Magazine | March 8, 2010, Issue

Gender Gaps

The Science on Women and Science, edited by Christina Hoff Sommers (AEI, 340 pp., $20)

The famous Title IX provision in the 1972 civil-rights legislation sounds quite sensible: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” In the pattern of feminist activism with which we have become familiar, however, what sounded like a reasonable attempt to ensure fairness to individuals soon became a coercive instrument for enforcing decidedly unreasonable kinds of group rights.

Title IX’s first application was to high-school and college athletics. Since the premise of feminism is that men and women are alike apart from inconsequential physical differences and arbitrary social construction, disparities in the numbers of each sex in any area must be the result of discrimination. College administrators realized that in order to forestall lawsuits and loss of federal money, they had to demonstrate “statistical proportionality”: that the participation of men and women in sports was proportional to their numbers in the student population. But women outnumber men at many colleges, and even with the prompting and funding that markedly increased female participation in the wake of Title IX, women on the whole continued to show less interest in sports than men. Thus, perfectly viable men’s teams had to be eliminated in order to make the numbers proportional.

As mean and unjust as has been Title IX’s application to college sports, its proponents are now employing it for something even more pernicious: the attempt to achieve gender parity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. And, as ever, the government is at the ready to do their bidding.

In a hearing held in October 2007 by a House subcommittee on research and science education, all five congressmen present — Republican and Democrat — accepted without reservation the premise that gender disparities in STEM faculties, particularly in engineering, physics, and math, are the result of discrimination. Expert witness Kathie Olsen, then deputy director of the National Science Foundation, declared that “our goal is to transform, institution by institution, the entire culture of science and engineering in America,” adding in a rhetorical flourish, “to be inclusive of all — for the good of all,” which can only sound like a grim joke to those who know the harm Title IX has done to men’s sports. But all the congressmen said amen. “What kind of hammer should we use?” demanded Rep. Brian Baird (D., Wash.). Title IX compliance reviews are already underway.

Hitherto relatively safe from the political correctness and diversity policing that have plagued the humanities, science is now under assault, as Christina Hoff Sommers illustrates in this important collection of articles by different experts on various aspects of the issue. “Title IX has unquestionably led to men’s participation in sports being calibrated to the level of women’s interest,” Sommers warns in her own contribution. “That level of calibration could devastate academic science.” In order to achieve proportionality in these fields, the numbers of men admitted to science programs may have to be reduced, while more women, likely with lesser qualifications, will have to be recruited.

Although the gender-equity movement in science has been active since at least the early 2000s, Lawrence Summers no doubt galvanized this new and noxious round of social engineering with his suggestion at a Harvard conference in 2005 that so few women rise to faculty positions in STEM in part because men have greater intrinsic aptitude in science and math, and also greater interest in these fields.

Feminists responded with convulsive outrage, and the next step was Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering (2006), a report sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. The writers alleged “pervasive unexamined gender bias” in STEM, denied evidence for lesser innate ability in women, and recommended modifying the competitive ethos of academic science with a more nurturing atmosphere suited to women’s special brand of intellection — evidently oblivious of the contradiction this last point presented to feminists’ insistence that the sexes are alike.

Most of the authors in the present volume support Lawrence Summers’s side of the debate. Psychopathologist Simon Baron-Cohen notes differences in male/female mathematical ability, as shown, for example, in scores on the math portion of the SATs. Men score about 40 points better in the average ranges, and the gap widens at the high end, where 13 men to 1 woman score over 700 out of a possible 800. Baron-Cohen also details research on infants and small children that finds males better at “systemizing” and females at “empathizing,” tendencies that would naturally lead them toward different vocations.

#page#Perhaps the most powerful entry in the book comes from psychologist Jerre Levy and research scientist Doreen Kimura, who directly refute the Bias and Barriers study, presenting a wealth of evidence to show “that genetic and hormonal differences between males and females are major causes of sex differences in behavior” and in “educational and vocational goals.” Short of “coercive force or manipulation of the hormonal environment of the fetus,” we cannot “equalize the numbers of men and women in all fields of science, engineering, and math.”

But Levy and Kimura also point out that, purported “hostile climate” notwithstanding, where interest and ability coincide, women have succeeded handsomely in some fields, such as medicine, veterinary medicine, and the life sciences (as opposed to math, engineering, and the physical sciences). Finally, the authors deplore the demand for a more nurturing atmosphere for women as “an insult to female scientists, and a serious danger to science itself.” (For another analysis of the ineptitude and unprofessionalism of the Bias and Barriers report, see Patricia Hausman’s article for Academic Questions, “Feminizing Science: The Alchemy of Title IX,” available online.)

In his entry, developmental psychologist David C. Geary finds “overwhelming” evidence that evolution has produced hard-wired sexual differences. Neurologist and psychologist Richard J. Haier details brain research that may account for male predominance in scientific fields, and calls for faithfulness to data, not ideology.

On the other side of the issue, psychologists Elizabeth S. Spelke and Katherine Ellison detail tests on infants and children that show the sexes having similar abilities in areas of cognition important to scientific work. And Rosalind Chait Barnett and Laura Sabattini outline the structural barriers women have faced in science throughout history.

The weight of the book, however, is on the side of sexual difference, and Sommers writes that “the evidence for gender bias in math and science is weak at best, and the evidence that women are relatively disinclined to pursue these fields at the highest levels is serious.” Thus it is alarming to see that prestigious institutions such as Harvard and MIT have already begun to implement gender-equity policies.

With his usual panache, Charles Murray predicts in his provocative if sometimes puzzling conclusion to the book that the accumulating evidence of innate group differences will within ten years destroy the “equality premise” that undergirds contemporary social science and underwrites political correctness and affirmative action. The change will come regarding men and women first, since the taboo against sex differences is somewhat weaker than that against race and ethnic differences. Murray declares that innate preferences dispose the sexes to different fields, and that at the high end of STEM especially, men will inevitably be the majority on science faculties and among Nobel laureates and Fields Medal winners due to their decided genetic advantages in intellectual and behavioral traits (although he spookily adds “until genetic engineering alters them”). Indeed, Murray fears that the implosion of the equality premise will lead to an overreaction in the other direction, toward renewed discrimination, but he helpfully assures liberals that the acknowledgement of group differences could actually justify a demand for greater redistribution of wealth. Simon Baron-Cohen, for his part, despite his belief in consequential sexual differences, supports using social policies to produce greater equality in STEM. One senses the need for a larger, humanistic vision that could find meaning in life beyond egalitarianism, and Murray’s final note emphasizing individualism is a partial move toward that end.

Sommers herself clings to her commitment to what she has termed “equity feminism” in the classical-liberal tradition, as opposed to what she has elsewhere termed “gender feminism,” the identity-politics kind that unfortunately prevails. But even these designations are collapsing, as she is forced to describe feminist activism in science as the demand for “gender equity.” Still, as our society struggles to come to grips with what it has so long been forced to deny, this book is an invaluable contribution and should be in the hands of every department head in every university across the land.

– Carol Iannone is editor-at-large of Academic Questions and writes on literature and culture.

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