Confirmation that Summers is an idiot

Posted by barb on Feb 18, 2005 in Science Musings |

The transcript of Summers’ speech from a few weeks ago is now available on-line. You know the one — the one that pissed everyone off, where he dismisses discrimination as a factor for the underrepresentation of women in science and engineering. I bitched about it and then tried to react more calmly. The more fool, I. Summers is a dick (as Bitch Ph.D. has so eloquently pointed out). Read the transcript for yourself.

There are three broad hypotheses about the sources of the very substantial disparities that this conference’s papers document and have been documented before with respect to the presence of women in high-end scientific professions. One is what I would call the-I’ll explain each of these in a few moments and comment on how important I think they are-the first is what I call the high-powered job hypothesis. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and the third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search. And in my own view, their importance probably ranks in exactly the order that I just described.

So, discrimination and socialization might be a factor, but they are really secondary to innate differences? That’s contrary to other findings (thanks to Sean at Preposterous Universe for posting that plot).

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.

Yeah, and what’s happening is that at 20 or 25 they are finding that there is a lot of discrimination; there are barriers that are built either by society as a whole or the science community itself that are difficult for women to break through. Just because people are dropping out later in their career is not “evidence” of an innate deficiency. It just means that the pressures against continuing in that career appear later rather than sooner.

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.

So here he says outright that aptitude is the problem, followed distantly by socialization and discrimination.

He actually has a few reasonable points, unfortunately it takes too long to get to them. It’s not until the second-to-last paragraph, just before he opens up for questions, which is frankly too late, because I’m already pissed off and seething.

I’ve been struck at Harvard that there’s something unfortunate and ironic about the fact that if you’re a faculty member and you have a kid who’s 18 who goes to college, we in effect, through an interest-free loan, give you about $9,000. If you have a six-year-old, we give you nothing. And I don’t think we’re very different from most other universities in this regard, but there is something odd about that strategic choice, if the goal is to recruit people to come to the university.

He actually addresses one of the root problems — the problem of childcare and encouraging younger qualified applicants who might be just starting a family.

We would like to believe that you can take a year off, or two years off, or three years off, or be half-time for five years, and it affects your productivity during the time, but that it really doesn’t have any fundamental effect on the career path. And a whole set of conclusions would follow from that in terms of flexible work arrangements and so forth….But it would be useful to explore a variety of kinds of natural interruption experiments, to see what actual difference it makes, and to see whether it’s actually true, and to see in what ways interruptions can be managed, and in what fields it makes a difference.

This is exactly what the sociologist at the AAS in Denver last summer was discovering. For anyone to make it to a tenure-track position, they need a “straight trajectory” — taking time off for anything (starting a family, caring for a sick parent, burnout) seemed to be a near kiss-of-death for a student’s career.

Perhaps the last few questions that Summers raised, buried at the end of an infuriating speech, would have been a better jumping-off point for his talk, rather than “provoking” us with idiotic statements that innate differences are the primary cause for the unequal representation of women in science.

[via Bitch Ph.D.]

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