Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Innate differences and sexism

There's been much uproar (and some praise) over Larry Summers (president of Harvard, former Secretary of Treasury under Clinton) recently saying that innate differences between men and women could help explain why women don't do as well in science.

One of the interesting things about this debate is that whether or not men and women have innate differences in math/science-relevant skills, this whole issue is almost completely irrelevant to the issue that actually matters, namely discrimination against women in science and academia.

This sounds counterintuitive. After all, if men really were better at science than women, it would seem to be okay if there were more male scientists than female scientists, at least if we take a strict meritocratic view.

But, almost no one is arguing that innate differences account for all of the gender gap in the ranks of scientists overall, tenured faculty, or whatever. Meanwhile, it is quite clear to anyone who even briefly considers the matter that discrimination is presently a real problem. Not just overt discrimination (which hopefully is pretty rare these days). There is also covert discrimination, such as elementary school teachers unconsciously responding more positively if a boy expressses interest in math than if a girl does the same; unconscious biases among those who judge scientists-in-training and those who hire new scientists and professors; subtle forms of sociability like the guys in the department hanging around chatting about football. There is also a subtle institutional discrimination inherent in the career structure of science: science forces people to prove themselves in their field by working extremely hard between age 25-35 - graduate school, postdoctoral fellowships, assistant professorship - which just so happens to be the age range when many women want to have kids and can't spend 100 hours/week in the lab. This is not something inherent to the pursuit of knowledge or about quantitative skills: this is about injust social institutions that really do block lots of fantastic scientists from advancing.

So long as these forms of discrimination exist, it will remain irrelevant whether men or women have differing scientific abilities, because a nonzero fraction of the gender gap will be due to discrimination and not to actual ability. Even if in the perfectly meritocratic world there were 5% more male physicists than female physicists, that would still be far better than the current sad state of affairs.

Update, 19 Jan: The Gene Expression post that I linked to, which praised Summers' comments, has a reply to my post. Razib critiqued my pointing out that even ordinary social interactions cause covert discrimination, by saying, "what are you going to do, stop guys from hanging out together in the lab?" (EW in comments below makes a similar point.) As I said in comments over there, I think this criticism is somewhat misplaced. Obviously I would not be in favor of regulating workplace speech, beyond egregious things like sexual harassment. The fact of women and men talking about different things is just a symptom of the underlying cause, i.e. majorities are self-perpetuating. Sometimes, just being aware of unconscious bias can help dispel it. It's also possible that groups like "University of X Women in Physics Society" or what have you can provide some social support. We should recognize forms of covert discrimination even if it's hard to address them directly - maybe there are still ways to address them indirectly (as would be fitting for covert discrimination, after all). Isn't ending both covert and overt discrimination a worthy goal in a liberal society, even if it is a difficult and complicated goal?

Update, 2: Matthew Yglesias expresses similar thoughts here.

31 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is also covert discrimination, such as elementary school teachers unconsciously responding more positively if a boy expressses interest in math than if a girl does the sameI think that teachers might be just happy that boys get interested in ANYTHING intellectual these days.

subtle forms of sociability like the guys in the department hanging around chatting about football. And your point is? Me and my female colleagues also like to chat for ourselves. Should be conversations in same-sex groups officially forbidden at work?

There is also a subtle institutional discrimination inherent in the career structure of science: science forces people to prove themselves in their field by working extremely hard between age 25-35That's how the life is. Female scientists can still postpone their first child after 30. I did. There's still enough time to have two kids before 40, for those who are able to manage. Early mothering (at least the first 2-3 years) and science are both full-time jobs, can't be done at once. It's necessary to set priorities and stop whining about discrimination. Contrary to the popular myth one can't have it all.  

Posted by EW

1/18/2005 06:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Had I been present for the Summers speech, I would have been mad as hell. Such a statement without evidence should be disregarded. His anecdote about his daughter and her trucks is irrelevant (anecdotal evidence being no evidence at all).

