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Monday, January 24, 2005

Maybe It's Science, and Not Women, That's the Problem

When I first read that Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard, had suggested that innate differences between men and women might partly explain why fewer women succeed in math and science careers, I was more amused than anything else. His statement seemed outrageous, and certain to inflame. Sure enough, the outcry, particularly from academics, was so great that Summers soon issued an apology. But predictably, his supporters were quick to rally, denouncing the uproar surrounding the Harvard president as analogous to a “Communist show trial” (see William Saletan’s article in Slate). These voices (almost uniformly male, I couldn’t help but notice) scolded Summers’s detractors for willfully ignoring science itself, and they argued that we should welcome research that might help us better understand the genetic differences between the sexes.

Sometime during this course of events, my amusement turned to anger, and I had to admit to myself that my anger stemmed partly from fear. The standard liberal argument against claims about innate differences between the sexes, and the one that jumped to my mind, is that social factors play the greater role in shaping the achievement gap between men and women in areas like math and science. This argument is appealing both because evidence of historical and contemporary discrimination against women, and the ways in which it has barred women from success, is easy to find and because social factors, such as discrimination, are changeable. But I couldn’t help worrying, what if men really are genetically predisposed to possess certain cognitive advantages over women? And the possibility that science might “prove” such a scenario to be true really freaked me out.

But the more I thought about the “innate differences” hypothesis as an explanation for why men are more successful than women in math and science, the more it led me back to social factors, or at least to a combination of biological and social factors. It seems possible that some cognitive differences between women and men do exist (though, obviously, we’re talking about group averages, and not individual ability), and if they do, if women learn differently from men, then why shouldn’t men succeed more often in math and science, since they’re the ones who have historically shaped the fields? In other words, it could be that math and science privilege men’s ways of thinking and learning because, overwhelmingly, men have been the architects of these disciplines as we understand and teach them.

If I follow this line of thinking, it almost seems that Summers and his supporters are right, and we should endeavor to learn more about the differences in men’s and women’s cognition, if only so that we can help more women succeed in male-dominated fields. But I have serious reservations about attempts to establish the genetic differences between men and women. For one thing, the public, encouraged by the biotechnology industry, seems to view genes as the essential expression of who we are, even though research has shown that organisms with identical genes may develop differently depending on environmental and other unknown factors. I also fear that findings about genetic differences in cognition would devolve into claims about the relative intelligence of men and women. Though I think such claims would be meaningless because social factors cannot help but influence our understanding of intelligence and our ways of measuring it, these claims could be damaging to women.

We know there are women who shine just as bright as men in the fields of math and science. Why can’t we work on finding ways to encourage other girls and women to pursue these disciplines (girls’ math clubs, for example, that value exploration rather than competition), rather than trying to show that women as a group might be less genetically predisposed to succeed in these areas? Maybe once we get more women involved in math and science, they can fix whatever it is about these male-dominated fields and their cultures that is discouraging to women.

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