John Tierney Essay

Submitted By Elias-Ladd
Words: 1262
Pages: 6

The House of Representatives has passed what I like to think of as Larry’s Law. The official title of this legislation is “Fulfilling the potential of women in academic science and engineering,” but nothing did more to empower its advocates than the controversy over a speech by Lawrence H. Summers when he was president of Harvard.

This proposed law, if passed by the Senate, would require the White House science adviser to oversee regular “workshops to enhance gender equity.” At the workshops, to be attended by researchers who receive federal money and by the heads of science and engineering departments at universities, participants would be given before-and-after “attitudinal surveys” and would take part in “interactive discussions or other activities that increase the awareness of the existence of gender bias.”

I’m all in favor of women fulfilling their potential in science, but I feel compelled, at the risk of being shipped off to one of these workshops, to ask a couple of questions:

1) Would it be safe during the “interactive discussions” for someone to mention the new evidence supporting Dr. Summers’s controversial hypothesis about differences in the sexes’ aptitude for math and science?

2) How could these workshops reconcile the “existence of gender bias” with careful studies that show that female scientists fare as well as, if not better than, their male counterparts in receiving academic promotions and research grants?

Each of these questions is complicated enough to warrant a column, so I’ll take them one at a time, starting this week with the issue of sex differences.

When Dr. Summers raised the issue to fellow economists and other researchers at a conference in 2005, his hypothesis was caricatured in the press as a revival of the old notion that “girls can’t do math.” But Dr. Summers said no such thing. He acknowledged that there were many talented female scientists and discussed ways to eliminate the social barriers they faced.

Yet even if all these social factors were eliminated, he hypothesized, the science faculty composition at an elite school like Harvard might still be skewed by a biological factor: the greater variability observed among men in intelligence test scores and various traits. Men and women might, on average, have equal mathematical ability, but there could still be disproportionately more men with very low or very high scores.

These extremes often don’t matter much because relatively few people are involved, leaving the bulk of men and women clustered around the middle. But a tenured physicist at a leading university, Dr. Summers suggested, might well need skills and traits found in only one person in 10,000: the top 0.01 percent of the population, a tiny group that would presumably include more men because it’s at the extreme right tail of the distribution curve.

“I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong,” Dr. Summers told the economists, expressing the hope that gender imbalances could be rectified simply by eliminating social barriers. But he added, “My guess is that there are some very deep forces here that are going to be with us for a long time.”

Dr. Summers was pilloried for even suggesting the idea, and the critics took up his challenge to refute the hypothesis. Some have claimed he was proved wrong by recent reports of girls closing the gender gap on math scores in the United States and other countries. But even if those reports (which have been disputed) are accurate, they involve closing the gap only for average math scores — not for the extreme scores that Dr. Summers was discussing.

Some scientists and advocates for gender equity have argued that the remaining gender gap in extreme scores is rapidly shrinking and will disappear. It was called “largely an artifact of changeable sociocultural factors” last year by two researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Janet S. Hyde and Janet E. Mertz. They noted evidence of the gap narrowing and concluded, “Thus, there…