So Summers was simply wrong.

Larry Summers, when president of Harvard, conjectured that women  are simply innately inferior to men at science and math.  His comment, quickly identified as the sort of thing that helps impede women’s advancement, nonetheless revealed a widely-spread belief that men and women’s biological differences underlay differences in achievement in science and math.

A knowledge of the complex conditions for gene expression probably should discourage us from approaching problems  in any simple terms about nature versus nurture.  However,  sometimes there are simple and clarifying moments when nurture changes enough that we can see what the contribution of nature is.  And in science and math it  is turning out to be zero.

The NY Times reports the findings of a panel of the National Research Council:

In recent years “men and women faculty in science, engineering and mathematics have enjoyed comparable opportunities,” the panel said in its report, released on Tuesday. It found that women who apply for university jobs and, once they have them, for promotion and tenure, are at least as likely to succeed as men.

And mathematics?

In another report this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at the University of Wisconsin reviewed a variety of studies and concluded that the achievement gap between boys and girls in mathematics performance had narrowed to the vanishing point.

There are still more boy math prodigies than girl, but the gap is narrowing here too.

The NRC  reports a remaining problem:

But compared with their numbers among new Ph.D.’s, women are still underrepresented in applicant pools, a puzzle that offers an opportunity for further research, the panel said.The panel said one factor outshined all others in encouraging women to apply for jobs: having women on the committees appointed to fill them.

Perhaps the reflections of Female Science Professor could offer a clue to the problems:

When I was a postdoc, I was just happy to get through a day without being groped (by an emeritus professor), excluded from using the research facilities I needed (by technical staff), yelled at (by office staff), unnerved (by a large male grad student who frequently expressed the opinion that ‘girls like to be hit’), insulted (by one of a wide range of people), or the target of a scary lab prank (by one particular technician).

Such is not, it is  important to  note, the  typical male postdoc experience, my resident expert tells me.

14 thoughts on “So Summers was simply wrong.

  1. Summers didn’t say that women are inherently inferior to men in science and math. He suggested that men might have greater variability (i.e. larger standard deviation), which means that men outnumber women at both high and low end of the continuum along achievement. He could still be wrong, but it’s unfair to mischaracterise Summers’ comments that way.

  2. emigirl, I’m not sure it is quite that clear cut. Roughly speaking, if women are innately less capable of performing at the top end, then they are innately less capable over a very important area, Summers is saying. The data was about outliers, but what it explained was difference in perfromance over a quite wide area.
    Summers did say the following:

    There are three broad hypotheses about the sources of the very substantial disparities that this conference’s papers document and have been documented before with respect to the presence of women in high-end scientific professions. One is what I would call the — I’ll explain each of these in a few moments and comment on how important I think they are — the first is what I call the high-powered job hypothesis [i.e., women want babies and families more]. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and the third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search. And in my own view, their importance probably ranks in exactly the order that I just described.

    What he is explaining is the dearth of women in high-end science, and what he is talking about is research in research universities. The absence of women is pretty clearly, he thinks, mostly due to babies and innate ability; discrimination comes third. Now if someone says that innate factors prevent women from excelling at science and maths in the way men do, I’m doing to interpret that as saying that women are innately less capable of doing science and maths. And that interpretation is pretty standard:

    Here’s the Boston Globe’s report of a fairly standard interpretation:

    He [Summers] offered three possible explanations, in declining order of importance, for the small number of women in high-level positions in science and engineering. The first was the reluctance or inability of women who have children to work 80-hour weeks.
    The second point was that fewer girls than boys have top scores on science and math tests in late high school years. ”I said no one really understands why this is, and it’s an area of ferment in social science,” Summers said in an interview Saturday. ”Research in behavioral genetics is showing that things people previously attributed to socialization weren’t” due to socialization after all.
    This [2nd point] was the point that most angered some of the listeners, several of whom said Summers said that women do not have the same ”innate ability” or ”natural ability” as men in some fields.

    The NY Times says,

    When Lawrence H. Summers, the president of Harvard University, suggested that women’s underrepresentation in science may be attributed to innate factors related to gender, he created a “teachable moment” for greater public awareness of the need to advance women in science.

    I think that a similar interpretation would be made about a comparable remark in a lot of fields. E.g., it’s how many would interprete the remark that women can certainly do well at law, but innate differences mean you won’t find many at the top law firms. Or women can certainly be doctors, but they are innately less capable of performing in the high powered specialities.

  3. Now that I think about it, the best mathematician I’ve ever known was a Romanian girl woman.

    (edited by jj on the assumption that the Romanian in question was 18 or over.)

  4. I would disagree with the newspaper’s interpretation–based on the context of the whole speech (and even in the quotation above), it seems clear he is talking specifically about the highest levels of achievement (i.e., the over 95/99 percentile which the newest studies show are still male-dominated). Other studies I’ve read have shown that there is a biological basis for the clustering of male math progidies—there are more males at BOTH extremes (i.e., low and high), and that even a small percentage difference (as it is) makes a large difference in the numbers. Although I certainly wouldn’t relegate discrimination to 3rd place as Summers does, I think pronouncing “Summers was simply wrong” overly simplifies the issue.

  5. Carrie, the recent statistics very seriously challenge the idea that there is a biological basis for male math progidies. In an earlier post, we noted that not only is the gender difference decreasing, but in some racial/ethnic groups it is now reversed.

    When you look at Sommers remarks, you need to keep in mind two different things: his evidence and his conclusion. His evidence was about scores on tests and the highest categories. His conclusion was that that explains the dearth of women in science and maths in research universities, I think you and the earlier commenter are looking at his premises. I’m looking at his conclusion and how he thinks his evidence supports it: women’s achievement level is lower because of innate factors.

