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Women thrive in sciences while discourse on reason dives

Some think a discussion on nature and nurture is needed, but not everyone wants it - nor is it easy with inconclusive research.

Published February 26, 2005

[Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe]
Christine Fitch, a junior at the University of South Florida, tutors freshman Jeff Miller in calculus I on Friday.

TAMPA - In two months, Kiara Perez-Blanco will prove her father wrong, and maybe the president of Harvard, too. The University of South Florida senior is one of a handful of women expected to graduate this spring with a degree in industrial engineering.

Her father didn't think she could do it.

"He's like, "Girls don't have destructive minds,"' said Perez-Blanco, 22. "And engineers have to have destructive minds."

Harvard University president Lawrence H. Summers spun a variation on that theme last month, suggesting that natural-born differences between men and women - he used the term "intrinsic aptitude" - were major reasons why men continue to dominate science and engineering. He said the influence of social forces was overblown.

"I would far prefer to believe something else," he told the audience at an economics conference, "because it would be easier to address what is surely a serious social problem if something else were true."

The waves of national publicity his remarks generated have put Summers' job in jeopardy.

They also have rekindled a touchy debate about whether there are genetic differences in the way men and women think and learn - and whether the differences matter. The research is inconclusive. And in that vacuum, attempts to discuss nature, nurture, men and women can't help but be haunted by old stereotypes.

Girls play with dolls. Girls can't do math.

Academic performance is based on "culture; it's how we were raised," said Perez-Blanco, who cruised through circuitry, thermodynamics and calculus III and now dreams of reconfiguring some company's distribution system. Those who think otherwise are "male chauvinists ... still living in the 1920s."

Few researchers discount the effect socialization has on academic and career choices. But some say it's more complicated than that.

Studies show, for example, that women's brains are smaller then men's, even accounting for weight differences, while other research suggests women's brains have more neurons - the cells that power thinking. In his speech, Summers noted that autistic children were once thought to be the result of bad parenting.

Meanwhile, statistics show women are making academic gains, even in the sciences, while men are quietly sinking. At USF, women make up a big majority of the chemistry majors and outnumber men 2 to 1 in biology.

One expert on the gender gap says it would be a shame if the debate on innate differences doesn't get a thorough airing - especially for boys.

"We have focused all of our progress on women in the past 35 years," said Thomas Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Pell Institute, a higher education think tank. "And now almost all of the problems in gender are boy problems."

Mortenson contends that boys learn differently - that they're more "wiggly" than girls - and that today's teaching methods leave them shorthanded.

He knows he's a lone voice in the wilderness.

Gender gap data often don't jibe with perception.

Male enrollment at Florida's 11 universities dropped to 43 percent this year and to 40 percent at USF. In the USF College of Medicine, women surpassed men for the first time.

In some fields, the figures remain lopsided in men's favor.

Nationwide, the ratio of men to women in computer science departments is 3 to 1 among students and 9 to 1 among faculty. In physics, about 80 percent of the students are male, as are 93 percent of the professors.

Critics fear cracking the door for the nature-nurture debate will send the wrong message, both to administrators making halfhearted efforts to diversify mostly male departments and to girls who may be deterred from pursuing careers in science.

"I don't remember a single instance where I was discouraged. That made a difference," said Jean Andino, a Harvard graduate and chemical engineer who is a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Florida. "That is a big reason why I am now an engineer."

Despite enrollment gains, it's still lonely at the top. And persistent issues there have provided much of the kindling fueling the Summers debate.

Only 14 of 193 tenured professors in the UF engineering college are women. In some UF departments, the numbers are even more cockeyed: In math, there are 41 men and two women. In astronomy, one woman. In statistics, none.

Similar numbers can be found in math and science departments nationwide.

The education pipeline is part of the problem. If fewer women than men enter math, science and engineering fields as students, fewer will emerge as professors.

A generation ago, the numbers in those fields were abysmal for women. But that's less true every year.

The percentage of women awarded engineering degrees jumped from 2 percent in 1975 to 20 percent today. In math, the numbers grew from 42 percent to about 50 percent.

"The pipeline has been going fairly well for some time," said Carolyn Gordon, a math professor at Dartmouth College and immediate past president of the Association for Women in Mathematics.

USF physics professor Lilia Woods said she has noticed more women doing graduate work in physics since she came to the United States from Bulgaria 12 years ago. When she attended a conference of the American Physical Society a decade ago, there were few women. And now?

"I think they are almost overtaking the men," Woods said.

Yet in a 15-member department, she remains the only woman.

In his speech, Summers largely dismissed other factors that might be responsible for low faculty numbers, including discrimination in hiring. He took heat for that, too.

Gordon noted a recent study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that documented lower pay and less recognition for female faculty. Given the growing numbers of women in the pipeline, the rate of growth among female faculty is still too low, she said.

Summers' comments, she said, "sound like an excuse."

Mortenson, the Pell Institute scholar, said Summers' critics make some good points. But he worries that the debate over women in a handful of academic fields is overshadowing a bigger problem with boys across the board.

Everything should be on the table for discussion, he said, including the possibility of innate differences. But he doesn't see that happening.

"We're in the middle of a revolution," he said.

And in his view, the girls are winning.

Times researcher Kitty Bennett and staff writer Vanessa Gezari contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or

[Last modified February 26, 2005, 01:14:15]

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