This is second in a series. Find the first essay here.
Given that I’ve been writing about violence against women in a university setting, it’s probably worth slapping together an essay about the paucity of female professors, specifically in the sciences. And this is something that’s been addressed quite often, so quite possibly you’ve read a bit about it already. I’m not sure how much new material I can bring to your attention, but let’s give it a whirl, shall we?
In terms of recent discussions, I think the Larry Summers talk is probably most well-known. He was addressing explicitly why there are few female professors in science and engineering fields. I think the single sentence that best encapsulates his thesis is this one:
“It does appear that on many, many different human attributes — height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability — there is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference in means — which can be debated — there is a difference in the standard deviation, and the variability of a male and a female population.”
And, sure, I have no idea where he’s getting his data for a genetic linkage to the propensity of criminality — in Chrstine Kenneally’s book “The Invisible History of the Human Race” she discusses the strikingly low crime rates among certain populations that should’ve been enriched for criminality according to the evolutionary founder effect, in that the initial settlers were all British criminals — but let’s leave aside potential issues with factuality and just focus on his claim for a moment. He’s saying that the important issue isn’t whether men or women are more intelligent; that topic has been argued to death. Not that people don’t still argue about that topic. And not that it would be unfair for women to feel a bit irked by the nonsensical arguments made in the past… like, here, here’s a choice quote from H.R. Hays’s “The Dangerous Sex”:
P. Moebius, a German scientist who had an explanation for everything, in a book Concerning the Physiological Intellectual Feebleness of Women, published in 1907, settled the matter. He had taken a look at the female brain and reported, “Extraordinarily important parts of the brain necessary for spiritual life, the frontal convolutions and the temporal lobes, are less well developed in women and this difference is inborn.” Hampered by their inferior organs of thought, it was natural that “hypocrisy, that is lying, is the natural and indispensable womanly weapon. Then, too, “That the sciences, in the strictest sense, have received no enrichment from women and never shall is therefore understandable.” It was all for the best, however, because: “If we wish a woman to fulfill her task of motherhood fully, she cannot possess a masculine brain. If the feminine abilities were developed to the same degree as those of the male, her maternal organs would suffer and we should have before us a repulsive and useless hybrid.” This was the opinion of a psychologist of some reputation.
(And, right… Marie Curie won the Nobel prize in physics four years prior to the publication of Moebius’s work. And the Nobel prize in chemistry four years after.)
Anyway, that was not the argument Summers was making. That would’ve been too risky. Obviously taboo for a university president to claim… and, more importantly in my opinion, too easy to measure. Too easy for most people to understand. But what Summers is claiming instead is that the standard deviation for a distribution of female mathematical ability is smaller; i.e., if you were to graph female mathematical ability, it might look like Everest compared to the Olympus Mons graph of male ability (is it appropriate to reference Martian mountains to explain boorish comments? I’m not sure. I just think mountains are cool. And something that always stuck with me was a line from a book about Mars that I read when I was six or seven, about how Olympus Mons wouldn’t look very tall because its slope is so gradual, but it’s actually taller than any mountain on earth). So Summers is claiming that males would be enriched far away from the mean. If a university was hiring only the best of the best of the best, they’d hire men even if their decisions weren’t sexist.
And, yes, that is mathematically plausible. But in the absence of any data other than the current state of the world, it doesn’t seem like a valid argument to make. It seems like making a claim about a genetic influence on criminality based on, say, the current distribution of ethnicities in U.S. prisons, without considering all the other factors that have made it that way. Because, right, as far as the prison thing… I’ve twice mentioned Michelle Alexander’s work in previous essays, so this time I’ll include a quote from Mary Flannery’s article “The School to Prison Pipeline”:
In fact, according to research, Black students do not “act out” in class more frequently than their White peers. But Black students are more likely to be sent to the principal’s office for subjective offenses, like “disrupting class,” and they’re more likely to be sent there by White teachers, according to Kirwan Institute research on implicit bias. (White students, on the other hand, are more likely to be suspended for objective offenses, like drug possession.)
And, also from her article: The bias starts early. Black children represent 18 percent of pre-school students, but account for 48 percent of pre-school suspensions. Yes, we’re talking about 4-year-olds.
(Which, if you’d like to read more about this, there’s a horrible report published by Columbia’s law school about the ways black girls in particular are being unfairly booted out of school: “In 2007, a 6-year-old girl was arrested in a Florida classroom for having a tantrum. Later that year, a 16-year-old girl was arrested in a California school for dropping cake on the floor and failing to pick it up to a school officer’s satisfaction.” And I realize this is something of a digression from Summers’s remarks, but the issue is that all these factors, like institutional biases clearly revealed by the way different students are treated, contribute toward students’ perceptions of themselves, which contributes to their academic performance.)