    He wasn’t maintaining that women can’t do maths and science at all, but that they really can’t get it at university level because of innate differences. That says that the high levels of achievement are basically out of the reach of most women. in my book, that counts as saying we are innately inferior.

    I’m not sure how to convey how serious his remarks are, and what their import really is. Perhaps it is enough to point out that if you are trying to train in maths or science and your professors all pretty much believe that you can’t go into university research, then you are basically treated as less good.

  6. For the record, she was under 18 when I knew her, as was I.

    Of course, the whole thing is irrelevant: anecdotes prove little. But it’s interesting because it goes against the stereotype.

  7. I think from an epistemology point of view, the interesting thing about case like this is that when you suggest something like, “women might not be as good at math at the highest levels,” there’s the potential for a really pernicious social effect if you’re wrong, so the burden of evidence should be higher than usual. If you’re making a small claim that doesn’t affect others, there’s no harm in being wrong, but making a claim like Summers’ is very dangerous if he’s mistaken, so he has to clear a higher hurdle than usual. But what we see instead is that because these claims fit people’s gender stereotypes they actually *lower* the standards of evidence and say, “Well, I’ve got an anecdote about my kids and a couple of not-super-conclusive-statistical-studies: that seems like it’s open and shut case to me”!

    So, going forward, I think what we need to do is figure out more precisely why people do this and how to stop them from doing it.

  8. Carl, thanks for taking my edit in the friendly spirit intended!

    I agree strongly with your second post, though there was some basis for the claims: males did seem to dominate at the high end of maths aptitude tests. That effect is now disappearing and in fact is absent in some countries.

    I think that if one is unaware of implicit biases, then one may be inclined to invent stories about why one tends to pick members of the favored group. Making people aware of the existence of biases and of the effects of discrimination may help some.

    Have you seen any anti-prejudice actions that worked!

  9. jj, thanks for pointing out that recent studies have demonstrated that that is decreasing. I was under the impression that most studies still showed that although the average rate was changing (i.e., becoming more equal for males and females), the percentages at the end (although small) had remained constant (i.e, greater percentages of both highest-level and lowest-level students were male). I was pleasantly surprised to find that the most recent studies find that true for whites primarily, and not for Asian-Americans or men and women in other countries. This link (which just came out a few days ago) was especially interesting in that regard: http://scienceblogs.com/notrocketscience/2009/06/gender_gap_in_maths_driven_by_social_factors_not_biological.php

    As for Summers himself, I don’t think the position he maintains is as strong as you make it to be, or at least not in the speech that is widely cited (e.g., you said, “he says…they really can’t get it at university level because of innate differences”). I think his position is more nuanced than that, something along the lines of, “there are fewer women in these positions, in part because of innate differences at the highest end.” This difference is important to me, at least, for two reasons: first, he does acknowledge the complexity of reasons why women are underrepresented (I think it greatly oversimplifies the problems we face to insist that discrimination is the ONLY reason—not, to be clear, that I think that is your position, or that I believe Summers is correct in his, but only to say that in addition to discrimination, there are also other factors, such as the work load demand, lack of work-family balance options, lack of social support for a female breadwinner-male homemaker combo, and so on).

    As for Summers himself, I don’t think the position he maintains is as strong as you make it to be, or at least not in the speech that is widely cited (e.g., “he says…they really can’t get it at university level because of innate differences”). I think his position is more nuanced than that, something along the lines of, “there are fewer women in these positions, IN PART because of innate differences at the high ends.” This difference is important to me, at least, for two reasons: first, he does acknowledge the complexity of reasons why women are underrepresented (I think it greatly simplified the problems we face to insist that discrimination is the ONLY reason—not, to be clear, that I think that is your position, or that I believe Summers is correct in his, but only to say that in addition to discrimination, there are also other factors, such as the work load demand, lack of work-family balance options, lack of social support for a female breadwinner-male homemaker combo, and so on). Second, although I think his ordering of the causes is definitely faulty (nor does he provide evidence to prove WHY he organizes them as he does), it seems that enumerating the most nuanced and charitable reading of his work is important, particularly as a community of philosophers. This is an important part of philosophical analysis, both to be sure we aren’t constructing easier arguments to defeat than what the author intended, and also to make the discussion as productive as possible. Although I think these new studies have indeed proven that he was wrong that the differences at the high/low ends aren’t innate, he may not be wrong that those differences (which we know can assert are the result of socialization, at least largely) have created in part the lack of representation now. Although things are changing, this change isn’t overnight, and especially since we’re still seeing higher white male dominance at the highest end, I think that provides us with important knowledge. If that is the case, then that reason actually gives us cause for hope—if the gender balance is becoming more equal among the highest-scoring students, that gives us hope that achievements will come to reflect that balance more and more.

    On the other hand, I do see your point that the danger is that people will take this statement as the overly simplified form of “women can’t do math and science, at least not as well as men,” and that certainly is a danger. I think that’s all the more reason to be very precise about what Summers actually was arguing for, but reasonable people can, of course, disagree on exactly how to interpret his position. I certainly don’t agree that women can’t do math and science as well as men (I happen to be the daughter of two mathematicians), and I agree that it is a tricky problem, and I would echo your last comment to Carl on sharing any strategies that have worked.

  10. Thanks, Carrie. I expect we’d converge more if it weren’t so late!

    I’m going to do a post in a day or two about recent research presented in a very prestigious place on men, women and maths. It turns out that in more equal societies women do as well or better than men. Stay tuned.

    Thanks so much for your interest. That’s the sort of thing that keep the bog going.

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