Science

Female faculty at Harvard, one year later.

Recall, if you will, the brouhaha centered on Larry Summers, previously discussed here. Recap: Larry was president of Harvard University. He was asked to give a speech speculating on the reasons for a lack of women in the upper echelons of academia, particularly the sciences. He mentioned one theory, that women don’t generally have the same capabilities as men when it comes to science. Outrage ensued. One year later, he resigned.

Before he resigned, though, he set up the Office of Faculty Development and Diversity to further investigate the problem and hopefully address it. One year has passed since then, and the Office has just sent out the bureaucratic equivalent of your family’s Christmas newsletter — what has been accomplished, what remains to be done in the short and long term, and how your cousin feels about his recent promotion to assistant manager of Cinnabon.

As it is only year one, the “what has been accomplished” list is a bit smaller in scope than the “what remains to be done” list. Some highlights from the former are things like “Supported a lecture series designed by graduate student women in the sciences to expose the entire graduate student population to issues around women in science.”

One of the biggest focuses appears to have been on facilitating women who want to have families: “Developed University-wide minimum standards for new faculty maternity/parental leave guidelines, which provide paid time off and teaching relief for birth and adoptive parents.” The University also increased funding to childcare centers Speaking to a number of women in academia, I have heard more than once the concern that a lot of women leave for private industry because it is much easier to have a life and a family there.

The Office plans to increase this focus on families by examining other options in the near future, like part-time work for faculty with major familial responsibilities and “childbirth accomodations” for post-doc women.

After one year, they seem to have worked to lay a decent groundwork of investigation and initial measures, but with women still representing only a fraction of the total faculty (8% of tenured profs in the natural sciences, for instance), it remains to be seen whether or not the effort is enough.

Here’s where you can see the full report.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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17 Comments

  1. So tell us what you think of Summers' situation? I for one, think it was a screw job that he's been hounded out of his job for essentially answering a question he was asked. Was the answer he gave right? Who knows? But what's interesting is that the answer *isn't* demonstrably wrong. And you'd have a hard time convincing me that there isn't some evidence to support it.

    Does that mean that some women aren't going to be our very best scientists? Of course not, my wife is smarter than me in all manner of analytic thinking (and I'm no slouch); Marie Curie's husband is the luckiest Nobel Lauriet in history since I think we all know who delivered the goods on that award.

    But aren't we being academically dishonest by pretending that we believe that men and women are *exactly* equal in *every* area of thinking? Aren't we making it harder to make substantive progress in our understanding of gender roles in mental accuity by denying jobs to people who mention the possiblity of the brain being affected by the same gender influences that are so obvious (thank God) in the rest of our morphology? I think the answer to that is 'yes'.

    msd

  2. Ahhh yes, the poor professor. He made the cardinal mistake of stating a scientific theory based on at least some data gathering and plenty of observable evidence (ie. the existing lack of women in hard science) and did not take into account this societies pathetic need for "Political Correctness". Poor bastard is too smart for his own good.

    The PC movement of today – while couched in pleasant sound bytes to make it seem like a "good thing" is nothing more than the supression of unpopular ideas – not much different from the policies of the Catholic church that helped create and sustain the dark ages. Well, OK, we haven't had any inquisitions or burnings at the stake (yet.) but the prinicipal is the same.

    I can guarantee you that even if the research is done and finds a mountain of evidence supporting Summer's position that it will still be instant academic death to actually speak it out loud. To imply in any way that the female of the species may not be as inherently capable as the male in some areas is unacceptable – even if it may be true. Anything found to the contrary (and there are plenty things women are naturally much better at than men!) is perfectly acceptable though. Funny thing is that we can see everyday that there are major differences between the sexes in almost every area but we should now ignore these. One easy case in point is physical strength – while a woman can generally work out and do weight training to equal the upper body strentgh of most males the simple fact is that most men had to do nothing in the way of working out to equal that same level of strength. That's not saying women are weak – far from it. It only speaks to the biolgical realities of our evolution. Women tend to be better able to survive without food and water for extended periods than men – quite probably due to the proportionately lower mass of muscle tissues which require alot of water and food to keep runing. Neither of these things make one sex "weaker" than the other – it makes them complementing parts of an excellent survival mechanism. In this modern age people have completely forgotten that for the vast majority of human history we have been nomadic hunter/gatherers that lived in small groups in a very hostile world. It was neccesary for the sexes to have drastically different strengths in order for the species to survive and thrive. The male evloved to hunt and fight. The female evolved to protect and nurture offspring. Both of these require highly specialized skill sets and biological specializations. While many skills can be learned by the opposite sex some cannot – child bearing, breast feeding, extra heavy muscles, and endurance are all skills by biological specialization.

