Our TV media is not a direct reflection of our society, but it does reflect the attitudes of those in powerful positions. With that in mind, take a look at this video produced by the Women's Media Center (via Digby):
The San Antonio Express-News published a letter of mine today, in response to this article from last Sunday's paper. The article focused on women re-entering the workforce after taking several years off the care for their kids. For my letter, they used a title "Show both sides," but a better title would be "Don't ignore the effects of gender bias." Here is the letter:
I am writing to comment on the article by Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje, "Opting Back In."
I applaud the Express-News for taking on such a complex subject, but I was disappointed the author did not discuss the crucial role gender bias has on the work-related choices that families face.
The phrases "opting in" and "opting out" imply free choice, yet the reality for many women who enter or leave the workforce has nothing to do with choice. For the majority of families, simple economics dictates that the parent who can make the most money works and, if possible, the other parent stays home and takes care of the children.
Since, on average, women earn only about eighty cents for every dollar a man earns, most of the parents who "opt out" are women. If the tables were turned, we would be talking about men "opting out" rather than women.
Also, the article overplays a small number of positive stories of women who have succeeded at returning to the workforce, while downplaying a "rigorous survey" that suggests the reality for those who pursue this course is far less encouraging: only three-quarters of highly-qualified women who desire to return to work actually succeed, and less than half at a full-time job.
The author should have devoted much more attention to this other side of the story. Why can't these women find work appropriate for their skills?
Isn't it far more newsworthy when qualified people cannot find appropriate work?
While it may feel better in the short run to ignore the ongoing realities of gender discrimination in the workplace, it does not serve your readers well to give short shrift to this crucial factor affecting the choices of women and their families.
Today was a historic day as Nancy Pelosi was elected the first female Speaker of the House in our nation's entire history. From the Washington Post:
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was sworn in today as the first female speaker of the House in U.S. history, as Democrats formally took control of Congress for the first time in a dozen years and immediately set their sights on quick passage of ethics legislation.
Pelosi, 66, took the oath of office at 2:30 p.m. EST after winning election as speaker in a straight party-line vote that reflected the Democrats' 233-202 House majority in the new 110th Congress. Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) became House minority leader.
Before taking the oath from Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the longest-serving House member, Pelosi pledged in a speech to work in bipartisan fashion toward ending the war in Iraq, reining in deficit spending and raising ethical standards among lawmakers, among other goals.
Hailing her election to the speakership as a "historic moment for the women of America," Pelosi declared, "For our daughters and granddaughters, today we have broken the marble ceiling. . . . Now the sky is the limit. Anything is possible."
As former House Majority leader, now Minority Leader, Republican John Boehner said in introducing Pelosi, "Today is a cause for celebration."
But while we celebrate, let's not forget that, despite the lofty rhetoric, chronic problems remain -- the sky is not yet the limit. And if anything is to be possible for our daughters and graddaughters, we still have a lot of work to do.
Nine years ago, Sheila White says, she was made to feel very unwelcome as the only woman working in the maintenance department of a railroad yard in Memphis. And today, the Supreme Court said a jury was right to award her $43,000 for complaining about her treatment.
In a 9-to-0 ruling, the justices sided with Ms. White and against the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway, and in so doing broadened the protections for workers who sue their employers for retaliation after lodging complaints.
Writing for the court, Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote that "we believe it is important to separate significant from trivial harms." An employee's decision to report discrimination "cannot immunize that employee from those petty slights or minor annoyances that often take place at work and that all employees experience," he emphasized.
But the court found that what Ms. White went through went beyond the trivial and the annoying.
Not so heartening is that it took nine years for this common sense decision to get made.
The anonymous blogger known as Bitch, Ph.D. has delved into the transcript of Harvard President Larry Summers' remarks on women in science and discovered that the press reports may actually have gone easy on him.
Harvard President Larry Summers is still in hot water over his comments last month suggesting that innate differences between men and women may be a primary explanation for why so few women are in top science and mathematics jobs. Apparently there was a rather tense faculty meeting on Tuesday:
More than 250 professors crowded University Hall on Tuesday for what old hands described as the most heated staff meeting since the Vietnam War. It was closed to the press except for The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, and professors recounted their remarks to reporters outside.
