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Mad Scientess Jane Expat

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Gender and Science, follow-up. [20050224|09:56]
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
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I criticized the Harvard university president's inflammatory speech a few weeks ago. Anyone interested in reading the full text can find a transcript here. I warn you now, it is long, verbose, confusing and clouded with nonsensical jabbering. There are, however, a few points where his meaning is crystal clear.

The second empirical problem is that girls are persisting longer and longer. When there were no girls majoring in chemistry, when there were no girls majoring in biology, it was much easier to blame parental socialization. Then, as we are increasingly finding today, the problem is what's happening when people are twenty, or when people are twenty-five, in terms of their patterns, with which they drop out. Again, to the extent it can be addressed, it's a terrific thing to address.


A lack of parental socialization problems (which is still a debatable point in American society today) doesn't imply that there are no socialization problems. Is he suggesting that now that women are being allowed to study science, we can't say that there are any socialization problems involved at higher levels of education? To quote Monty Python, "'All wood burns,' states Sir Bedevere, therefore he concludes, all that burns is wood. This is, of course, pure bullshit." I believe that we can acknowledge that many more parents are willing to be supportive of their female children should they be inclined to study science. I also believe that that doesn't preclude criticizing large portions of the academic community for their patrician attitudes. It doesn't preclude assigning at least some of the responsibility for the gender imbalance in the upper ranks of the academic hierarchy to the socialization that occurs within the academic community. The fact that women drop out of academic science after grad school cannot be attributed, therefore, solely to the genetic inferiority of their scientific capabilities to men's. His attempt to lead to that conclusion by glib elimination of a single social factor is disgusting, illogical and, I dare say, contradictory to the scientific method.

If it was really the case that everybody was discriminating, there would be very substantial opportunities for a limited number of people who were not prepared to discriminate to assemble remarkable departments of high quality people at relatively limited cost simply by the act of their not discriminating, because of what it would mean for the pool that was available. And there are certainly examples of institutions that have focused on increasing their diversity to their substantial benefit, but if there was really a pervasive pattern of discrimination that was leaving an extraordinary number of high-quality potential candidates behind, one suspects that in the highly competitive academic marketplace, there would be more examples of institutions that succeeded substantially by working to fill the gap. And I think one sees relatively little evidence of that. So my best guess, to provoke you, of what's behind all of this is that the largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people's legitimate family desires and employers' current desire for high power and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering, there 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. I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong, because I would like nothing better than for these problems to be addressable simply by everybody understanding what they are, and working very hard to address them.
[Bolding added by me.]

I get the feeling this is the point at which a number of the women in attendance walked out of the room. I just love the way he puts the burden of proof on the audience, as if his statements constituted the gospel truth. In case you weren't able to get through that paragraph, what he's implying is that socialization issues and discrimination are less important than intrinsic aptitude in determining the percentage of minorities and women in faculty positions in academic science research. Or, to put it more simply, there are fewer minorities and women in academia in the US because they're not as smart as the white men.

Perhaps, then, he can explain why so many universities have had to put caps on the number of graduate students from India and China that they accept, and why a lot of those students are female. And why these minorities, male and female, return to their home countries to take faculty positions there and sometimes, where visa requirements and language abilities permit, compete with a high degree of success for positions in the US. I could spin you those numbers and turn them into an argument in favor of the genetic superiority of Asian women over white men in the field of scientific research, but I won't. Because I suspect that parental socialization, the pressure of mothers and fathers on their sons and daughters to do well academically from a very young age, in those countries plays a far more important role in the development of their scientific abilities.

Additionally, he implies that, were there a large pool of qualified candidates being passed over because of discrimination, surely someone would have stepped in to take advantage of it. Someone has: the community and liberal arts colleges. But leaving that aside for a moment, why do you suppose that none of the search committees at large research institutions are willing to consider that their hiring practices are discriminatory? Do you suppose it could be a problem of socialization within those small, rather isolated communities? Or wait, no. I've got it. These committees are genetically predisposed against hiring women and minorities!

I think I've wasted enough time on this guy. I read his speech once, and anyone with a grain of sense can tell that it's a well-spun web of deceit, poor logic, and selective consideration of factors. He's making excuses, for himself and the myopic community that he clearly considers unimpeachable in character and behavior. I'm sure he'll do a great job perpetuating the current system.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-02-24 12:00 (UTC)
He's being provocative, you see. Forcing people to think about these issues. Never mind that he could have gotten approximately the same reaction by spray-painting "BITCHEZ IN SCIENCE R DUMB" on his office door.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-02-24 12:13 (UTC)
I think they're gonna run the other way. According to this article, his "long address [was] delivered without notes," (no shit, Sherlock). He's had problems "since his early days at Harvard, which were marked by clashes with African-American professors" and "already had a poor record on hiring women professors at Harvard."

