Monday, February 14, 2005

Larry Summers Was Right

The other day, my youngest son had stuck a toy bus inside the cargo area of a toy truck. I told him I would fix it if he got me a knife. My game plan was to stick the knife in there and quickly pry the toy bus out. (I love to demonstrate my “manliness” with my boys.) But despite my surgical skill, the bus barely budged. As I was about to apply more pressure, my wife came to the rescue. She took the truck, got a screwdriver, unscrewed the cargo area of the truck, and handed the bus (unscathed) to my son.

When it comes to things mechanical, I am not the typical male. I don’t know screwdrivers from wrenches. My eyes glaze over at the mere mention of home repair projects. I’m much more comfortable inside a Barnes and Noble than in a Home Depot. I have a writer’s temperament and an unrelenting clumsiness with tools.

Providentially, my wife, who was a Phi Beta Kappa in college, is very handy. She can hang a mirror level, make minor faucet repairs, refinish furniture, and paint a room. While occasionally I think how nice it would be if I could do these “masculine” tasks, for the most part I am simply thankful that God put us together. Our gifts complement one another very well.

Yet the fact that we are not “average” when it comes to what is “typical” for men and women does not negate the fact that there are basic, inherent differences between the sexes. In these politically correct days, it can be dangerous to say so.

Harvard President Larry Summers, a former official in the Clinton administration, found that out recently. At a conference examining why women and minorities are underrepresented in science careers, Summers suggested three explanations for why there are such small numbers of women holding tenured math and science positions at elite universities.

First, Summers postulated, women with young children might not be willing or able to put in the grueling hours these positions require. Second, girls generally have lower scores on math and science tests than do boys, and these differences might be innate. Third, discrimination might be a factor.

A balanced assessment? Not to MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins, who walked out halfway through the speech and who later told reporters she felt “physically ill” when Summers mentioned basic sexual differences in the sciences. Hopkins said if she hadn’t left, “I would have blacked out or thrown up.”

Later, 100 Harvard professors took their president to task in an open letter that said such comments “serve to reinforce an institutional culture at Harvard that erects numerous barriers to improving the representation of women on the faculty.”

On the willingness of women to put in the hours required to reach the top in math and science at the expense of family, our era is becoming a disappointment to the bra-burning women of a generation ago. More and more women are choosing to stay home, regardless of their innate abilities. The Census Bureau reports that in 2003 about 5.4 million mothers with children 14 and under stayed home, an increase of a million since 1995. In 2001, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a majority of women with kids under 6 worked only part time or not at all. Just 42 percent worked full time.

Stay-at-home moms are not just from America’s wealthier classes. Half of them come from households with a family income below $50,000. A 2003 CBS News/New York Times poll found that 61 percent of adults believe kids are better off if their mother stays at home instead of holding an outside job.

On innate differences in ability between men and women, 30 years of scientific studies show that men and women have different aptitudes. Men do better, generally, in mathematical reasoning, mechanical understanding, and spatial relationships. Women tend to do better in language, reading, and other verbal tasks. Even when women do as well as men in the hard sciences, they often choose to work in fields with a higher social component.

On whether discrimination holds some women back, doubtless that does still occur. However, judging from the heated reaction Summers received from Hopkins and from members of his own faculty, one has to wonder how widespread this is in academia. After all, if women really are in short supply in the hard sciences, one would reasonably presume that those qualified to compete at the highest levels would get every benefit of the doubt from those making the hiring decisions. After all, political correctness is a much bigger fact of life on campus than is political incorrectness.

So can women match or even excel what men can do in business, politics, on campus, or in the sciences? Yes (though not inevitably or always). Are men and women different? Yes, again. Is a woman only valuable for what she can produce in the work world? Thank God, no.

As a Duke sociologist told the New York Times, “The feminist literature of the ‘70s and ‘80s made marriage and childbearing sound like it was just drudgery. The truth is that a lot of people find having kids incredibly rewarding.”

I know one talented, intelligent wife and mother who would wholeheartedly agree.


Blogger stjones said...

In a ironic little twist, the American Council on Education is calling for new tenure rules that would address Summers' suggestion that women with young children might be unwilling to put in the time to achieve tenure in the traditional seven years. One can only assume that Hopkins and others will take the ACE to task for suggesting that such a gender difference may exist. It amuses me when the left hand doesn't know what the farther left hand is doing.

8:59 AM  
Blogger Stan Guthrie said...

From the e-mail bag:

First, Nancy Hopkins does a great disservice to women everywhere when she--in stereotypical fashion--says she felt "physically ill" because of Summers' statements. When is the last time we have heard a man say, "I would have blacked out or thrown up" in response to hearing something he did not like? I can't think of a time. And I suspect that even if a man did feel that way, he would not feel the need to tell us about it. Yet, women on the left often seem to use such psychosomatic responses as a way to bolster their arguments.

Second, one other possible reason for greater male advancement in the sciences has to do with the fact that such advancement--especially in academia--goes hand in hand with increasing specialization. Such specialization seems to fit more with the male temperament than the female. Men tend to focus narrowly (get the blinders on) while women tend to take a broader approach to a given situation or project. As always, this is a generalization, and there are plenty of exceptions on both sides of the rule.

Third, I'm happy to fix the faucets and hang the mirrors anytime.

