What Larry meant to say
Could the recent flap over comments by Harvard President Lawrence Summers about women and science have ended differently? Oh, yes. Summers is bold enough to speak unfashionable truths now and then, but, alas, he is not inclined to stick to his guns very long. When the opposition howled, he buckled quickly and issued regrets and apologies. But suppose Summers had been the owner of a sturdier spine. He might have made a serious contribution. He could have said something like this:
"Yesterday I spoke bluntly at a closed academic conference and offered some possible explanations of why women are less represented than men in the upper reaches of math and science. In addition to the cost of the time women spend in bearing and raising children, I said that innate sexual differences may be playing a role.
"This was a politically incorrect thing to say, but I believe it is true. An enormous literature on sexual differences has been piling up for 30 years or more. Everybody knows about this work, but it is one of the large elephants in the academic living room that nobody is supposed to notice. It is officially invisible. Careers can end if you see it.
"The literature points to one conclusion: The sexes are different. Males and females have different aptitudes, and they make choices based on those aptitudes. Males tend to outperform females on mathematical reasoning, mechanical comprehension, and spatial ability, while females tend to outperform males in such areas as language use, reading comprehension, verbal fluency, verbal memory, spelling, and mathematical calculations. On many verbal tasks, women as a group are decisively better than men and remain so all their lives.
"In addition, there is a persistent finding that men tend to prefer to work with 'things,' while women, more than men, prefer to work with people. This may sound like a stereotype to you. It is certainly true that when the doors to high-paying professions were closed to women, females gravitated, by necessity, to valuable but lower-paying 'people' fields like nursing and teaching. But now that the barriers are finally coming down, women are still opting in great numbers for 'people' fields. We have seen a great surge of women into law and medicine but far less female interest in engineering, math, and the hard sciences.
"On the whole, women tend to avoid fields with a low social component--mechanical engineering, particle physics, and entomology, for example. Women tend to favor fields with a high social dimension--anthropology, sociology, psychology (particularly developmental and child psychology but not physiological psychology). Even within scientific fields, women lean toward more 'social' areas such as medicine, nutritional science, environmental health, biology, and bioengineering."
Science snooze. "In his book Biology at Work: Rethinking Sexual Equality, Kingsley Browne says that one important reason why girls turn away from science is that they tend to find it 'boring,' not a 'fun puzzle to study,' or to conclude that 'science breaks down people's ideas of right and wrong.'
"Camilla Benbow and David Lubinski, well-known researchers at Vanderbilt University, have spent more than 20 years tracking a group of 5,000 males and females who had been identified as mathematically gifted when they were 12 to 14 years old. Eight percent of the males, but only 1 percent of the females, pursued doctorates in math, engineering, or physical science. More females than males received degrees in the life sciences, health, or medicine. The females did not veer away from the hard sciences out of lack of opportunity, doubts about competence, or fear of failure. The 5,000 gifted children knew they were good, but the females had different values and many made different choices.
"What is the lesson here? That it may be a great mistake to insist on equal male-female representation in every area of academia. The social sciences are now heavily female. Law and medicine may well become predominantly female too, while the hard sciences stay mostly male. Is there anything wrong with that? Benbow and Lubinski say frankly that 'there may be a need to consider a degree of unequal representation' in certain fields. 'Unequal representation' is threatening only if we think that respect for the choices made by our young people is less important than worrying about a perfect gender balance. I suggest we open all the doors, forget about the numbers, and just let students choose their paths freely. I believe this today, and I will believe it a year from now, because I am sure it is the right conclusion. If you disagree, let's debate it. Or perhaps you might like to select a different university."
This story appears in the February 14, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.