Wednesday, January 19, 2005

In answer to the question...

...posed here in the Guardian's "gender" section, by Lucy Mangan: "Why is it so terrible to theorise that women might be naturally worse than men at maths and science?".

Well the trouble is that it encourages and justifies stereotyping and exclusionism Lucy. As does your article on the subject which starts off almost proud of the news that you can't calculate 10% of £1,960!

No-one is pretending that innate differences between the sexes don't exist. A cursory glance down the high street will confirm that men are, on average, taller than women, and so forth. Why should the average male and female brains be the same while the average bodies are different? But the point is here we're talking about averages. The information on your remarkable lack of mathematical skill tells us essentially nothing about the average level for women. Conversely, the average level for women tells us nothing about the level of any individual woman. Also we're talking about innate differences. So your example of yourself is further invalidated by the fact that we haven't dug back to cancel out the effects of the education you received, the expectations made of you and so forth.

If you are prepared to accept a single woman as a case study to base your article on then firstly this is further evidence of your lack of understanding of the basics of statistics and secondly I should be happy to post you a photocopy of my mathematics degree from Oxford for use in your next polemic.

Dr Summers in fact is not talking about a difference in average innate mathematical ability but a difference in distribution of that ability, suggesting men may exhibit more extreme highs and extreme lows of scientific intelligence. This he is putting forward as an explanation for the lack of women in university posts which, we are to assume, require the "extreme high" intelligence bracket. However by this same arguement we would expect professions requiring a medium to high level of intelligence to be dominated by women, since more of the above average men are off at universities, leaving more women in the medium-to-high bracket. Of course this is not the case, jobs in areas like finance, insurance and even, to come back to your example, tax, are just as male dominated as universities.

Dr Summers also claims, without recourse to any scientific paper or study, that the difference in distribution of scientific intelligence is "innate" rather than a result of socialising. To "prove" this he falls into the same trap you did - relying on a single example, that of his own daughter "Dr Summers told the conference about giving his daughter two trucks. She treated them like dolls, and named them mummy and daddy trucks, he said". Frankly for someone with a doctorate generalising on the basis of one case is pretty inexcuseable. I think your suggestion that people making such mistakes should have their GCSEs revoked holds some water in this instance. Even if we accept the case, we still have a problem: just because the child has called the trucks "mummy" and "daddy" doesn't actually demonstrate a lack of mathematical ability as far as I can see. The idea that an understanding of the concept of family cannot co-exist with an ability to understand mathematical concepts is blatantly untrue and frankly rather repulsive.

So Dr Summers's remarks are based solely on his own opinion and as such are speculation, rather than anything which has or, arguably, could be proved. No-one in the audience is going to learn anything, unless it is about the condition of the workings of the Harvard president's mind.

So why mention it?

Dr Summers is a documented woman-hater. Credit to your paper for providing the info we needed in the end, albeit in the very last paragraph of the article: "During Dr Summers's presidency, the number of tenured jobs offered to women has fallen from 36% to 13%. Last year, only four of 32 tenured job openings were offered to women.". He's trying to reverse-justify what appears to be a deliberately sexist employment policy which he himself is operating.

So why should we be angry about this? Why does it matter?

The media (run predominantly by men) can, it appears, be relied upon to pick up on these things and give them full loud coverage. The original article in the guardian mentions biological differences in both the title and the first paragraph. The other points of Dr Summers's speech (some of them equally repugnant, but given by him as more important factors than "innate ability") do not appear until paragraph four. It is not until paragraph nine that the fact that some of the audience strongly disagreed with Dr Summers gets a mention. Other news sources presented an even more one-sided case. Not everybody reads past the headline. Some people I know have quoted the story to me as if it were a recently-proved "fact".

The propensity for confusion between an overall average and an individual couldn't be more clear from your own article. The leap from believing that the average intelligence level is different to assuming that an individual is of higher or lesser intelligence is a very small one in our society. This makes it irresponsible, I think, to make generalisations like this along gender lines. If Dr Summers next article suggests, on the basis of no real evidence, that black people or gay people are less intelligent or less well equipped to take on senior jobs, would you be quite so ready to defend his remarks?

I, for one, believe there are those out there who would seek to exclude women from certain opportunities. Historically many professions were completely out of bounds for women. Mercifully few persist today in western culture (parts of the armed forces, parts of the clergy and a handful of others), although many more remain in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, etc. Within those where women now work regularly, there are still innumerable cases of discrimination and prejudice against them. Class action suits by women at investment banking firms are, I admit, but a single example, but at least one involving a large number of women. The recent feedback from women MPs about the attitudes they faced withing the government would be another. I could go on but I think very few people would be able to deny my point: Some people out there are prejudiced against women. Given that state of affairs it is surely irresponsible to provide quoteable comments from someone in a position of enormous power and respect which appear to justify yet more exclusionism. The comments will not only serve to reinforce prejudice but could even be directly quoted, in court for example, to "justify" the dismissal of a female from a role or the reluctance to employ a woman into a position of power.

The feminist movement (yes, the movement that got you the vote Lucy, and the right to work as a journalist if you wanted to as well) are sick and tired of hearing that 10% (sorry if you're still having trouble with percentages) of the top jobs is all we should be aiming for, that the battle is over and that we should all calm down now. Comments like those made by Dr Summer show us that prejudice is alive and well and we need, as women, to stand together in calling his behaviour irresponsible and offensive.

1 comment:

Cruella said...

Hi Simon

Yes I accept your point that in the medium-to-high range there might be similar numbers of men and women, depending on the details of the shape of the two apparently differnt distributions. Still the professions I mention are all heavily male dominated rather than being about fifty-fifty so I think my point that the alleged differing distribution cannot be accepted as the only factor in the differing employment rates holds.

I don't much care whether "gender" or "sex" is used in this context. I do however have a certain loathing for the insistence of those writing about womens issues to call it "gender" issues and present itself as also covering issues in which men are hard-done-to (see my various comments on Fathers4Justice...!). Again I come back to the comparison with other groups who are the victims of prejudice: black people and gay people. We wouldn't quite so comfortably read about the problems these people face and then expect to turn the page over and find an article about how heterosexual white people are being victimised too. It persists with giving the impression that there are two defensible sides to the story: "are women being the victimised or is it all a figment of their imagination?". A question we wouldn't dream of asking about black or gay people. And then on the other hand if we call it a "women" section then we expect it to be full of cosmetic frou-frou-ing and articles on relationships. I'd like to see the term "women" used as the header to the section and the articles about "men's issues" relegated to elsewhere in the paper.

But then again I also think that feminism is often side-tracked into arguements about words and grammar as a mean of obscuring the real issues: equal pay, equal opportunities and equal respect.

And £196.