Your loving wife

5:19 PM  
Blogger Misha said...

I once ran a general notes file named "vivelad" (short for "vive la difference") that was a discussion area for male/female differences. It was not a "I think" or "I believe" - it was for discussion of empirical measurable differences and subtleties between the sexes. After all, there are indeed many differences beyond the obvious anatomical ones. An injustice is done when the politically correct, like Ms. Hopkins, gets her nose out of joint when the topic is even discussed, preferring to demand that there are no differences and stifle discussion. It is just as inconscionable when someone is denied opportunity merely because of their gender. Everyone should have the freedom to do whatever is within their capabilities. As an example, most females are not strong enough to do the job of fireman. Females typically have better stamina than males, and males usually have the raw strength that that job requires. I have a female friend who is 6'1", and could easily satisfy the requirements for fireman, where I as a male with my attributes do not. To keep my friend from that job simply because she is female is as rediculous as allowing me to be one simply because I'm male. To me, obviously, part of the enjoyment of people is appreciating them for their particular talents. That is true diversity, not the cuss-word that the pc crowd has made of it demanding that we are all identical.

10:35 PM  
Blogger Grandma_Ellen said...

Vive La Differance indeed! Even though I have always excelled in math and the sciences, I came to the realization early that my approach to things was not exactly that of my male counterparts. They seemed to need a practical application for every idea. I, on the other hand, have always been struck with the mystery and beauty of mathematics and the organizational logic of the laws of science.

On the home scene, it is my father, your wife's grandpa, that made sure I learned to appreciate those activities generally considered "men's work". This was actually passed down from his childhood where, in his family of six children, both genders learned to do all of the jobs. My Aunt Ruth ran a yarn shop and did custom machine knitting for her clients. It was my father, however, who worked out the designs and wrote out the patterns for her for the machine. He also taught my mother how to cook and me how to use a saw and do some basic troubleshooting on a non-starting automobile.

Staying at home and being with children is the most challenging job one will ever have. Besides the usual education needs of the younger household members, there is also a major scheduling and expediting job to be done to keep a household of three or more people running smoothly. Some corporate types are beginning to appreciate this and look for middle-aged empty nester females to employ.

There is another thing that I notice about a woman doing "man's work" in the home. She tends to use whatever is handy instead of having to have the exact tool to do the job.

This is best illustrated with killing flies or other creepy crawlies. A woman will grab her shoe or a book and slam the bug. Meanwhile, her man is usually searching for the fly swatter and cannot fathom why she would risk dirtying a shoe or book just for expediency in bug removal.

Even with the differences I think that it is imperative for both academia and the rest of the workplace to eliminate gender considerations from employment opportunities. Both genders can do almost any job. That they do it a bit differently doesn't matter as long as the job gets done. It is high time the world appreciate that there is more than one way to accomplish almost everything. Different but equal does apply to gender. At least it should.

1:48 AM  
Blogger M. Joseph said...

I count myself fortunate to have already figured out that my future wife (not yet my fiance', but it's currently only a matter of semantics between us for a number of reasons) simply needs more time than I need in order to hang a level mirror, construct an entertainment center, etc.

It's not that she needs to time in order to get the same results I can get (although I sometimes like to think that). But instead, it's because she wants to do everything right the first time. Conversely, I have no problem with donig something again if it isn't just right after the initial attempt.

Figuring that out helps me stay calm when she insists on reading every word of the instructions while I'm posing with the correct nut or bolt and the correct tool (most of the time). It's those times when I'm wrong that continues to give her the leverage she uses to keep me frozen in place, ready to make the next move I'm "sure" we need to do.

With enthusiasm, "Viva la difference!!."

1:22 PM  
Blogger Misha said...

Aye! Good points. When my wife and I are doing finances and doing the math, she will get to the right answer very quickly, where I have to plod step-by-step until I reach the same answer. She can't describe HOW she got the answer, but she gets to it quickly and intuitively - what can I say, it works. I can show exactly how I broke things down and worked from step to step to finally get there, but I’m slower. Both approaches have their positives and negatives. Together we make a good team by combining our talents to cross-check each other.

The difference lies in the structure of the male and female brain. There is a structure known as the corpus colossum that connects the two hemispheres of the brain. This disconnects as a fairly young age for males, but stays connected for females. “Female intuition”, and the above anecdote, is a result of the female brain sharing information lightning fast between the two hemispheres. The male has to think it through a process, not having the benefit of that high-speed connection.

Another trait of the sexes: females notice detail where males tend to see the broad picture. The following scenario well illustrates this: Walk into a room, look around, and walk out. The male will tell you about the size and space, what elements (chair, table, etc.) were in the room. Females will be able to tell you the color of the walls, carpet, furniture, what paintings or decorations were on the walls, etc. The classic after-first date question by a female, “What color are my eyes? What color were my shoes?” causes the male to stammer, “you have nice eyes – were you wearing shoes?” Females should not think that the male was uninterested because he didn’t note these things. They pick it up unconsciously, the male has to specifically look and remember.

I've had the theory that one reason our WW2 airplanes had such a reputation for taking massive damage and still bringing their crews home was because of all the women who worked in the factories assembling those planes. With their attention to detail they made sure that little was forgotten and built 'em reliably and tough.

7:00 PM  

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