    It should also be pointed that while I can learn to be a more nurturing father to my son the actions I have to conciously put effort into (comforting, being sure to say the right tings to make the child feel better, etc.) come completey naturally to my wife. I will NEVER be as good at those things as she is – I, like the entire male of my species, am simply not prewired for those skills. That's not to say that I am bad at it – I like to think I do a good job! – but my wife is better. I can comfort my son when he's crying but it takes me longer than it does her – what is often abvious to her as the issue sometimes takes me a minute or three to figure out. Evolutionarilly she is wired to ensure that our child is happy and healthy – good traits for survival.

    To think that there are no cognitive differences between the sexes is just plain silly – we are evolved to do different jobs in the survival strategy and those jobs require different ways of thinking – sometimes drastically different.

    Apologies for the undoubted plethora of typos in the above – no time to proof read!

  3. Steven Pinker has some interesting investigations into this. My understanding of reading some of his work. (eg How the Mind Works, Blank Slate etc.) is that men and women are wired differently. In general men have better spacial abilities and in general women have better verbal skills. That said, there is a lot of variance. Meaning there are plenty of women who have better spacial skills than a large segment of men and visa versa.

    I agree with you Stark. No offence to either men or women.

  4. "The male evloved [sic] to hunt and fight. The female evolved to protect and nurture offspring. "

    The thing is, neither of these things have anything whatsoever to do with being a capable researcher in the sciences.

  5. Circe – That's a fairly broad statement to make, that none of the characteristics that would evolve in a species based on those two roles would impact their ability to be a capable researcher in the sciences. It would seem to presuppose knowledge of all inherited genetic traits based on these roles, which we don't have. Also, it is one way in which men and women likely evolved differently, but that doesn't mean it is the only factor.

    I am skeptical about how great an influence biology/genetics really has in this area. I suspect that there is a healthy dose of societal influence and historic discrimination that plays a role. But demonizing people who talk about research into these areas, or the researchers themselves (or their research) isn't productive. We perceive this as a problem in our society, and we should embrace any research that broadens our understanding of the problem, even if we don't like the implications. If our goal is to fix the problem, we have to understand it first.

  6. The role of scientific researcher is vastly different from both a hunter/fighter and a nurturer. So discussing how men are at a biological advantage to be the former and women are at a biological advantage to be the latter is irrelevant. In both cases, a great deal of adaptation must take place for a person to shed their "evolutionary destiny" in favor of being a scientist.

    Very few people are denying that women and men are different. But suggesting that biological differences are what accounts for the huge gender disparities in the sciences takes away from the reality that the system is set up in a very particular way. Academic research in general, and the tenure process in particular, will suck the life out of you. Especially when you compare it to the amount of schooling the scientist when through to get there and the pay levels. And it is unpleasant for everyone, but it REALLY sucks for a woman who wishes to raise a family. Having a system like this not only discourages women from following through to the upper levels, but also a lot of intelligent people in general who realize that they (and their intellect) would be better served in a career that didn't necessitate that you give up all semblance of an outside life.

    Philip Greenspun had an interesting take on this.

  7. I fail to see how this "…hunter/fighter and a nurturer" is completely irrelevant to this "…but it REALLY sucks for a woman who wishes to raise a family." Because the only reason it REALLY sucks for a woman is a biological one. The social reasons all invariably trace back to biological ones.

  8. you know, the last time I (female faculty member in science) spoke on this topic, it derailed the whole discussion. So I'll just say:

    Making the environment better for women will make the environment better for men, too. Lots of men would like to be involved in their children's lives. lots of men would like to *not* work 70 hour weeks.

    The academic environment is a hold over from a very, very old system. it doesn't work and needs an over haul–for everyone's benefit.

    Bug, who think Summers got exactly what he deserved.

  9. bug_girl….

    Absolutely Right! Better access and conditions for women equals better for everyone – could not agree more. I'd love to be able to work less and see my son more – he's 14 months old and changing hugely everyday… and I get to see him for maybe 3-4 waking hours a day during the week – I feel like I'm missing so much. I'm also certain it's part of the reasoni'm not as good at the nurture stuff as my wife (another part might be the fact that i refer to it as "the nurture stuff").

