Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Larry Summers Redox

(I know this post is total flame-bait. In life as in science, it's sometimes useful to take a position which may not be correct and see where it leads. I'm happy to be convinced that I'm wrong.)

I've recently read Larry Summers' original comments and a reasonable rebuttal to them. Here's what I think: Larry Summers was the wrong person at the wrong place and the wrong time to make those comments. Because of his position and the context in which they were made, they carried political implications which were probably unintended and certainly undesirable. The speech itself, though, is hardly the piece of controversial rhetoric it's been made out to be.

Summers suggests three possible causes for the lack of women at the top of academia: on average, women are less willing than men to make the insane sacrifices necessary to attain this sort of success; due to some feature of biology, women tend to experience less variance in most traits and so there are fewer women than men at the very tip of the bell curve who have the capability to reach the very top of the academic ladder; and women are indeed subject to outright discrimination in the hiring and advancement process.

Admittedly, he does downplay the role of socialization in the preferences of women for science, but it is also true that the gender imbalance is not so great at the undergraduate level, and becomes increasingly exaggerated as one moves up the academic hierarchy, so the problem would seem to be more than just one of women being steered away from science and engineering in general (although this may certainly play a part). The second point is presumably the most controversial. I'm not aware of the evidence showing greater variance in men as compared to women in features such as "height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability," but the first four at least would be fairly easy to assess. If such a disparity in variance exists in these feature (regardless of the "meaning" of IQ), it is reasonable to assert that the difference in variance extends to the features necessary for academic success in the sciences. I presume the third point is uncontested.

The rebuttal focuses almost exclusively on the effect of socialization on women's desire to make the time commitment necessary to achieve the highest levels of academic success in the sciences. In response to the rebuttal, I am sure that women face significant cultural obstacles to making the sort of time commitment necessary to reach the top of a discipline. But you know what? Men face rather similar obstacles. They're not exactly the same, and I have no desire to get into a pissing match regarding who has it harder, but really, it's very difficult to put in anything approaching 80 hours a week regardless of who you are. Unless you are able to function on 4 or 5 hours of sleep a night, an 80 hour work week (especially if your commute is more than 5 minutes) means doing almost nothing other than working, eating, washing your clothing, and going to the grocery store for frozen dinners. I did it for a while. It's no fun.

The author of the rebuttal writes: "A woman is going to find it much harder than a man to find a spouse who is ready to tolerate her 80-hour work weeks and obsessive relationship to her job." Speaking from experience, finding a date, let along actually going out on that date, while working 80-hour weeks is a trying proposition regardless of gender. We're not talking about a low-maintenance relationship here; we're talking about a no-maintenance relationship, verging on no relationship in the first place. The author also makes reference to working mothers. I would argue that caring for a child while attempting to work 80 hour weeks is suicidal. If you have a spouse who wants to take on the full burden of raising the child I suppose it could work, but the kid is going to end up addressing you by your first name rather than "mom" or "dad."

My favorite claim is by far the following: "The phenomenon of the girl math geek who frets that she can't get any dates continues to be a stereotype for a reason." Clearly, the author believes that either (a) boy math geeks don't have any trouble finding dates or (b) boy math geeks don't "fret" about dates because they are asexual beings of pure reason. Almost by definition, geeks don't get dates, regardless of sex.

I'm not sure if I've worked up to a cohesive conclusion as opposed to just ranting, but I suppose my point is that if fewer women than men (on average) are willing to choose to work 80 hours a week to reach the pinnacle of academia, I don't think this is a manifestation of oppressive cultural forces or some dysfunction in the way women are raised. Rather, it just means that women are, on average, saner than men. I can't find the quote now, but at one point Caltech graduate students were agitating for a less pressured environment and more "balance" in their lives. The response of David Baltimore, the then-president of Caltech and still-Nobel prize winning scientist, was something along the lines of: "Balance? What are you talking about? You're graduate students. Get back to lab." Everyone deserves a little balance in their lives. Insistence upon it need not be chalked up to discrimination.

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