Women in Science

by Siegfried Othmer | December 18th, 2007

Ever since Larry Summers broached the issue in 2005 of whether intrinsic biological
factors might have something to do with the low entry rate of women into certain science
disciplines I have been accumulating a file of clippings on this general issue. Just recently
the controversy has come up again in two forms. First of all, Larry Summers just had his
speaker’s invitation canceled by the University of California Board of Regents. So the
man is still being punished for his supposed indiscretions some two years later. Losing
the Presidency of Harvard was not enough. Secondly, the issue is being revisited in
Science News because the underlying scientific issues are still not resolved.

It is quite clear that this has been another instance of the political ambient determining
what is ok for science to uncover. Respectable opinion is all of one mind with regard to
this issue, and the salience of the issue in the culture at large has been clear ever since
Bobby Riggs took on Billy Jean King. That match cleared the Los Angeles freeways as
only a heavyweight bout could have done before that time.

The scientific data, however, are ambiguous. My interest in surfacing this issue is not to
cover this territory, but rather to argue simply that we may be talking about very different
things when we refer to population means versus population extremes. Indeed we may
find that boys and girls perform comparably in a variety of mathematical and other
technical challenges, but the more one walks out to the extremes of the distribution, the
more de facto gender disparity asserts itself.

The answer, it is suggested, may lie in a larger variable space than simply the gender
dichotomy. Perhaps it is best to illustrate the point from another domain. During World
War II the British found that the flyers with obsessive-compulsive tendencies made the
best bomber pilots. It had been found that bomber fleets survived best if they flew in tight
formation, and it took a certain kind of pilot to stick with that regimen when the flak
started coming up from below. Similarly, they found that the flyers with antisocial and
sociopathic tendencies made for the best fighter pilots. Once someone got their goat, they
would be simply tenacious in pursuit.

In these cases, the statement that men make the best bomber and fighter pilots may
amount to little more than the observation that men are more likely than women to be
OCD or sociopathic. What, then, might be the equivalent of this in the case of the
mathematical and physical sciences? British neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen and his
research team at Cambridge have uncovered a correlation of fetal testosterone exposure
with a set of behaviors that we have come to associate with the Asperger’s and autistic
spectrum: an early tendency to avoid eye contact; limited vocabulary and other
communication difficulties; a fascination with objects and with rule-based systems;
awkwardness in social situations in later years. This is much more likely to occur in
males, and is even being referred to as Extreme Maleness Syndrome.

There may even be a functional pathway to such states. It was my own experience as a
graduate student in physics at Cornell that after a several-hour written examination I
would find it difficult to speak for some hours afterwards. An intense commitment to
working certain neural networks would temporarily inhibit access to yet other such
networks. Oral examinations in physics and mathematics were a particular challenge.

With this perspective, the statement that the best mathematicians in the world are much
more likely to be male than female may largely reduce to the proposition that males are
much more likely than females to exhibit features of Asperger’s Syndrome. This view of
the matter should certainly take the vinegar out of the discussion of male-female
differences. Yes, the observed gender differences in the tails of the distribution are real;
and yes, they do have a biological basis. But we cannot let the tail wag the dog. Findings
in the tails of the distribution tell us little about the bulk in which most of us reside.
Knowing the above, one might not want to rush to sign up for living at these extremes.
The people who do live there don’t do it by choice either.

The true civil liberties interest lies in allowing both males and females to elaborate their
potential, irrespective of whether they lie at the extremes of the distribution or in the
middle. Simply knowing a person’s gender is not much help in predicting competences, and that holds true in
particular at the extremes.

Now, can Larry Summers have his job back? On this issue there is likely to be a gender
disparity as well. It’s not so much that he got his facts wrong as that it was insensitive for
a President of Harvard to act in that setting as if he were simply sitting in on a graduate
seminar batting ideas around. The genie he let out of the bottle could no longer be put
back. Was this insensitivity perhaps yet another illustration of Maleness Syndrome, albeit
in less extreme form?

Siegfried Othmer, Ph.D.

One Response to “Women in Science”

  1. lklatt says:

    Months after the initial uproar over Dr. Summer’s remarks, I am still so saddened and disappointed and disallusioned with the scientists and academics at Harvard. University professors, especially, have got to be dedicated to freedom of expression for everyone if they are truly interested guiding their students in the search for truth. How can political correctness have any place at all in a true university ? It is apparent that the academic community at Harvard are closed-minded, intolerant, biased, little people who are afraid of unpopular ideas. One is only afraid of others’ ideas and opinions if one is not sure about one’s own. The treatment of Dr. Summers by the Harvard faculty is unforgivable. How sad that one of our great universities has sunk below even mediocrity.

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