“Many of your faculty are dismayed and alienated and demoralised. There is a legitimation crisis concerning your leadership and style of governance,” Arthur Kleinman, chairman of the anthropology department, told Dr Summers.
“I have heard several outstanding colleagues say it is time to leave Harvard. I don’t believe that, but I fear others do,” Professor Kleinman said. “I ask you then to think hard about how who you are as president has taken us to this dangerous moment.”
The New York Times writes today (buried in an article in the Books section):
For 90 minutes on Tuesday night, more than 250 members of the Harvard faculty confronted Dr. Summers, with a number of them stating that he had besmirched the reputation of the university through a series of intemperate remarks and had wielded his power in unseemly ways. One attendee told The Harvard Crimson that it was "likely" the faculty would give a vote of no confidence for Dr. Summers when they meet in an emergency session Tuesday.
Tonight, at long last, the transcript of Summers' remarks has finally been released. I haven't had time to look it over yet, but based on the excerpts I've seen, it looks like he said pretty much what it was reported that he said.
I wonder if this is one of the reasons why the transcript has suddenly appeared:
Some professors called on their boss to release a full transcript of his controversial remarks at the National Bureau for Economic Research seminar on January 14, and alluded to unconfirmed rumours that Dr Summers also raised questions about differences among the races.
After all, Summers certainly doesn't want to fall in any deeper than he has already dug himself.
The Los Angeles Times published an essay yesterday by Deborah Blum, "a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer," revisiting the remarks by Harvard's president Larry Summers last month about the reasons for the relative lack of women in the sciences. It deserves to be widely read, as she, unlike manyothers who have written about this subject over the past few weeks, gets right to the heart of the matter.
In Victorian times, scientists argued that women's brains were too
small to be fully human. On the intelligence scale, researchers
recommended classifying human females with gorillas.
The great 19th century neuroanatomist Paul Broca didn't see the
situation as quite so dire, but he warned his colleagues that women
were not capable of being as smart as men, "a difference that we should
not exaggerate, but which is nonetheless real."
of Harvard University suggested that a lack of "innate ability" might
help explain why women couldn't keep up with men in fields like math
and science … oh, wait, that one happened just last month.
Hold for a minute — OK — while I dig out my corset and bustle.
If that sounds snotty, I mean it to be.
I, for one, am ready to leave the 19th century behind. Harvard
President Lawrence H. Summers can apologize all he wants, but the fact
is that — from a position of power — he felt comfortable speculating
about women's inadequate intelligence and ignoring years worth of
science that proved him wrong.
I don't find that excusable. Period.
In fact, when allowed, women have done excellent science for decades,
even since the corset-and-bustle days. The physicist Marie Curie won
two Nobel prizes — in 1903 and 1911 — for her work in France with
radioactive elements. As one Stanford University professor assured her
audience last week, "clearly, girls are as capable" as boys.
No argument there from me except this one: Why does that have to be
said at all? How well must women perform before the question of our
competence gets taken off the table? How many times do we have to make
the point before people actually believe it?
I wonder when it
was that male academics last organized a conference to explain that
their brains worked as well as those of their female colleagues.
Perhaps they should have. At least, if more attention was given to the
limits of male brain function, Summers might not have made quite such a
fool of himself.
If that sounds like a cheap shot, I mean it to be.
Does it strike you, as it does me, that Summers missed the important
question? The one that goes like this: If men and women are basically
equal in ability, why is there not a more equal balance of power?
That's complicated terrain, perhaps more than he wanted to take on.
Still, I'd like to propose this simple scenario: One gender gained the
power position and has been really, really reluctant to share the space.
To return to Marie Curie, you should know that the year she won her
second Nobel Prize, the French Academy of Sciences refused to admit her
as a member. Why? She was a woman. Curie did finally get her
recognition from France in 1995 — 61 years after her death from
leukemia. They dug up her bones and reburied them with other national
heroes in the Pantheon. What an honor, huh? I'll bet that meant a lot
And if that sounds angry, I mean it to be.
Before we congratulate the L.A. Times, though, note that they also published an essay with a very different point of view. Alas, this essay, by Catherine Seipp of National Review Online (a doctrinaire conservative publication), is an incoherent ramble. It starts out by criticizing critics of Summers' remarks with archaic stereotypes, then criticizes an NSF program designed to promote gender equity in math and science, then criticizes an unnamed female professor. After a brief foray into skepticism about past discrimination, columnist Seipp continues the critical tirade, with her next targets being her mother, science teaching, and science journalism, before finishing off with another swipe at the NSF.