    Circe –

    While the example I chose was simplistic it was meant to demonstrate the differences in the mind as well as the body. A hunter uses the brain in a much different manner and for different tasks than a nurturer does. Take for example the fact that – purley by the numbers – males tend to do better at trigonometry than females. Females tend to do better at english. If you think about this in an evolutionary context it makes some sense. Trigonometry is the mathematics put to paper that the human mind does automatically when throwing a rock (or spear) or any number of other calcuation involving moving objects and trajectories (many sports). Men have been having to rely on that portion of their brain to survive for most of the last 50,000 years – the best hunters had natural abilities in this area and therefore provided more food to their families and thus survived to pass on their traits to the next generation. Women needed better general communication skills in order to keep a reign on the family unit and keep everything together and working smoothly and safely (not mention keeping us males from killing each other every chance we got!) – therefore better language skills were selected for.

    Yes, some of it is absolutely societal – but it holds true for asians (as well as everybody else) where the societal pressures to do well in math are huge – both for males and females.

    What's more is that there is NOTHING wrong with that. It certainly doesn't say that women cannot be great scientists. To the contrary – they are probably far better than their male peers at accuratley expressing their ideas. Biodiversity being what it is you cannopt judge any individaul by the fact that have YY or XY chromosomes. There will be and are amazingly gifted female mathematicians. Statiscally speaking it appears likely that more males than femalse will operate at the genius level in some of these areas – that's it. All this says it that part of the lack of women in higher science academia (and indeed science in general) may have to do with a natural tendency toward skills in other areas and thus a likleyhood that they will choose to do things in those areas. After all, we all like to do things we're good at that come more easily to us. That's just human nature.

    Please don't think that I am in any way saying that women should not be in science. Far from it. I think that EVERYBODY should be encouraged to get more involved in science (that's a big part of why I hang around skeptical forums!). It is the only way we stand of chance of surving as a species. What I object to is the idea that we can and even should suppress science because it makes some people uncomfortable or offends them. Science is, in it's most basic form, the discovery of truth. Truth is not friendly, it is rarely cuddly and it spares no thought for peoples feelings. It is waht it is. As science should be as well. If you suppress any science at all you open the door to suppress more of it… and before you know it you've got people presenting myth as fact because the idea of a universe based solely on a set of understandable and predictable natural laws frightens the heck out of them.

    Ah well… I've gone and been long winded again… seems to be a habit!

  10. The women and men who make it through graduate school, and through one or more postdoc positions into a tenure track faculty position have the analytical skills necessary to carry through. It's not that incapable women are being placed at universities because women suck as researchers. We are already dealing with the cream of the crop here.

    But way more of the women drop out before reaching tenure. Working to make conditions at universities more livable would reduce that. Drawing attention to the idea that, "well, maybe women are just different and they don't belong in universities" detracts from the idea that conditions for researchers need to be more livable.

    See there is one thing, real science that suggests women and men are different. I have no problem with that, and the discussion of that. But putting forth the idea that those differences are what explains the lack of women in academic research is offensive.

    And btw, science is not truth, or the discovery of truth. It is a set of models that serve as an approximation of reality, but will never quite get there. That's why it is constantly changing and being revised in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. If we ever reached truth, all that revision would stop. No more search, no more science.

  11. “But way more of the women drop out before reaching tenure. Working to make conditions at universities more livable would reduce that. Drawing attention to the idea that, “well, maybe women are just different and they don’t belong in universities” detracts from the idea that conditions for researchers need to be more livable.”

    I agree with this, as using the above statement can easily become a red herring. But I think only when used to say that conditions don’t need to change. There is nothing wrong with stating that physiological or neurological differences are what have created the lack of women in higher academia. It’s much easier to solve a problem when you can identify the cause.

    From his speech it seems very much like he agrees with you, he pointed out 3 possible reasons for the lack of women, in the order he thought most important they were bad working conditions (he mentions the family issues), differences in ability, and social and discriminatory problems in the field. Below is a good quote from Mr. Summers.

    “So my sense is that the unfortunate truth-I would far prefer to believe something else, because it would be easier to address what is surely a serious social problem if something else were true-is that the combination of the high-powered job hypothesis and the differing variances probably explains a fair amount of this problem.”

    If anyone here hasn’t read the speech, I highly recommend that you do, IMHO its how scientific ideas should be addressed to the public. You can find it here http://www.president.harvard.edu/speeches/2005/nb

    From the speech its plain to see that this guy wasn’t using the women are different argument as a red herring to explain away the problems, but instead was honestly trying to start a discussion on what is an obvious problem and asking how can we fix it.

  12. Hmmm… I will have to disagree with you about science being simply a model to approximate reality – after all, what is reality if not absolute truth. I don't mean the vague idea of truth as in "I'm telling the truth" I mean truth as in 1st law of thermodynamics. In fact I don't think science can be termed a model at all – a framework for dicsovering the likely cause and effect of natural phenomenon yes, but model no. As for the never quite getting there part… that IS what we strive for is it not? A complete understanding of the universe in all it's astonishing variety and grandeness? Last I looked that was the idea behind the search for the grand unified theory… OK, so maybe a simple to remember and catchy equation like E=MC^2 won't come out of it… but hey, you never know.

