3 Problems With The "Women In Science" Debate

The Times's John Tierney is the latest of several to take the Larry Summers tack of questioning women's natural aptitude for science. Here's what's wrong with this argument, in three easy points that even the simplest ladybrain can understand.

1. Questioning women's intelligence is not "daring."

In his piece on women's relative dumbness in the Daily Mail, psychology professor Richard Lynn compared his own claims to the groundbreaking work of such luminaries as Galileo:

As an academic, it's my job to tell the truth, to explain the scientific evidence before us, irrespective of how unfashionable my conclusions are. Big ideas such as Galileo's theory that Earth revolved around the Sun, rather than vice versa, or Darwin's theory of evolution, met with vociferous opposition when first advanced.

Tierney isn't this ridiculous, but his piece in yesterday's Times does appear under the headline (probably, we should note, not written by him) "Daring to Discuss Women in Science." And of a proposed law requiring scientists to attend workshops and discussions on gender bias, he asks, "Would it be safe during the 'interactive discussions' for someone to mention the new evidence supporting Dr. Summers's controversial hypothesis about differences in the sexes' aptitude for math and science?"

Those who question women's innate scientific ability (whatever that is) continually claim that such questioning is edgy, dangerous, or pathbreaking. But since men have been arguing that women are the stupider sex since antiquity and probably before, those who make that argument today have more in common with flat-earthers than with Galileo. And while they may claim to be rebels against some politically correct feminist orthodoxy, that argument rings a bit hollow when science and math departments are still overwhelmingly run by men — and when newsrooms continue to be majority male as well.

2. "Intelligence" is not monolithic.

One reason we hysterical ladies get so mad when men question women's scientific aptitude is that they often can't limit said questioning to the actual ability to do science. Saying women are predisposed to be lesser scientists is bad enough, but Lynn and Tierney both frame this statement in terms of overall intelligence. Lynn comes right out and says "men, on average, are more intelligent then women." Tierney, again, is more measured, but he does paraphrase Summers thus: "the science faculty composition at an elite school like Harvard might still be skewed by a biological factor: the greater variability observed among men in intelligence test scores and various traits." Even leaving aside the problems with calling "intelligence test scores" a "biological factor," this statement is still problematic in its generality — it's not talking about the relatively narrow skill set required to be a top scientist, but about broad "intelligence." Which is the subtext of much discussion of women in science.

Both in schools and in the culture at large, science and math are considered more difficult than more verbal subjects, and those who excel in quantitative areas are considered "smarter" than those who do well in subjects like writing or debate. Perhaps this is precisely because quantitative areas are still male-dominated, but whatever the case, extraordinary verbal skills (which Tierney notes may be more common in girls and women) can feel like a consolation prize. This shouldn't be, as such skills are extremely important, but even discussions of gifted education continue to undervalue them. Result: even when it's not made explicit, the statement "men have more innate scientific ability" often sounds a lot like "men, on average, are more intelligent then women."

3. We're not there yet.

If boys and girls, men and women had truly equal opportunities, we might be able to conclude something about their "innate abilities" — or at least stop worrying about gender inequality in various fields. But we're still very far from that point. Tierney finds fault with programs to eliminate bias at the university level, and says, "female scientists fare as well as, if not better than, their male counterparts in receiving academic promotions and research grants." But girls may be implicitly or explicitly discouraged from pursuing science long before they actually become scientists (perhaps by, among other factors, the perception that boys are actually intelligent while they are merely hardworking). And many more may leave science careers or take less demanding tracks because of family obligations — in fact, a Cornell study found exactly this. Said study author Stephen J. Ceci, "A major reason explaining why women are underrepresented not only in math-intensive fields but also in senior leadership positions in most fields is that many women choose to have children, and the timing of child rearing coincides with the most demanding periods of their career, such as trying to get tenure or working exorbitant hours to get promoted." Study co-author Wendy Williams also noted that women drop out of scientific careers at higher rates than men, often in order to attend to their families — she added, "These are choices that all women, but almost no men, are forced to make."

Tierney writes, "before we accept Congress's proclamation of bias, before we start re-educating scientists at workshops, it's worth taking a hard look at the evidence of bias against female scientists." By all means, let's look at the evidence — but let's start with bias against young girls, and make sure to include stealthier factors like disproportionate family expectations and the effects of stereotypes, as well as outright discrimination. And let's get rid of all those before we start arguing about who's smarter.

Image via l i g h t p o e t/Shutterstock.com.

Daring To Discuss Women In Science [NYT]

Earlier: "Men Have Emerged As The More Intelligent Sex:" And Other Stupid Arguments

Related: Sorry, Men ARE More Brainy Than Women (And More Stupid Too!) It's A Simple Scientific Fact, Says One Of Britain's Top Dons [Daily Mail]
Women Opt Out Of Math/Science Careers Because Of Family Demands [Science Codex]