Women Make Strides in Science, Barriers Still To Overcome

i-33b3d093a1a873078d823900cc63bb45-2210763134_7fcd47a113.jpegFive years ago Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard, made headlines when he suggested that women are not as well represented in science because of "issues of intrinsic aptitude." By proposing that women are biologically less capable of succeeding in science he gained the anger of many of his colleagues and continued his reputation for divisive management (African-American Studies professor Cornel West reportedly left Harvard for Princeton based on disagreements he had with Summers).

Now, a report released today on the representation of women in science reveals that, while there are still barriers to gender equality, over the last forty years women PhDs in the sciences have increased from less than 5% to 30%.

As reported in The New York Times:

At the top level of math abilities, where boys are overrepresented, the report found that the gender gap is rapidly shrinking. Among mathematically precocious youth -- sixth and seventh graders who score more than 700 on the math SAT -- 30 years ago boys outnumbered girls 13 to 1, but only about 3 to 1 now.

"That's not biology at play, it doesn't change so fast," Ms. Hill said. "Even if there are biological factors in boys outnumbering girls, they're clearly not the whole story. There's a real danger in assuming that innate differences are important in determining who will succeed, so we looked at the cultural factors, to see what evidence there is on the nurture side of nature or nurture."

The report found multiple reasons to suggest that cultural bias remains the primary barrier. For example, one study of postdoctoral applicants found that women were required to publish on average 3 more papers in highly regarded journals (and as many as 20 more in lesser known publications) to be considered as productive as male applicants.

Despite the gains that women have made in the sciences their representation isn't evenly distributed as one would expect if all things were equal. For example, three months ago Harvard tenured their first female mathematics professor in 375 years. Was that gap based strictly on ability, Mr. Summers?

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Summers is the same guy who, when he was Chief Economist of the World Bank, wrote a memo that promoted dumping toxic waste in poor countries:

"Just between you and me, shouldn't the World Bank be encouraging MORE migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs [Less Developed Countries]? . . . I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that."

Remind me again why President Obama appointed him to help solve the financial crisis?

Yes this Summers should be kicked out, he's pretty despicable.

Wait a second. He never "asserted" or "claimed" it. He made it extremely clear that it was being offered in a purely speculative, tentative capacity merely as one of several possible hypothesis.

That is a complete mischaracterization of what Summers said. He very clearly stated that he didn't know why women were underepresented, and that there were several possibilities and that was one that had yet to be falsified.

Yet for some reason, I don't expect you to issue a retraction.

I for one was very offended when he made that speech. He said that biological differences ("intrinsic aptitude") were reinforced by "lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination." Socialization and discrimination are lesser factors?! Look at the increase in women's representation in science. That proves that socialization and discrimination were the PRIMARY factors.

By Amy Olson, MD (not verified) on 22 Mar 2010 #permalink

I doubt most people defending his comments as just explaining the possibilities would ever defend that explanation for racial discrimination in the sciences.

I believe that Summers was offering one possible explanation based on studies that show that men show greater variance in their IQ scores than women. That is, there are more men than women at the extremes of the IQ range. Even with the same mean, at (say) three standard deviations from the mean, there are a lot more men than women. Indeed, people with very low IQ are much more likely to be men rather than women. We would also expect scientists to have an IQ at least several standard deviations above the mean.

As awesome as it is for us to assert our views of what he meant, here's what he actually said: http://www.president.harvard.edu/speeches/summers_2005/nber.php

His comments are a bit more objectionable than his defenders would have it; I note in particular that he asserts his personal "guesses" as an intrinsic difference in ability between genders, and seems to gloss over (with no empirical justification) the possibility that differences in test scores may be a consequence of socialization rather than genetics.

On the other hand, I find it aggravating that so much of the response is "how dare he! so offensive! punish him for his words!". Since his sin is asserting (more or less) an offensive and potentially harmful view without strong supporting evidence, can we please focus more on the data and studies that show him to be wrong? If there's strong evidence that he's ignoring, then he's definitely sexist and abusing his position to spread deliberate ignorance. If there's no studies that address the specifics he brings up, then there's a gap that needs to be filled. Saletan makes this point better than I do (though seems altogether to eager to deny any wrongdoing on Summers' part): http://slate.msn.com/id/2112570/

Summers also never denied the obvious historical discrimination, so snarky comments about "375 years" of Harvard history are groundless.