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Reflections on the Women-in-Science Debate

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Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) March 1, 2011: Why aren't there equal numbers of men and women among the ranks of top scientists? All other factors being equal, shouldn't we expect that the numbers of men and women would be equal at the top ranks of scientists? But the numbers are not equal. This suggests that certain other factors are not equal, or possibly only one factor. But which factor(s)?

Several years ago, Larry Summers, then president of Harvard University, ventured to suggest some possible answers to this divergence in numbers. But his suggested answers stirred up a firestorm among academics feminists, forcing him eventually to resign as president of Harvard. (He has more recently served as economic adviser to President Obama.)

John Tierney, a science writer for the NEW YORK TIMES, revived this debate in an article in the TIMES on February 7, 2011 ("Social Scientist Sees Bias Within [Social Scientists]").

In response to his article, Alison Gopnik of Berkeley wrote a nuanced and cogent analysis of relevant studies in SLATE MAGAZINE online on February 19, 2011 ("What John Tierney Gets Wrong About Women Scientists").

Shankar Vedantam, author of the book THE HIDDEN BRAIN (2010), was also prompted by Tierney's article to write his own article "Psych-Out Sexism: The innocent, unconscious bias that discourages girls from math and science" that was also published at SLATE MAGAZINE online on March 1, 2011.

I want to discuss both SLATE articles and suggest different ways of understanding and explaining certain findings discussed by each respective author.

Without realizing the enormity of her own observation, Gopnik makes an extraordinary observation in the form of a rhetorical question: "Is it any wonder that many of them [women scientists], keenly aware that their efforts are being downgraded compared to those of men, would withdraw from a competition that is systematically unfair?"

First, let us note that Gopnik's rhetorical question is an understandable conjecture of her part. In short, she is not reporting the findings of a survey in which women scientists stated that they withdrew from a competition that they saw as systematically unfair.

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Next, let us note that the wording "withdraw from a competition" clearly suggests that women scientists may not be as competitive as they would need to be under the adverse condition of having their efforts being downgraded compared to those of men.

Doesn't withdrawing from a competition that is systematically unfair show a certain lack of courage to endure the outrageous slings and arrows of life?

John F. Kennedy famously quipped that life is unfair. If he's right, should we all withdraw from the competition of life because it is systematically unfair?

But, hey, didn't the Green Bay Packers just win the Super Bowl? Wasn't the road to the Super Bowl a competition that is arguably systematically unfair to the small-market Green Bay Packers?

Isn't the competition with the rich New York Yankees systematically unfair to the less rich major-league baseball teams?

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Isn't the legendary story of David single-handedly defeating Goliath supposed to teach us to have the courage to fight the good fight in a competition that is systematically unfair?

In his book FIGHTING FOR LIFE: CONTEST, SEXUALITY, AND CONSCIOUSNESS (Cornell University Press, 1981), the published version of his 1979 Messenger Lectures at Cornell University, Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003), refers to male competitiveness as contesting behavior. He uses the Greek term "agon" to refer to agonistic behavior.

Ong understandably allows that girls and women are competitive in their own ways.

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www.d.umn.edu/~tfarrell

Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)
 

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