Differing over differences
By ROBYN E. BLUMNER
Published January 30, 2005
Harvard president Lawrence Summers has just gotten a lesson in the fierce retribution that comes with defying political correctness. Summers now knows that, in the academy, certain things cannot be said out loud, no matter how intriguing the scientific data or anecdotal evidence.
Of course, Summers did himself no favors in the way he raised the uncomfortable possibility that there may be something innate to gender that explains why relatively few women attain top posts in university math and science departments. He just seemed to blurt out that radioactive point of view earlier this month at a small conference on bringing more diversity to the sciences and math, without being prepared to defend it methodically.
In the uproar that followed, Summers beat a hasty retreat, repudiating everything and apologizing repeatedly. It appears he is now in the camp of those who say that discrimination is the only viable reason there is not a perfect 50-50 distribution of jobs between men and women in math and sciences. Alternative explanations are no longer welcome.
This should be distressing to people who care more about uncovering the truth than assuaging hurt feelings. Summers has given an undeserved boost to the radical feminist claim that the only difference between human males and females is genitalia, and that the rest of gender identity is formed through socialization.
This belief - that we are solely a product of society, culture and nurturing - is very attractive to feminists who want to blame gender inequalities on patriarchy. To them, any suggestion that there may be a biological basis for women's choice of careers excuses discriminatory employers and reinforces the repressive power structure.
What they fail to understand is that equality of opportunity for women is not threatened by acknowledging gender tendencies.
Group averages tell us nothing about individuals. It would be unfair and unfounded to judge someone's abilities and potential based solely on his or her group identity. If, on average, males are better than females at math - and generations of SAT scores would suggest so - that says absolutely nothing about whether a particular woman is better or worse than a particular man. Plenty of women are superior mathematicians.
But what should not be ignored is that discrimination alone cannot explain why women make up only 9 percent of working engineers.
Due to institutional barriers in the not-too-distant past, women were nearly absent from the fields of law, medicine and engineering. Yet, by 2002 women made up nearly half of all students in medical and law schools, but only 20 percent of graduate-level engineering students. Are we really saying that admissions officers for engineering programs and employers of engineers are far more discriminatory than those in the fields of law and medicine? Isn't the more likely explanation that, with the opening of all fields to women, they have self-selected careers they enjoy and do well in?
Radical feminists would say that these "choices" are occasioned by subtle cultural redlining. They would say there is nothing innately gender-related about cognitive functions.
I disagree and recommend the book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, by Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker. It explains just how much of what we are is encoded in our genes.
Pinker's point is that men and women are very much the same and yet quite different, and many of those differences exist in every culture on Earth. Even in places such as the Israeli kibbutz, which has tried to be gender-neutral in assigning roles, Pinker notes a gender-specific aspect to the division of labor: Women in all cultures have more responsibility for raising children, while men are more dominant in the political realm. Men in every society are more driven by the prospect of sex and are more aggressive in general.
If these tendencies exist uniformly across cultures, it would suggest that they are inborn traits and not socially developed (although society clearly plays a role in how sharply gender-based labor divisions are encouraged and magnified).
The book on whether gender is predominantly formed by nature or nurture was closed in my view by the case of David Reimer. He was the Canadian infant who, due to a botched circumcision, was "changed" into a girl through operations and hormones. He was raised as "Brenda" and put in frilly dresses and given dolls. But even at age 2, Brenda would rip off her dresses and reject the dolls, preferring toy guns instead. When Brenda was finally told the truth at 14, she said "finally it all made sense," and converted back to living as a male, as his nature intended. He committed suicide last year.
There is nothing to fear from acknowledging that men and women have different psychological tendencies. What we should fear is the hysteria that occasions the speaking of uncomfortable truths. The academy is a place where all ideas should be welcome - free to rise and fall on their own empirical merit. But don't expect that to happen at Harvard any time soon.
[Last modified January 30, 2005, 00:10:19]
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