Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Petition against Lawrence Summers speaking to UC Regents succeeds--with some backlash

(cross-posted at BlogHer)

Last week, on my personal blog I shared a petition asking the University of California Regents to rescind their invitation to former Harvard president Lawrence Summers to speak. An excerpt from the petition:

The Regents represent the leadership and public face of the University of California. Inviting a keynote speaker who has come to symbolize gender and racial prejudice in academia conveys the wrong message to the University community and to the people of California. It is our fervent hope that the Regents will rescind this invitation and seek advice elsewhere.

Some background

Summers, you may recall, gave a speech in 2005 in which he claimed that men and women differed innately in certain aptitudes, including those for math and science.

At the time of the speech, bloggers were more critical of those who criticized Summers than they were of Summers's remarks. One famous departure from this trend was Michael Bérubé's must-read post, "Women barred from Harvard presidency by 'genetic predisposition,' study finds." Bérubé noted, tongue firmly in cheek,

“Traditionally, presidents of Harvard have been men,” said Harvard geneticist Charles Kinbote, the study’s designer and principal investigator. “Now, after almost 400 years, we know why. To coin a phrase, it’s in the genes.”

According to Kinbote, the presidency of Harvard University requires a unique array of talents and dispositions which, statistically, only a small handful of women possess. “For one thing,” noted Kinbote, “it has long been one of the president’s tasks to deny tenure to promising female scholars-- personally, without stated cause, and after a department, a college, and a battery of external referees has approved her. My study shows that the X chromosome contains material that, in combination with another X chromosome, inhibits a person’s ability to do this.”

Men are also more adept than women at mentally rotating three-dimensional shapes on aptitude tests, Kinbote added. “You’d be surprised how often a university president needs to do this, and at Harvard the pressure is especially intense.” Kinbote estimated that the president of Harvard spends roughly one-quarter of the working day mentally rotating complex, hypothetical three-dimensional shapes, “and that’s not even counting all the time he needs to try to figure out why women aren’t as skilled at abstract mathematical thought.”

The X chromosome also seems to play a role in suppressing the ability to make fatuous remarks in public forums.

Beverly Marshall Saling pointed out that conservatives supported Summers' views, and added:

Now the Seattle Times tells me that conservatives themselves are also vastly underrepresented on our nation's campuses.

I eagerly await President Summers' assertion that this may be due to conservatives' lesser aptitude for advanced academic work.

Yes, the sarcasm was flying fast, but there wasn't, at least on the progressive side, much substantive discussion in the blogosphere. Perhaps progressive bloggers saw Summers's claim as so fatuous that they didn't want to dignify it with a response.

Still, shortly after the Summers speech, blogger Jen Sorenson captured many women's fears that science would indeed, as Summers claimed, prove that women were less intellectually capable than men in many arenas. But she concluded her post not with fear but with a call to action:

We know there are women who shine just as bright as men in the fields of math and science. Why can’t we work on finding ways to encourage other girls and women to pursue these disciplines (girls’ math clubs, for example, that value exploration rather than competition), rather than trying to show that women as a group might be less genetically predisposed to succeed in these areas?

Indeed, scholars of feminist science studies and historians of women in science have been trying to explain these patterns of discrimination for years. However, the work of such scholars is seen, by groups within the academy and outside it seen as marginal and too politicized. As if there is any apolitical scholarship. . .

Back to the present

Last week's petition received 150-300 signatures (depending on who's doing the reporting) from women faculty and others at the University of California, and the Regents selected a different speaker. The rescinded invitation has since generated a small backlash; you can find a representative sample of academics' comments in the discussion on the Chronicle of Higher Education's news blog's announcement of the change of speakers.

Back at my own blog, Inquisitive Observer was kind enough to leave a comment on my post. I thought his or her comments were interesting enough to bring to my readers' attention, both because they illustrate many of the arguments of those with whom I disagree on issues of women and people of color in science and because I wanted to add my own thoughts.

IQ wrote,

I’m curious, can you point me to the evidence which shows equal distributions for men and women concerning “overall IQ, mathematical ability, [and] scientific ability?”

I didn’t think so.

No, but my concern isn't Summers's comments about IQ and measured ability. There certainly are plenty of data to support the assertion that men perform at higher levels than women in certain mathematical and scientific tests.

That's not my quibble. I take bigger issues with Summers's claims as to the causes of those differences. Summers said, for example, of employers looking for leaders in their companies and fields:

They expect a large number of hours in the office, they expect a flexibility of schedules to respond to contingency, they expect a continuity of effort through the life cycle, and they expect-and this is harder to measure-but they expect that the mind is always working on the problems that are in the job, even when the job is not taking place. And it is a fact about our society that that is a level of commitment that a much higher fraction of married men have been historically prepared to make than of married women.

