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.