To me, given the fact that white & black or male & female or rich & poor students are all raised in cultures that have these biases makes the idea of measuring the contribution of genetics to statistical means difficult, but would make the estimation of a genetic contribution to the second moment of the distribution, i.e. the standard deviation, which you need even more and better data to calculate accurately… unwise. Isn’t it presumptuous to claim you can measure genetic contributions to standard deviation when many experiments have shown that stereotype threat has effects on scores that often seem as large or larger than person to person variance?
Worse, even though a lot of people assume that grading for mathematical exams is objective (which is why I always enjoyed math classes more than English classes in high school — I was an unlikeable little dude, which my teachers were somehow able to sniff out. Or, well, more accurately, I seem to have an undiagnosed case of high-functioning autism, and that may have made my interactions with teachers difficult. Apparently underdiagnosis is fairly common and many people who were undiagnosed until adulthood have had far worse luck than I did), Lavy and Sand just completed a study showing that graders who knew elementary students’ genders unfairly (but presumably unconsciously) gave the girls lower scores than boys. Lavy & Sand rightfully conclude that biases female children are subject to in elementary school can have major implications for effort and interest in math courses for the rest of their lives.
So, right, on what data exactly would you base the claim that women lack mathematical or scientific aptitude?
Recently, though — and also well-publicized — Ceci, Ginther, Kahn & Williams published a study claiming that hiring for academic science does not discriminate against women. Now, their paper had a few minor problems… if you’re interested, you should look at Emily Willingham’s blog post about it. Willingham gives a good tour of which figures in their paper show information that would lead the average human to conclude something rather different from the conclusions Ceci et al. came to. There’s not tons more that I think I could add to her analysis, so instead I’ll diverge on an even wider tangent based on a quote from her essay: “So, as it turns out, it’s not the girls who are expressing less interest. Society is expressing less interest in the girls’ potential interest… very early on.”
From here, I could launch into a further discussion of the gender stereotypes imposed on children… I’ve read a little bit about that since N was born. But why not go big? Why not instead quote from Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen’s recent book where they looked at population statistics to ask why girls aren’t even born, not at a level you’d expect. Definitely this is a problem in India, and in China, where the ensuing male-enriched generation even earned a fancy bleak name (“bare branches”… which I’ve always hoped would be replaced by the still-bleak but prettier-sounding term “autumn limbs,” but I doubt I’ll get my wish. Even the passage in my own book contrasting these two terms was deleted for adding too little in too much space). Dreze & Sen wrote:
To illustrate, consider the recent introduction, in many Indian states, of schemes of cash incentives to curb sex-selective abortion. The schemes typically involve cash rewards for the registered birth of a girl child, and further rewards if the girl is vaccinated, sent to school, and so on, as she gets older. These schemes can undoubtedly tilt economic incentives in favour of girl children. But a cash reward for the birth of a girl could also reinforce people’s tendency to think about family planning in economic terms, and also their perception, in the economic calculus of family planning, that girls are a burden (for which cash rewards are supposed to compensate). Further, cash rewards are likely to affect people’s non-economic motives. For instance, they could reduce the social stigma attached to sex-selective abortion, by making it look like some sort of ‘fair deal’ — no girl, no cash. The fact that the cash incentives are typically lower for a second girl child, and nil for higher-order births, also sends confusing signals. In short, it is not quite clear what sort of message these cash incentives are supposed to convey about the status and value of the girl child, and how they are supposed to affect social attitudes towards sex-selective abortion. As mentioned earlier, the workings of social norms is critically important in this kind of area of values and actions, and it is important to think about the possible effects of cash transfers on social norms and their role, and not just about economic self-interest.
And, yes. I think this is creepy. Because it does send the message that raising a girl is a clear burden to you and your family, and that it’ll only be worth it if the government pays you. It’s not like those girls who aren’t aborted reap much benefit from that extra money, either; there’s Jayachandran & Pande’s recent study on malnutrition and height comparing Indian and African children that shows routine undernourishment of daughters in India. Or you could add Hays’ short riff on infanticide (also from “The Dangerous Sex”):
“Only a few people practiced female infanticide, however: among them the Papuans of the Torres Straits. The Zulu who slaughter an ox as an offering when a boy is born are kinder and merely say, “Why should we kill an ox for a girl? She is merely a weed.”
Yes, these are all distinct cultures from where Ceci et al. analyzed university hiring, but still: it’s worth considering the fact that, world-wide, women are so little valued they don’t even get to eat. Teachers might assume you can’t do math and grade in ways that validate their assumptions. If you ever go to the grocery store, you’ll see magazines featuring only very young (or Photoshopped to be young-looking) women’s faces, contrasted to a range of ages for men. Is it reasonable to think that all those things aren’t still imposing a psychological toll?