Yesterday we were treated, as the lead item on the front page of the Washington Post’s weekly Outlook section, to yet another feminist-establishment blast at poor Lawrence Summers, the Harvard president who’s been obliged to grovel in the dirt for daring to suggest that the paucity of women in math and science might have something to do with recent research showing innate differences in the brains of men and women.


The blaster was Virginia Valian, a psychology and linguistics professor at New York City’s Hunter College. Her take was a little different from that of MIT professor Nancy Hopkins, who said that Summers’ comments made her “sick.” Valian instead raised the tired old argument that men and women aren’t innately different–they just behave differently because we treat them differently. You know, if we only gave little boys dolls to play with….


Valian’s twist on this theory (which never seems to work when parents try it) is that even when men and women perform equally well, we “see [the woman] as less competent than a similarly described man unless there is clear information that she is a top performer.” Differences “in math abilities seem better accounted for by differences in what we expect of women and how we treat them,” writes Valian.


A sidebar to Valian’s article describes a theory floating around academia called “stereotype threat.” That means that if you’re viewed through a negative gender or racial stereotype, you get so nervous that you fulfill the stereotype and, say, flunk your math test. The “anxiety” that stereotype threat produces, says the sidebar “is a significant factor in the continuing underperformance of groups whose abilities are stigmatized, such as women in the sciences.” Thus, as Stanford stereotype-theorist Claude M. Steele put it, remarks like those of Summers are “irresponsible,” because merely saying that women could be less good at science than men could bring about that very result.  


OK–it’s bad to indulge in negative stereotypes about women. But turn to the bottom of page 5 of the same section of Outlook, and you’ll discover that it’s perfectly fine to indulge in negative stereotypes about men.


There, columnist Richard Morin reports:


“Scandinavians are the most trusting people in the world while WOMPS — short for white, older, male, Protestants — are among the least trusting, according to Harvard University economist Iris Bohnet.”


Ah, those wonderful Scandinavians again! And those nasty white men! Morin continues:


“WOMPS ‘behave significantly differently than their counterparts,’ [Bohnet] said. ‘WOMPS traditionally are associated with having higher status in the United States’ and thus have more to lose if someone betrays their trust, so they instinctively are more suspicious about the altruism of others.”


Of course–and I hope this doesn’t cause an outbreak of stereotype threat–you could wonder about Bohnet’s methodology. Aren’t half of all Scandinavians men? And there’s no place more Protestant than Scandinavia. Maybe Bohnet is, uh, a wee bit math-impaired.