There is undeniably a gender gap in science, but not in all branches of science. My first year as an undergraduate biochemist, I was told that biochemistry and physiology were two sciences in which women performed as well as or better than men. I did not encounter many women physicists or mathematicians in college, but women seemed very well represented in chemistry. In my biochemistry lectures and labs (~85 students in my year), it seemed to me the gender breakdown was about 50/50.

I think the paucity of women in the physical sciences is a real phenomenon that should be investigated, but until then, it is upsetting to hear the suggestion that innate inferiority is to blame.

- graefix
 

Posted by graefix

1/18/2005 11:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

EW: on your first point, I'm assuming that's a joke. On your second point, see my update above. On your third point, it doesn't seem appropriate to just say "life isn't fair, quit whining." We have managed to fix a lot of injustices in the last few hundred years. Why can't we fix a few more? I mean - you beat the odds; that's fantastic, and good for you! But why should the obstacles be so high?

graefix: Spot on. These days, women are about equally represented in biology, and overrepresented in psychology, at the undergraduate and even PhD level. The trouble is the "leaky pipeline": because the early years of a scientific career are extremely hard, and impose special burdens on women who want to raise kids, women quit science at a disproportionate rate. Not to mention unconscious biases in the tenure committee, etc.

Still, let's not be too hard on Summers - some people are saying that his comments have been blown out of proportion by the media frenzy, for example, here. Apparently in his speech he was half-speculating and saying this is an important area of research, not making definitive claims that "women are innately less good at science and math" or whatever. (Though the anecdote about the trucks was truly bizarre. One can only hope that he was just trying to lighten the mood.) My post was an attempt to reach some sort of compromise on this issue by pointing out that the empirical facts about innate sex difference are almost certainly irrelevant to whether or not discrimination currently exists and is bad (it does and it is). 

Posted by Andrew

1/19/2005 12:48:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

whether or not men and women have innate differences in math/science-relevant skills, this whole issue is almost completely irrelevant to the issue that actually matters, namely discrimination against women in science and academia.Fascinating. Would we be having this discussion even if 75% of the women in the math department at Harvard were women, or is the belief that women are "under-represented" taken as evidence that discrimination is a problem?

But how can we know that women are underrepresented without some sense of what the "right" proportion of women ought to be? And mightn't that have a little bit to do with the possibility that biology tilts towards one gender or the other?

Otherwise, you are left simply reciting obstacles to women. Gee, the teacher didn't call on her in class. On the other hand, the captain of the football team probably never shoved her in a locker and called her a geek. Go figure.

Pretty impressive effort by the reality based community. 

Posted by Tom Maguire

1/21/2005 01:26:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom: I'm not sure if you have understood the point of my post. I am deliberately trying to move the debate away from questions of overrepresentation/underrepresentation, to focus on the actual question of discrimination. And I think it is pretty clear that even if you had no idea that there are fewer women than men in science and math, you would notice that women are systematically discriminated against in subtle ways.

I don't ignore underrepresentation entirely, of course: rather, I treat it as a clue that suggests, "hm, that's odd, I wonder if there is something that causes this underrepresentation." One explanation among many is that there is discrimination against women. And this is what I am centrally concerned with here: discrimination is wrong, pure and simple. If women would still be underrepresented even in a pure meritocracy, fine. (Well, maybe fine, pending discussion of whether meritocracy = good.) But we are clearly not in the position of a pure meritocracy.

What is wrong, may I ask, with "reciting obstacles to women?" You make it sound as if these obstacles are trivial and meaningless, when in fact, they are real and significant. Even minor obstacles add up to major obstacles when presented repeatedly throughout one's life. 

Posted by Andrew

1/21/2005 01:53:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have no doubt that discrimination against women ocurrs, is a problem, and should be addressed.

I have serious doubts about whether a woman "scientist" should walk out of a conference when another academic suggests that maybe new findings in biology are one of many factors to think about.

[Insert generic diatribe about "chilling effect" here.] 

Posted by Tom Maguire

1/21/2005 04:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom,

No need to get snide with quotation marks. Scientists are people too, and sometimes people get really pissed off.

