Or: Even the President of Harvard can put his foot in his mouth...
Two things you all should know about me before I begin. These are pretty obvious, but I want to make this clear at the outset. I'm a woman, and I work in the Ivory Tower. Specifically, I'm a woman who will shortly be pursuing an academic job in science. So excuse me if I seem a little offended, but I resemble that remark! (see below)
Harvard University President Lawrence Summers gave a talk last Friday with regard to gender diversity issues, specifically referring to the lack of female professors in science and engineering departments. According to the Boston Globe, Summers laid out a series of points which represented different theories as to why fewer women take these positions:
1. Women are less likely to want to work 80-hour weeks than men
2. Fewer women score well on science and math aptitude tests in high school and college, and behavioral genetics studies suggest that fewer women have scientific aptitude
3. gender discrimination
Then he said that none of these was the real reason, but that the pool of female applicants was small, and that the effects of any of the above on the size of the pool is not known.
I don't even know where to begin with this colossal prick. First of all, saying ANY of this is HIGHLY presumptuous, since he's a man and doesn't actually have any expertise in gender issues. He's an economist. So let's take this point by point, shall we?
1. Ok, it's true. Women do prefer to spend more time at home with a young family, in most cases. But this doesn't mean that women are unfit for these types of positions. It means that the system needs to be more flexible. For example, I can tell you from experience that an 80 hour work week in science need not all be in the office. If you have a decent laptop, you can cut that time down by about half. A creative mom can still work those hours, just not all in the lab like some of her counterparts. In many professional careers, sadly enough, the time that you are expected to devote the largest proportion of your time to honing your craft (residency, postdoctoral fellowships, assistant professorships, etc.) is the same time in your life when you are trying to start a family and build a successful marriage. That's not easy for either partner, but the real burden of it often falls more heavily on the female partner since society expects us to take care of our kids and husbands. Try juggling that and an 80 hour work week. Forget it. I mean, at some point you have to choose.
Look, for every hundred thousand kids who grow up to be scientists, maybe one of them will reach their dream of winning a Nobel Prize. Why? because most of us make choices that are incompatible with that kind of single-minded devotion to science. You can only be married to one thing, your spouse or your lab bench.
2. I'm so appalled by this I don't even know what to say. This was the part of the speech where a number of eminent female scientists got up and walked out. I probably would have been rude and made comments, but either way, I wouldn't have been staying for the end :) I can't tell you how many people I know who decided on science after starting out in another field. In some cases getting a degree in art or music before realizing where their interests lay, both males and females. Don't tell me that girls aren't as good at science as boys. That's patently false. And females routinely score higher on the SAT math and GRE Math, Quantatative, and Science tests in the past few years. Obviously men and women approach problems differently, but that doesn't disqualify either group from pursuing scientific questions.
3. Never seen gender discrimination. Never really experienced it. Never had to deal with it, so I suppose it's far from the point. Sexual harassment, yes, but actual gender discrimination, no. Let's put it this way, out of 30 students in my program, I think there are 6 guys. And we're a top-10 program in our field.
As far the smaller size of the pool of applicants, I suspect that's changing. More and more women are moving into research. My generation was the first to apply to graduate school in relatively equal numbers across the gender line, and we're beginning to apply for faculty positions now. I suspect that there will be more highly qualified female applicants in the years to come.
So to sum up, the real problem here is dicks like Summers. They create this publish or perish mentality that forces professors to devote minimum 80 hour weeks to overseeing their labs and writing grants and reviewing manuscripts. Not to mention writing them. They expect to see the younger faculty doing all of this as well as building a lab, establishing a reputation and a funding track-record, teaching classes, mentoring students, and serving on University committees. All this while they're trying to build and maintain a home and a family. Combined with the attitude that women are less interested in work and more intersted in their kids, and the opinion that girls are less likely to be good scientists, makes the whole thing a really difficult proposition.
But what may be worse to me is the way that some prominent female academics are handling the problem. These women are our role models, and the way that they deal with these issues sets the table for what will happen with us. When these women walk out of such an address, they aren't merely turning their backs on the speaker, they're turning their backs on us. That man deserved to be taken to task for his thoughtless and inappropriate comments there and then, rather than in a war of words in the Boston Globe. Real change won't come about through backbiting and cat fighting. Michele Malkin is right. Walking out was exactly the kind of silly emotional response that people who perpetuate these ideas expect from women. Malkin calls it a "collective emotional snit fit unbecoming of any self-respecting representative of the ivory tower", and it was. Having a hissy fit isn't going to solve any problems.
I'm not sure how this is going to change unless prominent women begin demanding that it changes. There is some reluctance to do this, I think in part because of the same attitude that imposed draconian schedules on medical residents, the whole "I went through it so why shouldn't you" attitude. As for myself, I've already learned this lesson. In looking for a new position, I refuse to accept one in a lab that won't allow me to be flexible to my needs. And I know I'm not alone. I just hope it makes a difference.