be charitable and let you have it. Enjoy.

  49. #49 Kim
    November 7, 2007

    This is not data, this is anecdote…

    But every single woman over the age of 40 in my subfield has some kind of painful story. Most of the stories aren’t about balancing work and family, either. They are about having someone else given dominant credit for their work, about bias on teaching evaluations, about letters of recommendation that belittled them as “nice,” about being denied tenure or promotion to full professor, about sexual harassment… And in other fields, I know of similar stories. Explicit discrimination? No. But little things that add up when competing to be considered the best in a given field? Oh, yes.

    Is it any wonder that it is difficult to find a female mentor who isn’t bitter and difficult?

  50. #50 Fred Bortz
    November 7, 2007

    Kim lists the following woes:

    having someone else given dominant credit for their work, about bias on teaching evaluations, about letters of recommendation that belittled them as “nice,” about being denied tenure or promotion to full professor, about sexual harassment…

    Not to minimize this or to advocate such treatment, but men who don’t play academic hardball get the same treatment, except perhaps for sexual harassment. Gay men probably get the full list.

    As I noted in a recent review of a book called Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend by Barbara Oakley (click my name), few places are as Machiavellian as the halls of academe.

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