Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Women In Science

Once in my new lab, when discussing Caltech, I said that to admit more women, they'd have to lower their standards. This is unquestionably true, just as if they wanted to admit more men, or baseball players, or saxophonists, they'd also have to lower their standards in every other category. Being unquestionably true is not sufficient to keep people from getting upset about it, I've found.

Correspondingly, if you talk about ideas that may or may not have merit, but still evoke the same kinds of emotion, you get in even bigger trouble. Such is the position that Larry Summers found himself in a couple years ago. He spoke about the reasons that women are underrepresented relative to the population-at-large in tenure-track faculty positions in the sciences. Famously, one reason he gave was the possibility that there are "innate differences" between men and women. He explicitly said what he meant by this: even if the mean aptitude of men and women were the same, if the variance in the male population is greater than the variance in the female population then there will be more men at the extremes (both high and low). Since faculty are drawn exclusively from one extreme, men would be overrepresented.

He mentioned two other explanations - that the different responsibilities in child-bearing could make women less likely to thrive in a career that requires long hours from ages 25-35, and the generally accepted social factors (discrimination - the bad kind). Though he guessed at which factors may be more important, at no point did he say that any of it was unquestionably true. He never said women were dumber than men, or that any individual women could not succeed in science. Still, he was essentially forced to resign.

Several articles were published about the talk; some supportive and some not. I'm going to address one particular criticism - that we should not even discuss the possibility that differences between the sexes account for some of the underrepresentation. To do so, it is claimed, propagates stereotypes which are harmful to women considering or already involved in science.

Which furthers stereotypes more? To discuss the ideas that Summers put forward, or to assume that young women are so fragile that they cannot even hear alternative viewpoints? To assume that they cannot differentiate between someone saying that women as a whole are less likely to be well-suited for scientific careers, and someone saying that they individually are not cut out for it?

The solution to this problem (and I agree that all things being equal, it would preferable to have many more women in science) is not to refuse to have the conversation. If women are less likely to be in science because of family (Summer's guess at the top reason) then institutions could adopt more family friendly policies, as some are already doing. And if social biases are found to be truly a contributing factor, than we can more adeptly and confidently address these biases.

Instead, we are left not with searches for truth, but for what people want to hear. I believe this is only part of a disturbing trend on college campuses towards the stifling of dissent. SFSU students faced disciplinary action for flag-burning. Check out the news at FIRE, a college free speech advocacy group, for many other instances.

A common theme in my posts is that while our intuition is in many cases useful, it is often not the truth, but what we wish were true. If we are not allowed to question it, we will never tell the difference.

I can't find the exact quote, but I remember reading an exchange a short while ago. One person, a politician or civic leader or such, told a scientist (an evolutionary psychologist, perhaps) that his research implied things that were uncomfortable and disheartening to people. His response was something to the effect, "It's what the experiment shows. What would you have me do, fiddle with the results?"


Elise said...

Though it seems reasonable to me that women and men tend to have different strengths that make them more likely to excel in different subjects, the statement of fact in the first sentence of this post still managed to rub me the wrong way.
Yes, one way to try to balance the Caltech ratio might be by lowering the cut-offs for certain indicators (ie: SAT math scores). But I think is a rather crude way of thinking about it, and it's no wonder that people found it inflammatory.
Given that I think women and men are on the whole equally talented as scientists (but just approach problems in different ways), the gender disparity in admissions shouldn't be a question of lowering standards, but of changing them to include a broader range of strengths.
True, this omits the problem of the smaller number of women applying in the first place - a reflection of their lack of exposure to science before college, I figure.
But still, making your statements unnecessarily inflammatory by choosing the crudest way of solving the problem merits the ire of your lab mates.

On a sort-of side note, has anyone researched the career success of alums of MIT, where admissions standards have been changed such that they admit 50 percent women?

dave hiller said...

I understand that the opening comment is usually interpreted as inflammatory, but I don't think that's inherent in the comment itself. The statement I made was the simplest possible, with no implications made except those invented by the listener. If someone told me that to have better baseball players Caltech would have to lower their academic admission standards, I wouldn't be offended or personally insulted. It is simply a statement of truth - to have a better baseball team they would have to admit someone that they otherwise would not have, based on their overall scientific promise.

I'm also puzzled by the idea of simply prioritizing a 1:1 ratio over the other things a college might find important. Do we, as a society, really think it's more acceptable to tell someone, "You didn't get in to MIT because you're a guy" than "You didn't get in to MIT because your math and science ability isn't up to our standards"?

Alan Rosenwinkel said...

The way I see it, there are two distinct questions here.

1) To what extent are Summers comments accurate? Do women and men have some innate difference in ability? Is outright discrimination a lesser factor than personal priorities when it comes to women in tenure track positions? The answer: I have no idea. He's probably right in some ways and wrong in others. Dave's link has some interesting ideas about this and it's definitely something that we, as a county, should address. I don't think anyone would argue about that.

2) Should Summers be rebuked for saying what he said and how he said it? The answer: Absolutely not! Summers is a well informed, highly intelligent, well respected researcher in his field. That's how he got to be president of Harvard in the first place, right? If he can't discuss his self-admittedly non-expert analysis in private to a group of researchers on the topic, how can we expect to have any discussion about this topic at all? In the name of free speech, we allow the KKK to hold rallies with the express purpose of perpetuating their repugnant ideology, yet we run Summers out of town because something he said was, at worst, debatable? Quite franking, that's just stupid.

On a sort-of side note, we all know that MIT sucks, be it 50% women or 30% women.

Alan Rosenwinkel said...

Also, because there is little correlation between the factors the admissions people use to admit students and the admitted students' future performance at Caltech, there is reasonable doubt that the current admissions criteria are the absolute optimum ones. (although they may be optimum given the best efforts of the admissions people using information they currently have access too) Therefor, it's possible that altering the admission criteria would actually lead to better students and thus would not be considered lowering their standards. Additionally, it's possible that their adjusted standards might result in more women (or baseball players or saxophonists) being admitted. Therefore, it is not "unquestionably true" that "to admit more women, they'd have to lower their standards"

dave hiller said...

I hope everyone would concede these two points:

1) Caltech would prefer to admit more women, other things being equal.

2) Caltech is not negligent about their admissions policies - they are trying quite hard to maximize the quality of their students.

There presumably are more women (and men) that Caltech could admit that would not lower the standards. But there is no admissions policy with the applicant pool Caltech actually has and the information Caltech actually has that they can actually pursue that would admit those people and not also admit inferior candidates. If there were, given the two points above, they would already be pursuing it.

(By the way, Caltech clearly weighs something that at least correlates with gender in their admissions process - in 2001 the admission rate for men was 19% and for women 31%. I'm also questioning Alan's claim that there is "little correlation" - 85% of our entering class graduated in 6 years or less, which I think is reasonable for a school of Caltech's difficulty.)

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