Thursday I stirred the pot and linked to some dredged-up Larry Summers controversy (It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time); I was dealing with a cold and didn’t include commentary while my head was foggy.
But I’m starting to feel better, and Cherish has raised some points and so here’s what my thinking behind this was.
One of the confounding issues here is the source amnesia that is going on — we remember statements made by non-credible sources, and forget the source before we forget the statement. We remember things not because they are true, but because they are repeated, and with that comes myths and falsehoods stuck in our memory. We all “know” Al Gore invented the internet, but fewer know that Gore didn’t actually claim that. The Summers controversy is similar. (And when I taught, I discovered that my students had a “not” filter: if you told them “X is not true,” the first thing they would do is forget the negation and thereafter believe that “X is true.”) So the first order of business is to read what he actually said, rather than rely on what we remember, or what others repeatedly told us he said.
Secondly, a disclaimer. Sexism and discrimination exist. Of this I have no doubt. I’ve seen it happen, both in academia and elsewhere (Sheesh, I was in the military, which is (still) a bastion for such behavior). I don’t like it, and try not to be a practitioner. Nothing in this should be misconstrued to think I’m denying or condoning such behavior.
The problem is this: there are times when the discussion about disparity of representation in areas of STEM (particularly academia) begins and ends with sex discrimination, and I have a problem with that. What I don’t understand why how other scientists don’t take issue with dismissal of requests to look at the situation scientifically, as with an attitude of not looking at other data, or how raising a question of “Have we looked at X?” is shouted down.
My take on the Summers talk is that he raised these issues. Summers never said that discrimination doesn’t exist — on that topic, he posited that of it were the sole issue, what we’d see is some department being able to load up an absolutely fantabulous female faculty members that were being shunned, and we don’t.
The second problem is the one that Gary Becker very powerfully pointed out in addressing racial discrimination many years ago. If it was really the case that everybody was discriminating, there would be very substantial opportunities for a limited number of people who were not prepared to discriminate to assemble remarkable departments of high quality people at relatively limited cost simply by the act of their not discriminating, because of what it would mean for the pool that was available.
Another Summers point that gets attention is the view that there might be a disparity in the variance of ability.
It does appear that on many, many different human attributes-height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability-there is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference in means-which can be debated-there is a difference in the standard deviation, and variability of a male and a female population. And that is true with respect to attributes that are and are not plausibly, culturally determined. If one supposes, as I think is reasonable, that if one is talking about physicists at a top twenty-five research university, one is not talking about people who are two standard deviations above the mean. And perhaps it’s not even talking about somebody who is three standard deviations above the mean. But it’s talking about people who are three and a half, four standard deviations above the mean in the one in 5,000, one in 10,000 class. Even small differences in the standard deviation will translate into very large differences in the available pool substantially out.
If Summers had stood up and claimed that because of these difference there are more inept men than inept women, would he have gotten the same reaction? It’s the same argument. Are these data invalid or not credible? Then discredit them. Find some results that say otherwise.
And his main point is that there might be disparity in the willingness to stick with a job that might take ~80 hours a week.
To buttress conviction and theory with anecdote, a young woman who worked very closely with me at the Treasury and who has subsequently gone on to work at Google highly successfully, is a 1994 graduate of Harvard Business School. She reports that of her first year section, there were twenty-two women, of whom three are working full time at this point. That may, the dean of the Business School reports to me, that that is not an implausible observation given their experience with their alumnae. So I think in terms of positive understanding, the first very important reality is just what I would call the, who wants to do high-powered intense work?
Now, anecdotes aren’t data, and there are demanding careers where the disparity is greater and areas where it is smaller, so this can’t be the only effect; I suspect it would be more telling to look at dropout rates than participation rates. Relevant data can certainly be obtained. And that’s the point underlying the whole topic — these are effects than can be studied scientifically. If you can demonstrate the hypothesis to be false, then do so. This is similar to what Summers asks in his conclusion
Let me just conclude by saying that I’ve given you my best guesses after a fair amount of reading the literature and a lot of talking to people. They may be all wrong. I will have served my purpose if I have provoked thought on this question and provoked the marshalling of evidence to contradict what I have said. But I think we all need to be thinking very hard about how to do better on these issues and that they are too important to sentimentalize rather than to think about in as rigorous and careful ways as we can. That’s why I think conferences like this are very, very valuable. Thank you.
One thing that never seems to get brought up in these discussions is the zero-sum effect. If we assume that the work pool is fixed, then any woman who chooses a career in an underrepresented area of STEM comes from somewhere else. As long as there are careers where women represent greater-than-average numbers, there will necessarily be areas where they are underrepresented. This seems to get passed over in the carnage that ensues when this topic is broached.