About the only consistent line-of-thought in this dismal piece is a negative portrayal of women who study or work in math and science, including, believe it or not, the columnist's own mother:
Even in 1950, no one stopped my mother from studying science, although
(as she always said later) maybe they should have. She spent her spare
time reading Milton in the library but insisted on majoring in science,
to be different. A silly reason, obviously. But I'm afraid the only
other she ever offered wasn't any better. The University of Manitoba
science department had the best sports "yell," she said. Years later
she was still able to recite it verbatim: "Hot damn, holy hell, have
you heard the science yell? We want, God knows, more beer, less
Perhaps someone should have stopped Ms. Seipp from trying to publish this embarrassing article for all the world to see.
At long last, a reporter finally decides to talk to a significant number of female scientists to find out what they think about the Harvard President's comments from a couple weeks ago. From the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday:
To many female scientists, whose ancestors were denied admittance
not only to Ivy League colleges but also to laboratories, a recent speech by
Harvard President Lawrence Summers was a blast from the past -- a reminder
of dimwitted prejudices many women hoped they had outlived.
Exactly what Summers said in his mid-January remarks on the
underrepresentation of women in science is uncertain, as he has reportedly
declined to release a tape of the remarks and no transcript has been made
public. What is known is that he claimed that girls are less likely than boys
to get the highest scores in standardized math and science tests, and that he
suggested several explanations.
Among those possible explanations, he said, was that the differences are
innate -- that is to say, genetic. Angered, a noted MIT female biologist
walked out on the speech. Summers later issued an apology, stating: "I deeply
regret the impact of my comments and apologize for not having weighed them
Still, his original remarks rankle many female -- and not a few male scientists, a few of whom suggest Summers should be fired.
A leading female astrophysicist at Yale, Meg Urry, says she and her
female colleagues in science "have talked of little else for days." In the Bay
Area, members of the East Bay chapter of the Association for Women in Science
"discussed this around the table" at their latest meeting, says their chapter
secretary, Paula Shadle.
"The reaction was frustration, disappointment, and no surprise," said
Shadle, a quality assurance consultant to the pharmaceutical industry who has
a doctorate in biochemistry from UC San Diego. "One person said, 'Maybe this
attitude explains why Harvard hasn't been able to attract women.' "
Critics say Summers ignored overwhelming evidence that such difficulties
are caused by social factors that include sex discrimination, not by genetics.
They note that boys' and girls' average test scores are the same, and that
gender differences in scores have converged over the past few decades -- a
convergence that no one suggests is due to a sudden transmutation of women's DNA.
Some women say Summers' speech also shows he's insensitive to the history
of sex discrimination against female scientists.
Helen Quinn, now a top physicist at the Stanford Linear Accelerator
Center, said that in the 1960s she met a young man who asked what she did for
a living. On being told, he said, "That's not my idea of what a woman ought to
be," and walked away.
Margaret Burbidge -- one of the most distinguished astrophysicists of the past half-century, now a professor emeritus at UC San Diego -- recalled
how, as a young woman, she applied for a fellowship to observe the stars using
the telescopes atop Mount Wilson in Southern California. She was informed
"that women were not allowed at Mount Wilson Observatory."
The next question, some women say, is: What is the most constructive way
to react to Summers' speech? Here, an informal sampling of female scientists
uncovered significant disagreement.
Suford Lewis, a 1965 graduate of Harvard who is now president of the
Association for Women in Computing, is disturbed that during Summers' speech,
"at least one (woman present) felt ill, got up and left. Instead of getting
angry and leaving, we should get angry and fight. I find a humorous remark to
be the best weapon."
Barrie Greene, a Harvard physics graduate who earned her doctorate in
biochemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1995 and now
works as a patent agent, thinks some women have overreacted to the whole
brouhaha. She was "surprised and distressed to hear women scientists claim
they were offended and even physically sickened by an opinion they disagreed
with. This does not help to debunk stereotypes of women as emotional and
incapable of cool logic," said Greene, a member of the Palo Alto chapter of
the Association for Women in Science.