Are married women really choosing in droves not to work? No. Married women are working all the time, in the ways our culture wants them to work: as traditional wives and mothers who do all the housework and much of the childcare. Women certainly are prepared to work long hours, but traditionally men have not been willing to shoulder a fair portion of the childcare and housework, so women, concerned for their children's health and safety, undertake this important and unpaid work. Many women, however, would indeed prefer to have those high-paying jobs in scientific and other prestigious fields. Men in science and academia who marry have far more success than women in these same fields who marry. Studies have shown again and again that there is a marriage benefit for men working in high-prestige fields and a marriage penalty for women in these same fields. Why do you think it has been made illegal in many states to ask about marital and parental status? Exactly because of this discrimination.

Summers does say we may as a society need to start making value judgements as to whether such situations are fair. But he also says the data are incontrovertible: women who attend Harvard Business School drop out of the full-time workforce in large numbers. His implication is that women are innately unable (he says perhaps unwilling, but definitely implies unable) to perform and succeed in such work.

Summers and those who agree with him look at those women and place the agency for their dropping out of the workforce on them. I say we need to take a harder look at workplace culture, whose structures serve as barriers to women's success in many high-prestige fields. Is it fair to merely measure women's "failures" instead of catalog the injustices of the workplace?

Summers also said,

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 variability of a male and a female population.

That list is ridiculous. First of all, while I have benefited all my life from doing well on an IQ test (it landed me into 12 years of enriched gifted classes, which alowed me to get into a terrific college and then into grad school), I hardly think the IQ is a reliable measure of intelligence. Maybe of one kind of intelligence, but even that can be influenced by culture. I mean, by the time I was six years old (the age when I took the test), I already learned from our culture that there were serious differences between boys' and girls' interests--interests that I believe firmly are culturally formed and shaped in terms of class as well as gender. One question, for example, on the IQ test I took at age six included a man carrying a briefcase through what appeared to be some chaparral. I remember saying something about the place of the sun in the sky and the way his shadow fell, but another just as correct answer might have been that he was a businessman walking out in undeveloped semi-arid land Either of these answers might be difficult for children of the inner city to answer because (a) it's not always safe to play out on the streets, so they may not get to spend as much time investigating sun and shadow as I did, (b) their parents spend longer hours working than my schoolteacher parents did, so they didn't get such lessons about sun and shadow reinforced at home, nor did they get to take camping trips, as I did, where we'd practice telling the time of day by the shadows cast by trees and people, and (c) if they're like I was, they had no concept of "businessman" and thus wouldn't necessarily understand the odd context in which the figure was placed. Similarly, if middle-class girls traditionally are encouraged to play inside and middle-class boys outside, boys would perform better on such a question because they're outside observing the comings and goings of the sun and the suit-clad neighbors.

This is but one example. No test is completely impartial, and I think the IQ test is especially at fault. Today, infant and toddler studies are popular. These may be less prone to bias because infants don't have as much cultural conditioning, but drawing conclusions based on tests of undeveloped brains worries me, too.

Let me provide another example from my life, this time from my formal education. My high school physics class consisted of 35 to 40 students, only two of whom were white males. The rest of us were women and/or people of color. (In fact, there were only four white people in the class--two girls, two boys, and all of us from privileged backgrounds.) When we uniformly performed poorly on a test, the instructor threw the exams through the air at us, told us we'd all be sleeping on park benches one day, and locked himself in his lab room. In his mind, our failure to perform well on his exam was innate--we couldn't learn physics now, and (to his mind) we didn't have have the brainpower or proper interest in the subject. Therefore, we would never succeed. Of course it wasn't his fault that none of us scored above a C-. When my father, also a teacher, called the physics teacher to ask about his behavior, the Mr. Physics told my father that I should be glad I was in his 6th-period class instead of his 7th-period class because that class--also (I know because I had friends in it) a class comprising largely students of color--was "braindead." Nice.

This behavior was reinforced at the school's Open House, when Mr. Physics ignored me and my parents in favor of talking at length with parents of white boys who were doing well in his class.

My point is that there are structural problems that keep women and people of color from learning science. This is but one example from my not-very-science-filled life. I'm sure my many readers who are women of science would be happy to share many more examples with you from their own lives.

