You might think that the hard sciences would be resistant to the unscientific notion that equal opportunity necessarily leads to equal outcomes. Alas, no, as Harvard president Lawrence Summers discovered, when he suggested that perhaps women are “underrepresented” in science because they’re innately less interested in the subject. The very notion caused a woman MIT science professor to walk out on Summers’ speech; his ideas, she said, made her “physically ill.”
Anti-suffragists used to claim that because women’s minds are ruled by our reproductive organs, we’re too irrational to vote responsibly. Tactics like getting the vapors when encountering a disagreeable idea don’t exactly offer a powerful argument to the contrary.
Certainly the attitude of many women about all this defies logic. The National Science Foundation has funded a three-year grant called Gender Equity in Math and Science, and never mind that college women now outnumber college men, or that high school girls in general get better grades and test scores than high school boys. What matters to feminists, who have a knack for snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory, is that gender equity in math and science still has not been achieved.
This is a real bee-in-the-bonnet of educators now, from Harvard on down. Fundraising spiels from expensive private girls schools typically tout the fabulousness of their math and science programs. But what does it say about those dedicated to women’s education that their big push is toward what most girls have to be persuaded to care about? It’s really rather a sexist assumption that because men dominate science, then science is therefore more worthwhile than the humanities. You certainly don’t see prestigious boys schools worrying that they have too many top science students and not enough, say, poets.
But girls, like boys, have a way of resisting what adults think is good for them. I glimpsed this up close a few years ago, when I visited a special summer camp that a woman software CEO had set up to encourage Silicon Valley high school girls interested in technology. There I witnessed a perfect little paleofeminist-vs.-postfeminist moment: One of the earnest, gray-haired female professors was advising the girls what to do if an job interviewer asked inappropriate questions like, “How soon do you plan to have children?” That would be of course illegal, but the professor advised the girls not to argue about it but to say something like, “I THINK what you’re asking me is if my job will always come first, and the answer is YES!”
There was a silence as these words sort of hung in the air. How did this bunch of shy, mostly Asian teenagers know that a job would always come first? Had each one already decided that it absolutely should? Finally one girl raised her hand.
“Can you just decline to state?” she asked tentatively. “Because I kind of have a philosophy that family comes first.” Not exactly the sort of sentiment the women role models in the room wanted to hear.
But back to your tax dollars at work. At the University of Michigan, one of nine institutions that benefited from a $3.7 million NSF grant to study the experience of women scientists on campus, researchers found that 41 percent reported gender discrimination and 20 percent “unwanted sexual attention” according to the campus newspaper. Those survey figures don’t sound very scientific, however, when the report went on to reveal that “more than 300 faculty responded, with only 30 percent being male.” Sounds like a rather self-selected group, to put it mildly.
Nevertheless, an NSF committee member said that “the study’s results suggest that equality and leadership opportunities for women scientists are in need of great improvement.” Maybe so, but I’d say that the scientific validity of this NSF research project is also in need of great improvement. Meanwhile, over at North Carolina State University, the NSF awarded $500,000 to three professors wishing to study whether a summer camp program called Girls On Track actually succeeded in keeping middle-school girls on track– that is, continuing to focus on math and science in high-school and college. An example of a girl not on track, according to a 2002 story about the program in The Raleigh (N.C.) News and Observer, was 15-year-old Katie Fraser, despite her computer savvy.
“I look at computer science and associate it more with men,” Katie told the paper. And what foolish, frilly career did Katie want instead — Modeling? Dancing? No: “My ultimate dream is to go to law school.” Uh-oh, better redirect that dream to something more appropriately gender-equitized.
What with all the funding and the proselytizing, it’s unlikely girls are discouraged from careers in science now, and I’m skeptical of the notion that doors were always slammed in their faces. Even in 1950, no one stopped my mother from studying science, although (as she always said later) maybe they should have. She spent her spare time reading Milton in the library, but insisted on majoring in science, to be different.
A silly reason, obviously. But I’m afraid the only other two she ever offered weren’t any better. The first was that the University of Manitoba science department had the best sports “yell,” which years later my mother was still able to recite verbatim: “Hot damn, holy hell, have you heard the science yell? We want, God knows, more beer, less clothes.”
The second was that as a girl science major, she got even more male attention. I was looking through her scrapbook of science major memories not long ago and came across this excited, scribbled note: “Crowned first girl to ever enter the engineers’ common room! Wore my tunic with frosh beanie and science buttons…”
A bigger problem than gender equity is the incompetence of science instruction, beginning in the lower grades. I still remember having to explain to one of my daughter’s elementary public school teachers, during a marine biology project, that a jellyfish is not a mollusk. But scientific illiteracy afflicts men as well as women and only starts in the schools. Robert L. Park, a University of Maryland physicist and professional debunker, argues in his book “Voodoo Science” that such ignorance is spread by the media, who feel no embarassment at their lack of rudimentary scientific knowledge– basically throwing up their hands and letting any old fool have his say as long as it ups the ratings.
Thus we have the ever credulous Dan Rather, for instance, a few years ago soberly introducing a segment on “a backyard tinkerer” who’s built a perpetual motion machine, “and you know, some people think that just maybe he has.” Little guys who defy pointyhead experts are regularly wheeled out from the media’s dusty prop closet of character cliches, and never mind that the pointyheads are usually right. The most pervasive unscientific assumptions crop up at that well-traveled intersection where pop culture meets public policy.
Over the years I’ve heard fellow journalists say all sorts of unscientific, silly things, especially when it comes to the notion that masculine and feminine behavior have any basis in biology. No, no, my media colleagues say; it’s the culture. That’s why women are underrepresented in science. So are stallions rarely used as riding horses because the mares get their more docile nature from leafing through those “How to Please a Man” articles in Cosmopolitan? (And do geldings behave the way they do because they subscribe to Eunuch Living?) Maybe the NSF can fund a grant to find out.
Catherine Seipp is a writer, and she edits the blog “Cathy’s World.”