    As for "putting forth the idea that those differences are what explains the lack of women in academic research is offensive." well… sorry. It most certainly is not the only reason – nor even the main reason but the data so far does seem to support that it is a part of the reason. If you have less of any particular subgroup naturally adept at a certain skillset it means you will see proportionately less of that subgroup in the overall picture. I agree wholeheartedly that the largest contributor to the probelm in acadamia is, by a landslide, the "old boys club" mentality – the current tenure system is a joke. While it should ideally be a system based on the merits and abilities of the academicians invloved it is in fact a popularity contest… lamentably some things never change from High School it seems.

    I guess the difference here is that I don't think offending someone is a reason not to explore or present evidence based on science. On the same token neither should science be used to cover over very real societal issues. It's a hard line to walk and requires people to actually think before they react but I thought that's what a skeptical thinking (and by proxy, science) was all about. Use your ability to reason to rule out reactions and decisions based purely on instinct and instead weigh the facts and then form a justifiable, defensible, and preferrably falsifiable position. As has been said in this thread several times – you have to identify the problem before you can work on a solution to it. Knowing part of the problem is often times actually worse than not knowing it at all since we then tend to come up with an incorrect solution that only serves to make the problem worse in the long run. Sometimes to completely define the problem we have to ask hard, awkward, socially unacceptable questions. I shudder in thought of the day when we stop asking those hard questions.

    Respectfully, Stark

  13. "Biodiversity being what it is you cannopt judge any individaul by the fact that have YY or XY chromosomes."

    Apparently, the Y chromosome does not have a full complement of genes that the X chromosome contains (hence its Y-shape). In other words, an individual must have at least one X chromosome to survive.

    There do exist men with XYY (very tall, thin guys, often experiencing anti-social behavior and learning difficulties or a lower IQ), and even some with XXY (Klinefelter syndrome, which apparently has no known effects). Women can have XXX (which apparently has very few effects, apart from occasional language problems like dyslexia).

  14. So…

    I have a problem with the statement:

    "real science that suggests women and men are different. I have no problem with that, and the discussion of that. But putting forth the idea that those differences are what explains the lack of women in academic research is offensive."

    This is essentially saying that a theory based on scientific evidence can be offensive, which I think is just not reasonable. There was nothing inherently offensive in his language, ie — no statement like "well women are morons, hence we don't allow them into Harvard." He looked at the evidence (women way under-represented in hard science) and came up with a few possible explanations, one of which was that women may, in the aggregate, be less capable of a certain type of thinking that rewards a scientific investigation, and there is evidence that men and women do have neurological differences. This seems like a reasonable statement. You may think it's wrong, and that's fine. But it's a proposal based on logic, and can be proven or disproven and as such it seems like a scientific question.

    Now, we may decide that we are facing a situation here where knowledge may cause an undesirable social condition. If we are worried that conclusions based on testing that theory might lead to discrimination (even if the conclusions are wrong or the tests are badly constructed), we may want to conclude that this is an avenue of science that for larger humanitarian reasons we don't want to explore. I'm also okay with that. I would think it a shame should we have to curtail certain areas of knowledge, but I can accede that there may be cases where more harm can be done.

    But if I'm willing to accept that men and women are different kinds of thinkers (again, in the aggregate), then I think it necessarily follows that avocational paths between the genders will diverge along those lines. Maybe hard science is such an avocation, and maybe it's not, but the idea has scientific merit in that it is testable and not patently absurd. And again, nothing can be reasonable asserted that applies to any individual, as clearly we have plenty of genius female scientists and as that is the case, opportunity should never be curtailed in any way.

    For the record, I think we are likely to find that social factors play a much more important role than biological ones, but that biologic factors may play some small role here. I also hope we can get over our institutional fear of women holding powerful and important roles in all aspects of professional society.

    Eh, so there you have my opinions since you were clammoring for them.

  15. I think that no matter how politically correct you want to be, you shouldn't close your mind to avenues of research that may reveal non politically correct results. And that includes possible gender differences in how the brain works, but also possible "racial" differences in abilities. That said, I'm not advocating that we should immediately start trying to find out how black people are somehow inferior (although that is the stygma such research automatically receives). You can research it, but you shouldn't be looking for one partricular answer, because then your mind is closed once again to any findings that may offer a new perspective.

    As such, you shouldn't start research into gender differences with the goal to find that men are better than women, because that would be just as silly as starting that research with the goal to find nothing at all (i.e. no differences).

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