Biases Belittle Brainy Women
Ten years ago, Mattel released a “Barbie” doll that declared “Math is hard,” just after it uttered the phrase “I love shopping.” For some in academia, it seems as though they still view women as these dolls better suited to shopping than science.
Harvard President Lawrence Summers, who used to be Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, implied as much during a conference in Cambridge. At the session, he offered several thoughts on why fewer women work in academic sciences. These included the reluctance or inability of women to work 80-hour weeks, that boys outperform girls on math and science tests in high school, and possibly discrimination.
In Summers’ defense, he profusely apologized several times for his remarks and claimed that his words had “resulted in an unintended signal of discouragement to talented girls and women.” He also claimed that he was being deliberately provocative at the conference, quoting others, and hoping to lure more women to the sciences.
But a closer examination of his words reveals some very troubling statements. According to the Boston Globe, Summers said claimed that women with children cannot or will not put in the requisite amount of research hours. He also allegedly claimed “research in behavioral genetics is showing that things people attributed to socialization might actually have a biological basis…” So not only are women held back because they opt for child raising over conducting experiments, but also that women lack the biological capacity to keep up with boys in science. One must wonder what Marie Curie would think of these arguments.
I find this a little strange, given that my sister-in-law is a tenured Physics professor at university in Illinois, and the mother of a cute baby boy. She’s the type who doesn’t just test results, but builds the testing equipment. She has devoted some of her research to the subject of women and science. Though she hasn’t found much support for the kid theory and the dumb women theory, she has found a lot of stereotypes and societal pressures women face when considering a career in Biology, Chemistry or Physics. Everyone knows who Britney Spears is, but few recognize the accomplishments of Barbara McClintock, Rita Levi-Montalcini, and Gertrude Belle Elion, even though you may owe your lives to the research these women conducted.
But you don’t have to go all the way to Illinois to find a successful woman of science. Here at the college I teach at, there are several female professors who don’t believe that “Math is hard!” They can be found not only in the traditional academic sciences, but in fields that utilize and interpret math and statistics, like Computer Science, Business, Psychology and Sociology. Two of my Political Science mentors were women; one is a numbers cruncher while the other employs mathematical models that Summers probably couldn’t understand.
Summers could be right, however, about his third hypothesis: discrimination. Since he became Harvard’s President in 2001, the percentage of women offered tenured jobs has declined. The Boston Globe reports that last year only four of the university’s 32 tenure offers were granted to women. Summers is entitled to his opinion, but if he believes that women just aren’t as smart in science or are more concerned with child-rearing, he probably shouldn’t be in charge of determining their academic standing.