"It is important to note that Summers was not saying that women
scientists are inferior to men," Greene continued. "Rather, he was trying to
discover why fewer women choose to be scientists in the first place. Nor did
he insist on gender differences in ability and interest as the sole
explanation, but considered discrimination against women as another possible
Nonetheless, Summers "should be fired," Shadle said, "just as the coach
who when asked why most coaches were white while most players were black, said,
'Maybe it's genetic.' His published apology is totally inadequate."
But Burbidge opposes firing him: "Ridicule is the best response!"
Meanwhile, sex discrimination in science persists, some women charge.
A prominent female scientist on the East Coast who asked not to be
identified said she has watched in dismay as "inferior male colleagues" were
given "better lab and office space ... (and) introductions to prominent
scientists, while women were ignored."
"My concepts and actual work have been stolen and published without
credit to me, or with only the faintest acknowledgement," she added.
Shadle complains that women receive mixed messages: "I personally have
been told, simultaneously, both that I was too aggressive -- and that I was
'too nice' to be successful as a scientist and lacking in 'that killer
Some research suggests the media is partly to blame, as it perpetuates
stereotypical views. Prime-time TV shows tend to depict few scientists who
aren't white males, according to a 1999 study by the U.S. Department of
Evolutionary neurobiologist Richard C. Francis, whose book "Why Men Won't
Ask for Directions" was published in 2003 by Princeton University Press,
believes sex differences on tests are too diverse globally, and change too
much over time, to be simplistically attributed to genes.
For example, Francis says, by the 1960s, "the conventional wisdom was
that males were superior in spatial-mathematical skills and females were
superior in verbal skills," although these beliefs were based on "remarkably
thin" evidence. Today, the putative female advantage in verbal skills "has
been debunked," while tests that purportedly showed a male advantage in
spatial skills "no longer do, with the exception of 3-D mental rotations" --
the ability to mentally rotate an image in one's mind.
A leading astrophysicist, Wendy Freedman, director of Carnegie
Observatories in Pasadena, says one of the most important things parents can
do is ensure that their daughters receive the same science education as their
sons: "When my daughter was in the third grade, she came home and said to me,
'I can't do math.'
"So I told her, 'Sorry, but no daughter of mine is allowed to say that.'
We looked at her ... problems, (and) she became thrilled to see that she could
do them." Eventually she became a top-ranked math student.
"Now imagine what might have happened," Freedman adds, "if I had agreed
with her, and said, 'Yes, girls intrinsically aren't very good at math.' "
Why has it taken so long to get these opinions of female scientists, with their unique perspective on how biased attitudes have conspired against them, themselves into the news coverage of this story? Instead of stories being focused on whether discrimination exists and what effect it has, most stories have instead focused on the red herring of male-female differences. (For one example, see this New York Times article, via the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.)
Thanks to Keay Davidson for writing this new angle, and the San Francisco Chronicle for publishing it.
You’ve got questions, Mister Answer Man has answers. That’s one of
the reasons his name is Mister Answer Man! Let’s go to the mailbag.
Dear Mister Answer Man: In his defense of Harvard president Larry
Summers, Steven Pinker responded to the question, “Were President
Summers’ remarks within the pale of legitimate academic discourse?”
with some exasperation: “Good grief, shouldn’t everything be within
the pale of legitimate academic discourse, as long as it is presented
with some degree of rigor? That’s the difference between a university
and a madrassa.” President Summers had mentioned, in support of the
hypothesis that genetic differences between men and women might play
some part in explaining the dearth of women in the sciences, his
attempt to practice “gender-neutral” parenting by giving his daughter
two trucks, only to find that she named them “daddy truck” and “baby
truck,” almost as if they were dolls. Did Summers’ citation of his
daugher and her trucks meet scientific criteria for “some degree of
rigor”? --V. Solanas, New York
Mister Answer Man replies: Yes. The “Two Trucks Test” has long
been recognized as a legitimate-- and singularly revealing-- research
experiment by those who are wise in the ways of science. In some
circles it is as widely used, as a pedagogical tool, as the famous
lightbulb-and-two-apertures demonstration of the quantum nature of
electromagnetic radiation. Additionally, one can discover a young
girl’s aptitude for the sciences by weighing her in relation to the two
trucks: the law of the conservation of matter proves that if a girl
weighs the same as a truck, she is made of wood, and therefore unlikely
to become a scientist or engineer.