A lot of people will still wink at sexism but combined with the flirtation with racism...I think he's going down.
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[User Picture]From: ironed_orchid
2005-02-24 11:37 (UTC)

might be of interest

ousin posted a link to this follow up article for the Guardian, which looks at the desire many people have to find a biological basis for gender inequality, even though "The observed intellectual differences between men and women are very small and limited to almost absurdly narrow areas."

And as a UK resident, I expect you to be reading The Guardian by now.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-02-24 12:18 (UTC)
"Yet we rarely hear about research that makes us think again about how women's and men's aptitudes and achievements could change if society changed. If humans are innately anything, they are innately adaptable, and to lose sight of that is to lose sight of the possibility of a better world."

Oh, that's well-said. Thanks. If anyone else is reading the comments, that article also links to the Guardian's earlier coverage of the ensuing faculty-room flap over the speech.

I confess, I normally just check the BBC. I read the Guardian when someone on my list links to it but I don't read it regularly.
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[User Picture]From: ironed_orchid
2005-02-24 12:24 (UTC)
I don't read The Guardian so much for news as for opinion and columns. And, even then, usually when someone links to it. But you could always buy a copy if you need reading material on the bus or tube.
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[User Picture]From: nationofsheep
2005-02-24 13:56 (UTC)

yeah

My friend in Austin is a writer and he does these scathing television recaps for televisionwithoutpity.com. He did this brilliant recap of Dr. Phil's Valentine's Show. This issue reminded me of that again. It's a great read. And hits the nail on the head on a number of things.

I have been following the row over the Harvard asshat's speech since you posted about it last time. I will give him this. We were all forgetting once again about the issue. It was all fading into the obscurity of a problem solved except for all those castrating feminist leftovers. I remember watching a documentary called Berkeley in the Sixties. I refer to it all the time because it really is an amazing account. There was this core of hardcore political activists. And the movement was fading by 1966. One of the women is being interviewed and she says (my paraphrase), "The Civil Rights Act was signed into law. It looked like the war might actually be over in a year. The rallies were getting smaller. People really just wanted nothing better than to forget all about us. And THEN... Reagan committed another atrocity, and suddenly we were on national television. And every freak in the country said, 'Whoa, those guys are out of control. I have got to party with them.' And suddenly we had an army off flower children."

I am always one to spin things optimistically. But he sure did bring an issue that has not come anywhere near being solved back into people's consciousness. And you see it all the way up to the president. They think they can get away with anything right now. And maybe they can. Maybe it will all go unchallenged. But maybe not...
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-02-24 14:46 (UTC)
I'm willing to acknowledge that his remarks were provocative, and could potentially foster change - Harvard now has a search committee dedicated to hiring women faculty. However, we'll see how far the influence of his remarks reaches. If, for instance, the faculty pass a motion of no confidence against him, will it influence other universities, particularly the Ivy Leagues, to buckle down and address the issue, not just with policy but in practice?

Also, I still deplore his method of bringing up the issue. I think his "speech" was the verbal equivalent of spray-painting stupid slogans across his office door. I think he could have had the same influence by dedicated years of his tenure to the promotion of hiring women faculty, and by tooting his own horn at Harvard's success in achieving gender equality. This is probably cynical of me, but I think that if he is demoted, he's far more likely to attempt to spin his speech as a magnanimous act performed because he was willing to take the fall in order to bring the issue to the spotlight. As if that was the only possible way it could have been done: by deliberately bleating half-baked sexist takes on current research into the genetic differences between male and female cognizance in order to piss people off.
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[User Picture]From: nationofsheep
2005-02-24 16:14 (UTC)

oh geez

Oh geez! I hope you don't think I was suggesting he did it on purpose or anything close to it. He is a Class A Weasel of the First Order. My remarks were more rhetorical. Or maybe trying to find the silver lining in the dark cloud of his weasely speach of weaseliness. (Weaseliness = me trying to obfuscate on the same order as my weasely white brethen at Harvard.) ;)
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-02-24 16:22 (UTC)
No no, of course not. You got me thinking about potential interpretations of his actions, that's all, and how he might try to weasel (ha!) out of responsibility for his poorly-founded biases.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-02-24 16:31 (UTC)
I confess. I read the whole speech through last night, but it gave me such a splitting fucking headache that I couldn't deal with picking it apart until this morning.

I agree that it's scary how quickly people come to take even limited liberties for granted and to assume that the fight is over as soon as the slightest concessions to their demands are made. We all do it in small ways in our daily lives, particularly those of us from the middle-class who are anxious not to lose the tiny footholds we have over poverty, but it's important, I think, for American women to remember that they haven't even had the right to vote for a hundred years yet.
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From: marieofroumania
2005-02-25 00:29 (UTC)
off subject but, what happened?
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-02-25 11:18 (UTC)
Ah, I see. Drunken button-clicking. Fixed now.
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From: marieofroumania
2005-02-25 15:34 (UTC)
I will never admit this again but my feelings were actually hurt! Only a little though.
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