I'm sure this has been mentioned before (on other blogs, certainly, if not here), but we should take evidence of innate differences between the sexes with a grain of salt, as these stereotypes can be self-reinforcing. Have any of us actually read the study or studies we keep referring to? What if they're shitty studies? What if they're very good studies, but with poorly drawn conclusions? Are they reproducible? I think we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Andrew, you are right that sexism does occur. Here is what I found to be the most striking line in The Double Helix when I read it in high school: "The thought could not be avoided that the best home for a feminist was in another person's lab."

(Watson continues, "...Clearly, Rosy had to go or be put in her place.")

- graefix
 

Posted by graefix

1/21/2005 10:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom, your use of scare quotes around the word scientist when referring to Nancy Hopkins is exactly the kind of thing that makes it so obvious to anyone who pays attention that there is discrimination against women in science. Regardless of her political views, she's an accomplished biologist who has made a lot of progress studying the development of zebrafish, and improved techniques of forward genetic screening to make it easier to locate the mutation in a mutant of interest. Don't trivialize that just because you disagree with her reaction to Summers' speech.

It's pretty clear to me that Nancy Hopkins wasn't protesting the idea that some of the gender gap may be due to statistical innate differences between men and women. Rather, she was offended because it seemed to her that Summers was discounting the role of discrimination and insinuating that because there might be innate differences, we need not care about discrimination. Summers has since apologized for the miscommunication, and before you start worrying people with "chilling effects," the study of sex differences is a well-established field in psychology. Seriously - it is not in any danger. (Notice, for example, how sociobiology and evolutionary psychology continued to flourish despite the invective against those fields that continues even to this day.) 

Posted by Andrew

1/22/2005 11:52:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

graefix, thanks for your comment. Jim Watson is pretty notorious for being racist, sexist, and an all around pig. Of course, he also figured out the structure of DNA. No one's perfect...

To be honest, I am fairly convinced by the sex differences studies. I recently read about a study (PDF) where more male newborns (on the first day of life) looked at mechanical objects while more female newborns looked at faces. The problem is, of course, in translating these lab findings to any real-world relevance, especially for something as complex as "scientific ability."

I've tried to get around that whole sticky issue by bracketing the debate over sex differences, and focusing on what really matters in a liberal society - discrimination. 

Posted by Andrew

1/22/2005 12:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

>>"I've tried to get around that whole sticky issue by bracketing the debate over sex differences, and focusing on what really matters in a liberal society - discrimination."

Thanks for keeping your eye on the ball.

I'm willing to accept that Jim Watson was a product of his time, and I believe he even apologized years later for some of the comments he made about Rosalind Franklin.

Thank you for the link to the study on infant stimulus preferences. Fascinating stuff.

g
 

Posted by graefix

1/24/2005 06:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There will always be discrimination. As long as man continues to be man. As long as the world exists in its present state. The truth is that the essential nature of man is sinful, not good (sorry, Anne Frank). No amount of social engineering or education can change that fact. The "culture of fear" at Harvard in the wake of the president's comments is like a temporary riff in the space-time continuum where fantasy evaporates and people can attain a glimpse of actual reality. 

Posted by David Holland

2/17/2005 01:37:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since when do elite math and science students/faculty sit around and talk about football? Nevertheless, there are certainly sex differences in what elite math and sciences students do talk about, though this sex effect may be trivially small. 

Posted by jwalker

2/19/2005 02:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Um, actually elite math and science students/faculty do talk about football (or insert other non-science related topic here) - you can't talk shop 24/7! Anyway, that was just an example, and these kinds of sociability are indeed subtle, so it's hard to tell whether the effect is small or large. But it's still something to keep in mind.

David Holland: man may be sinful (I might dispute that) but who can dispute that the human condition has improved a great deal in the last few hundred years? This is not because human nature has improved, but because the social structures that interact with human nature and influence how we behave have changed dramatically. Think democracy, science, capitalism, liberalism, etc. Even in terms of women's rights, anyone will tell you that they have improved a lot over the last 100 years - even though we still have a long way to go! Why should we expect that we cannot still improve society and reduce, if not eliminate, discrimination? 

Posted by Andrew

2/19/2005 04:44:00 PM  
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