Larry Summers supported his recent suggestion that science ought to study innate gender differences with an observation that his daughter played with trucks as if they were dolls. Summers obviously needs to brush up on social science research; these days, it’s almost common sense to know that gender socialization literally starts from the womb. Psychology research has shown that parents describe their newborn boys and girls (who look identical to anyone not aware of their sex) with appropriate sex-typed adjectives, praising their boys for being “strong” and cooing at their “delicate” baby girls. While boys sleep tight in blue-painted rooms with science-fiction themes, girls’ environments are often surrounded with lace, tea sets and plenty of dolls. Looking beyond the parents, what about our culture at large? Even astute parents who take every precaution not to consciously gender their children will not be able to shield their little ones from the influences around them. Going into detail about such cultural influences would make for an article in itself, as billboards, magazines, newsstands, clothing stores, television and movies all make for a highly gendered childhood.
Ironically, Summers’ comments about science rest on very unscientific reasoning, and therefore deserve some questioning as well. He claimed that discrimination in academia is not to blame for the lack of women in the sciences because women make up a much smaller application pool for top posts. But the data so far does not back Summers. After achieving parity at the Ph.D. level in the biological sciences for over 20 years, women still are a small minority in the professorial ranks. The highly publicized case at MIT in which female faculty were given fewer resources and marginalized should have been something Summers paid attention to. The truth is that Summers fails to realize his own role in limiting this pool.
Differences in men and women’s math scores are much smaller, even negligible, for Asian-Americans in this country. In other countries, such as Japan, differences are nonexistent, and in at least one country that we know of (Iceland), women perform better than men. Furthermore, a 1994 study by the Educational Testing Service found that women’s scores on both the verbal and math portions of the SAT tend to under-predict their actual college performance. Therefore, the validity of the tests themselves requires further examination.
Then there are the seminal studies done by Claude Steele and his colleagues on the phenomenon of “stereotype threat.” Steele has found that asking women to mark off their gender before taking a portion of a SAT test causes them to perform substantially worse. The same phenomenon has been observed with African-Americans and other groups who suffer the stereotype of being “not as smart” as white males. If simply changing the instructions on a test can significantly vary performance, how can we use biology as our starting point when examining the question of why men do better?
Our arguments are not meant to dismiss biological differences between the sexes. However, it is very difficult to determine what results of intelligence differences are due to genetics or to environment. To date, only certain kinds of spatial abilities have been shown to consistently differ between men and women and have a genetic origin. And while these kinds of spatial abilities could be a potential boon in disciplines like physics, for example, brilliant female physicists would certainly agree that these are only a very small portion of the multitude of different abilities needed to succeed in the field.
The above example of what appears to be an actual, perhaps even “innate,” biological difference between the sexes brings us to our final point regarding Summers’ comments. What does studying such differences actually accomplish?
We know from the field of social psychology that people are more likely to look for, notice and retain any evidence that confirms rather than disproves their own hypotheses, and scientific experiments are certainly fallible to this bias. Therefore, there are big problems with “simply” asking questions about innate differences between men and women. First, we face the probability of adding to whatever cultural forces are contributing to the experience of “stereotype threat” that Steele and others have observed. Second, we are hypocritically denying our own vested interests in what we are studying — interests that could perhaps be better illuminated by simply asking instead: Why are we so interested in studying this?
In contrast to the ridicule heaped on “The Bell Curve” — a book on innate intelligence differences between races that came out in 1994 — the seeming legitimacy of studies showing variances in intelligence between men and women proves that while studying racial differences with pseudo-science is no longer apropos, making similar pronouncements on gender differences is still an open arena. Perhaps we should ask why our society is so fascinated and persuaded by gender differences, but appalled by those of race. Research shows that while people express guilt after having stereotyped someone of another race, they experience only amusement at having stereotyped a woman. If we want to sincerely form a scientific community open to all possibilities, we will need to first carefully examine our own deep-seated motivations.
Summers addressed his critics by claiming he only meant to be “provocative.” To end on a similar theme, we would like to pose the question of what it means to be “provocative.” Perhaps the meaning, in our society, is when people in respected positions make comments that are incongruent with their own seeming levels of intelligence. We leave this question up to future scientific study.
Daisy Grewal is a graduate student in psychology. Elena Grewal is a junior in Morse College.