Women barred from Harvard presidency by "genetic predisposition," study finds
CAMBRIDGE, MA (AP)-- Researchers unveiled today a startling new study
that suggests women are “extremely unlikely” to become president of
Harvard University, and that women’s “distinctive genetic makeup” plays
“a decisive role” in preventing them from becoming top-level
administrators at the nation’s oldest college.
“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
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. “If you want to be
president of Harvard,” Kinbote said, “you have to be willing to get up
there and just let it fly, no matter what the facts are and no matter
what the consequences may be. Not just in off-the-cuff remarks--
anybody can do that-- but in carefully considered, prepared
statements. It appears that once again, the X chromosome works, when
paired with another X, as an inhibiting factor in all but a tiny
fraction of the female population.” That tiny fraction, Kinbote
suggested, would be the subject of a subsequent study into the
biochemical basis of Coulter Syndrome.
From Sean Carroll, a physicist at my alma mater, the University of Chicago, who writes a blog called Preposterous Universe:
So, except for the fact that "scientific ability" is something
hopelessly hard to quantify, I'm happy to contemplate the possibility
that men have some tiny innate superiority to women when it comes to
science. I am equally happy to contemplate the possibility that women
have some tiny innate superiority to men when it comes to science. The
point is that we have no strong evidence one way or another. It's
impossible, given the current state of the art, to reliably measure
"innate ability" in a way that isn't hopelessly noisy and compromised
by cultural factors. It's perfectly clear that the differences between
individual people are typically much larger than the difference between
some hypothetical average man and average woman, just as it is
perfectly obvious that the expression of innate ability is tremendously
affected by social and cultural factors.
Howard Georgi of Harvard University has an essary published in the Harvard Crimson today that makes a similar argument:
1 - Talent is not a unitary thing. It is multidimensional and difficult to measure or quantify precisely.
- Many different kinds of talents are critical to the advancement of
physics or any other science interesting enough to be worth doing.
- The spread of talents within any group, sex, race, etc, is very large
compared to any small average differences that may exist between such
4 - Talent can to be developed and enhanced by education, encouragement, self-confidence and hard work.
these reasons, I think that it is not particularly useful to talk about
innate differences to explain the differences in representation of
various groups in physics. Instead, I conclude that we need to try
harder to teach science in a way that nourishes as many different
skills as possible.
These arguments totally demolish the concept that "innate scientific ability" is anything we can hope to measure with any degree of confidence. Those defending Harvard President Summers' comments on the basis that he was allegedly merely asking for more research in this area are misguided.
Anyone defending Summers' dismissal of discrimination is even more mistaken. Sean Carroll continues:
Don't these people read
any history at all? Whenever some group is discriminated against by
some other group, people inevitably suggest that the differences in
situation can be traced to innate features distinguishing between the
groups, and they are never right! If
you would like to suggest that innate differences are responsible for
some current discrepancies in people's fortunes, the minimal burden you
face is to acknowledge that such explanations have been spectacular
failures in similar circumstances throughout history, and explain why
we have compelling reasons to think the situation is different this
time. Maybe it is, but the presumption is strongly against you.
Systematic biases against women in science are real. I've talked about this before,
so didn't think it was worth rehearsing, but apparently there are a lot
of folks who don't quite see it. They must not be looking.
Like I did earlier, but more eloquently, Carroll finds fault with Summers' argument that discrimination is not a significant cause of gender disparities:
Summers, of course, casually dismisses the idea that differences
between the representation of men and women in science can be traced to
systematic biases. His argument is based on rational markets: if there
were a lot of talented women out there who were being discriminated
against, a clever university could dominate the competition by hiring
them all up, but this doesn't happen. This is the kind of idea so dumb
that it could only be entertained by a professional economist. By
similar logic, shouldn't smart baseball executives in the first half of
the twentieth century been able to win multiple World Series by simply
scooping up all of the African-American players that their racist
colleagues were reluctant to hire?
Clearly, it's time to add Preposterous Universe and PZ Myers' Pharyngula (who comes through with another excellent post today on this subject) to my blogroll (that's the list of blogs on the left side of this page to those of you unfamiliar with the term). And time to remove Mark Kleiman.