Tuesday, February 01, 2005


Why we have to stop discouraging women scientists

It's sad that some of the blockheads mentioned below could not at least be polite!
For Some Girls, the Problem With Math Is That They're Good at It


A few years ago, I told Donald Kennedy, editor of the journal Science, that I wanted to write an essay for his publication. It would say, "Anyone who thinks that sexism is no longer a problem in science has never been the first woman science editor of The New York Times."

I never wrote the essay. But the continuing furor over Dr. Lawrence H. Summers's remarks on women and science reminds me why I thought of it.

For those who missed it, Dr. Summers, the president of Harvard, told a conference last month on women and science that people worried about the relative dearth of women in the upper ranks of science should consider the possibility that women simply cannot hack it, that their genes or the wiring of their brains somehow leave them less fit than men for math, and therefore for science.

Dr. Summers has since said clearly that he does not believe that girls are intellectually less able than boys. But maybe his original suggestion was right. If we ever figure out exactly what goes on inside the brain, or how our genes shape our abilities, we may find out that men and women do indeed differ in fundamental ways.

But there are other possibilities we should consider first. One of them is the damage done by the idea that there is something wrong about a girl or woman who is really good at math.

I first encountered this thinking as a seventh grader who was scarred for life when my class in an experimental state school for brainiacs was given a mathematics aptitude test. The results were posted and everyone found out I had scored several years ahead of the next brightest kid. A girl really good in math! What a freak! I resolved then and there on a career in journalism.

I encountered the attitude again shortly after I became science editor, taking up a position I was to hold from 1997 to 2003. I went to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a convention that attracts thousands of researchers and teachers. My name tag listed my new position, and the scientists at the meeting all seemed to have the same reaction when they read it: "You're the new science editor of The New York Times!?"

At first I was deluded enough to think they meant I was much too delightful a person for such a heavy-duty job. In fact, they were shocked it had been given to a woman.

This point was driven home a few weeks later when, at a dinner for scientific eminences, a colleague introduced me to one of the nation's leading neuroscientists. "Oh yes," the scientist murmured, as he scanned the room clearly ignoring me. "Who is the new science editor of The New York Times, that twerpy little girl in short skirts?"

Dumbfounded, I replied, "That would be me."

A few weeks after that I was in another group of scientific eminences, this one at a luncheon at the Waldorf. The spokeswoman for the group that organized the event introduced me to one of the group's most eminent guests, a leading figure in American science policy.

"Oh," he said kindly but abstractedly, "you work for The New York Times. How nice." The spokeswoman explained, again, that I was the newspaper's science editor. "An editor," he said. "How nice." The woman explained again, but again he could not take it in. "Oh, science," he said, "How nice." At this point the spokeswoman lost patience. She grabbed the honored guest by both shoulders, put her face a few inches away from his and shouted at him - "She's it!"

But the memories of the seventh grader are still not funny. Neither is it amusing to reflect on what happened to a college friend who was the only student in her section to pass linear algebra, the course the math department typically used to separate the sheep from the mathematical goats. Talk about stigma! She changed her major to American civilization.

Another friend, graduating as a math major, was advised not to bother applying for a graduate research assistantship because they were not given to women. She eventually earned a doctorate in math, but one of her early forays into the job market ended abruptly when she was told she should stay home with her husband rather than seek employment out of town.

Experiences like hers - the outright, out-loud dashing of a promising mathematician's hopes simply because of her sex - are no longer the norm. At least I hope not. But they are enough, by themselves, to tell us why there are relatively few women in the upper ranks of science and mathematics today.

If I wanted to address the relative lack of women in the upper reaches of science, here is where I would start. By the time these problems are eliminated, maybe we'll know what really goes on inside the brain and inside the chromosomes. Then it will be time to wonder if women are inherently less fit for math and science.
This morning I was having breakfast with a friend, a woman about 10 years older than me. She related tales of her mother, who was one of the few female lawyers in Brooklyn in the 1940s and 1950s, and how she had to deal with the blatant sexism of the other lawyers and the judges. My mother was an amazing person, and I doubt she would have permitted anyone to condescend to her, but she didn't try to enter any of the so-called male professions (law, medicine, academia, etc.)

It's a bit dispiriting to those of us who truly believe in equality to think that such sexism still exists today; what, aren't we civilized yet? And, from a practical point of view, the problem in America is not just that women are still discouraged from pursuing careers in science, mathematics, and engineering, but that far too few Americans of either sex are pursuing such careers. It's like gays in the military - kicking them out is profoundly stupid because we need every talented person we can get. Failing to entice women to enter science and math - let alone actively deterring them - is idiotic because our entire power and prosperity depend upon our leadership in science and math.

We are almost as dependent these days on foreigners for our scientific and technical researchers as we are on them to buy our Treasury Bills and finance our budget, trade, and foreign exchange deficits. For a country that so prides itself on its total self-sufficiency and independence, as the tub-thumping "We're Number !" "USA! USA! USA!" wingnuts so loudly proclaim, to be so dependent on the willingness of foreigners to make up our own deficiencies, is ridiculous and ultimately self-destructive. We need all hands on deck, of all races, sexes, etc.

There's never a defense for racism or sexism, from a moral point of view or - perhaps more influential politically - from a cold, calculating, self-interest point of view.
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