I had similar experiences in math class, though not as egregious. Math was to be taught one way and one way only--largely abstractly, sans context. And so I failed math in high school. But when I took a similar math class in college, taught by a female professor to a largely female class, almost every problem was contextualized, and those of us who in the past failed math found ourselves not only succeeding at math but excited about it. My experiences in high school had convinced me I was, for all intents and purposes, innumerate. But I learned otherwise in college science and math courses that focused on concrete rather than abstract cases. My point is that the way that science and math are taught in our schools is not advantageous for a large percentage of learners, many of whom are otherwise high-achieving young women who decide to study, say, literature (as I did), even though jobs in those fields are not as prestigious or remunerative.

Back to IQ's comment:

The point Mr. Summers was making dealt with distribution and standard deviation. On these points, which seem to be the basis for your objection, the data support his conclusions. As I hope you’re well aware, average IQ tends to be about the same between men and women, but men’s scores tend to be more dispersed, with a larger proportion being at both the higher and lower ends of the distribution (the tails), i.e. there is, in fact, “relatively clear evidence” that men and women differ for attributes such as “overall IQ, mathematical ability, [and] scientific ability.”

If you read the entire speech he gave, and if you have any understanding of mathematics, statistics, and science, then it’s difficult to make a strong case that what he said is worthy of such harsh criticism.

But even as Summers acknowledges the possibility that culture influences people's relative success in prestigious disciplines, there's no real accounting for culture in Summers's arguments. For example, if women are increasingly LESS represented in computer science (a trend the NSF has noted over the past decade), then does that mean women are biologically becoming less capable of doing computer science? I think not. There's something in the culture of computer science that makes it unattractive.

My dissertation concerned women scientists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These women worked at a time when people--mostly men--were pointing out that women were intellectually and physically unsuited for such task--and these "scientists" used women's lack of participation in the sciences as evidence of their lack of fitness.

I see Summers falling into the same tradition of dismissing the lack of participation by women and people of color in [insert name of field here] as biologically based, when in fact time has shown again and again that if given the resources and opportunities to learn and succeed, women and people of color do learn and do become successful.

BTW, if you want to see a very clear well-researched, historical, institutional example of how women have been marginalized within the sciences, read Maresi Nerad's excellent book The Academic Kitchen about the entrance of women students and faculty into Berkeley.

IQ again:

I’m not saying he is correct in all his arguments, but the statements he makes are nuanced and well thought out, and he was open to quality debate on the matter.

But he wasn't engaging in debate. He was giving a speech. It's a different context--and Summers is apparently blind to contexts, or he wouldn't have attempted to make such remarks at a conference about diversity in science and engineering.

We can summarize Summers's argument with this quote from his address:

[T]here are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination.

In my experience--both as as a historian of women and science in the U.S., and a woman interested in science who was discouraged repeatedly from pursuing science--Summers has this formula completely backward.

Recent debates in the blogosphere: Are we talking about what matters most to women?

There's been lively discussion beyond the Chronicle blog. My searches, however, have turned up relatively little commentary by women bloggers--it's mostly men who are leveling charges against UC Davis (full disclosure: my employer and the university where I earned my Ph.D.) of being concerned with, in the expressions of many male bloggers, race and gender and nothing else. Of course, that's ridiculous--as someone who works at UC Davis, I can assure you that the concern for race and gender is quite low if you consider the amount of money spent at the university on women's programs versus programs in the sciences.

Still, there are apparently women who are willing to write about the controversy. Cassandra is disappointed with the petition:

UC Davis has chosen to send a strong message about its priorities; indeed, it has chosen to send a strong message about what the University of California at Davis is "about": preventing a preferred set of cultural principles from being challenged by the 'wrong sort' of academic inquiry.

I can definitely see where arguments like Cassandra's come from, and I do wince at the implication that academic debate has been quenched because that's the last thing I want to see. If anything, the Regents' change of speaker has prompted some lively academic debate.

In addition, none of the editorials I saw railing against Summers' ouster from the podium at Regents' dinner mentioned the larger issues plaguing women faculty at the University of California. The patterns have been so bad that the state Senate has for several years held hearings on the university's hiring patterns. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend one of these hearings. A report from summarizes the committee's findings:

The audit demonstrated that the University of California had utterly failed to hire women into tenured and tenure-track positions in proportion to their availability in the relevant labor pools.

My point is this: We need less to be talking about whether or not Lawrence Summers experienced censorship by a liberal faction of women academics and more about why there are so few tenure-track women academics at the University of California.

Even more importantly, we need to ask why it matters that there are fewer women in the academic sciences. (As usual, feminist scientist and blogger Zuska has a good explanation.)

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