A modestly prominent, moderately liberal academic blogger has weighed in on the controversy regarding the comments of Harvard president Larry Summers on the sparsity of women in academic science and engineering positions (see this article from Monday's Boston Globe and these earlier posts for the details). Unfortunately, this blogger, Mark A. R. Kleiman, a professor of policy studies at UCLA, who I've been reading for over a year and whose writings I generally respect, has weighed in firmly on the wrong side. Even more repulsive, an argument he proffers could be used to justify male domination of every skilled field of endeavor.
First, here is an excerpt of what Kleiman says about Summers' comments:
My reader says:
1. Summers does or should realize that he is never speaking just as an intellectual or as an economist, and that it is possible (and I mean possible) that his comments were incompatible with his role as President.
2. The content of his remarks seems entirely unobjectionable and probably true.
3. The behavior of those who walked out or condemned him is truly regrettable and I am disappointed that it has not sparked more comment.
I agree with #2 and #3 entirely, and #1 in part. The President of Harvard needs to mind his manners and to make sure that he speaks in ways that are less likely, rather than more likely, to lead to pernicious misinterpretation. But this should be a matter of form, not substance. It should not be inconsistent with the function of a university president to make true statements on important issues.
True statements? Entirely unobjectionable? Let's review what Summers said, based on the Boston Globe article that initially publicized his words:
Summers spoke during a working lunch. He declined to provide a tape or transcript of his remarks, but the description he gave in an interview was generally in keeping with what 10 participants recalled. He said he was synthesizing the scholarship that the organizers had asked him to discuss, and that in his talk he repeated several times: ''I'm going to provoke you."
He offered three possible explanations, in declining order of importance, for the small number of women in high-level positions in science and engineering. The first was the reluctance or inability of women who have children to work 80-hour weeks.
The second point was that fewer girls than boys have top scores on science and math tests in late high school years. ''I said no one really understands why this is, and it's an area of ferment in social science," Summers said in an interview Saturday. ''Research in behavioral genetics is showing that things people previously attributed to socialization weren't" due to socialization after all.
This was the point that most angered some of the listeners, several of whom said Summers said that women do not have the same ''innate ability" or ''natural ability" as men in some fields.
Asked about this, Summers said, ''It's possible I made some reference to innate differences. . . I did say that you have to be careful in attributing things to socialization. . . That's what we would prefer to believe, but these are things that need to be studied."
Summers said cutting-edge research has shown that genetics are more important than previously thought, compared with environment or upbringing. As an example, he mentioned autism, once believed to be a result of parenting but now widely seen to have a genetic basis.
In his talk, according to several participants, Summers also used as an example one of his daughters, who as a child was given two trucks in an effort at gender-neutral parenting. Yet she treated them almost like dolls, naming one of them ''daddy truck," and one ''baby truck."
Summers' third point was about discrimination. Referencing a well-known concept in economics, he said that if discrimination was the main factor limiting the advancement of women in science and engineering, then a school that does not discriminate would gain an advantage by hiring away the top women who were discriminated against elsewhere.
Because that doesn't seem to be a widespread phenomenon, Summers said, ''the real issue is the overall size of the pool, and it's less clear how much the size of the pool was held down by discrimination."
Summers ended his talk by describing some of the efforts Harvard is making to improve its hiring record and help women balance work and family.
''I believe that it's an important part of what I do to encourage frank scientific discussion," he said. ''I would hope and trust that no one could [doubt] that we are absolutely committed to promoting the diversity of the faculty."
So Summers, using only theoretical economic hand-waving, essentially dismisses discrimination completely. His argument, as related here, neglects all the factors that contribute to advancement that are outside the control of the individual and the institution that hired her. Advancement in science requires not just an employer, but collaboration opportunities, published papers, and funded grant proposals. Summers' hypothetical non-discriminatory school could not obtain any advantage by hiring talented women shunned at leading institutions if the women continued to be shunned by the leaders in their field.
Summers then fills the vacuum that his dismissal of discrimination creates by elevating some alleged innate female inferiority. That such sexist arguments can still be put forward by supposedly serious people like Summers, and accepted as "entirely unobjectionable" by other supposedly serious people like Kleiman, shows how far the fight against gender discrimination has yet to go. Someone making similar suggestions that racial disparities might be due to inferiority of certain races would, and should, lose professional respect and likely their job (unless they work for a conservative think tank, of course).
Alas, Kleiman takes his argument further into the depths:
That invidious gender bias and skewed social arrangements exist it would be hard to doubt without deliberately closing one's eyes and ears. But that those problems explain most of the underrepresentation of women among tenured scientists and mathematicians is open to doubt.
Matt [Yglesias, blogger and journalist] misstates the evidence about the relative skills of the two sexes in a subtle but important way. What matters isn't the difference in central tendencies between the two distributions, but rather their dispersion around that central tendency.
For excellent evolutionary reasons, human males display higher variance than human females on many important traits, including measures of mental capacity. That means that they are likely to predominate among the top one hundredth of one percent of almost any cognitive talent, unless women are on average much better endowed in that particular department.
So it wouldn't be surprising to find that women, on average, write better than men do, but that there are more men than women among the handful of the very best writers in the world.
I'll skip over the supreme, albeit typical in academics, arrogance that is evident in Kleiman's implicit assumption that academic positions are reserved for the "top hundredth of one percent." But with this argument, Kleiman appears to excuse male domination of every skilled field into eternity.
Exhibit A in the academic glass ceiling: Larry Summers.
Exhibit B: Mark Kleiman.
Exhibit C: Far too many other men.
It would be nice to see some evidence that these men have ever listened to a significant number—or even any—academic or other professional women about their experiences in building their careers. I know a few who might be able to educate them.