Minding the Kids, Again

by Kieran Healy on February 19, 2005

Now that Larry Summers has begun to live up to his putative commitment to open, freewheeling inquiry by finally releasing a transcript of his infamous remarks, various people are commenting on it. Matt Yglesias says

I don’t think you can reasonably expect any given university (or corporation, or person) to singlehandedly shoulder the burden of changing a set of social expectations that’s become very well entrenched over a very long period of time. At the same time, you can’t just do nothing about it, either.

Bitch, PhD addresses this issue pretty well, as does a correspondent of Mark Kleiman’s. The main point is the first step toward addressing what Matt properly calls “a set of social expectations that’s become very well entrenched over a very long period” is—contrary to what Summers did in his remarks—to stop treating it as a more-or-less simple result of the expression of individual preferences. Now, in other social-policy contexts, economists will jump all over you for not properly considering the incentives that shape people’s choices and smugly wheel out one-liners like “People respond to incentives, all else is commentary.” There’s a lot to that observation. But in contexts like gender and the labor market, the emphasis instead gets put on individual preferences as the mainspring of choice, rather than considering the social origins of the incentive structure.

Here is an old post of mine, written in response to something Jane Galt (aka Megan McArdle) wrote. It addresses this issue a bit, with some pointers to accessible and practical discussions of it by specialists—some of the literature that Summers just baldly ignored, or was inexcusably ignorant of. As I said back then,

Jane’s initial question — “Should we [women] stay home, or shouldn’t we? It’s a difficult question for professional women” — effectively concedes the case as lost from the get-go. It frames the problem as wholly belonging to the prospective mother. Dad has no responsibility towards his potential offspring, is not required to make any work/family tradeoffs, and indeed has so much autonomy that a woman who chooses kids over career is “taking a huge financial bet on her husband’s fidelity.” … The institutions that structure people’s career paths may have deep roots, but that’s not because they spring naturally out of the earth. Cross-national comparison shows both that there’s considerable variation in the institutionalization of child care, and that this variation can have odd origins. … [They] aren’t immutable, either. In fact, in the U.S. they’ve changed a great deal since the early 1980s … Looking at the problem this way makes one less likely to fatalism about tragic choices, wanting to have it all, and the inevitable clash of work and family. … It also has the virtue — as C. Wright Mills put it forty years ago — of letting us “grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society,” rather than forever being stuck at the level of individual women facing insoluble work-family tradeoffs.

None of that is particularly original, by the way. It’s a well-developed perspective with plenty of empirical evidence and theoretical elaboration, and even a little bit of reading in this area would make that evident. That’s why Summers’ audience was so ticked off. In fairness to the guy, at this stage his perilous position has little to do with the remarks themselves anymore, and has become an ouster by opponents dissatisfied with his Presidency in general.

{ 43 comments }

1

Brad DeLong 02.19.05 at 2:03 am

Re: “the first step toward addressing what Matt properly calls “a set of social expectations that’s become very well entrenched over a very long period” is to stop treating it as a simple result of the expression of individual preferences…”

I would say that that is the second step. The first step is to recognize that the phenomenon exists, rather than insisting (as university presidents usually do) that we’re making progress, and that a little more affirmative action will solve things.

2

rilkefan 02.19.05 at 2:08 am

Seems to me Summers addresses Prof DeLong’s point:

“And it is a fact about our society that that is a level of commitment that a much higher fraction of married men have been historically prepared to make than of married women. That’s not a judgment about how it should be, not a judgment about what they should expect.”

3

rilkefan 02.19.05 at 2:15 am

More: “Now that begs [sic] entirely the normative questions-which I’ll get to a little later-of, is our society right to expect that level of effort from people who hold the most prominent jobs? Is our society right to have familial arrangements in which women are asked to make that choice and asked more to make that choice than men? Is our society right to ask of anybody to have a prominent job at this level of intensity[? …]”

4

Brad DeLong 02.19.05 at 2:17 am

Well, yes. That’s my point. The (low) bar for a university president is to stand up and say, “We have a problem, but we’re making progress. We’re all people of good will. We just have to do a little more affirmative action at the assistant professor level and form three more committees.” Relative to that bar, Summers’s talk shows light-years of progress.

5

Delicious Pundit 02.19.05 at 2:30 am

Aren’t we overlooking the root cause of the problem — children themselves?

Especially the damn Barbie shoes they leave on the floor. There oughta be a law.

6

Laura 02.19.05 at 2:46 am

The topic of women in academia has come up a few times on my blog. Here are two posts with some great comments: here and here.

7

eudoxis 02.19.05 at 2:57 am

“[Jane Galt’s]It’s a difficult question for professional women” — effectively concedes the case as lost from the get-go. It frames the problem as wholly belonging to the prospective mother. Dad has no responsibility towards his potential offspring, is not required to make any work/family tradeoffs”

Perhaps Dad doesn’t have the same kind of emotional ties to children as Mom does, namely, ties that effectively remove the passion required to sustain an 80 hour work week combined with a 24 hour intellectual involvement. Priorities change only after the a child is born and a choice made before having children needs to be made fully informed. Women are being misled to think they can “have it all” if only they made the right kind of partner negotiations or child care arrangements.

I know too many women (like me) who opted out of academic positions for more time with children.

8

gmoke 02.19.05 at 3:24 am

One has to remember that Larry Summers is the person who advised the World Bank to dump toxics on the Third World because their lives are worth less than those in the “developed” world. When called on it, he said it was a joke.

Larry Summers has helped to dismantle the African-American Studies dream team Henry Louis Gates spent years assembling at Harvard. One of the first things Summers did when he became president of Harvard was to pick a fight with Cornell West resulting in West’s leaving for Princeton and others among the group to begin planning their exit strategies.

Each year under Larry Summers the number of women professors hired and gaining tenure has declined.

Larry Summers was at the helm of Harvard when Jane Fonda decided to take back her multimillion dollar gift to fund the Carole Gilligan Center for Women’s Studies because Harvard wasn’t doing bupkis. Gilligan had already left Harvard for NYU a few years before Jane asked for her money back.

There may be intelligent things to say about gender differences and math and science achievement but I sincerely doubt that somebody like Larry Summers will say them.

9

gmoke 02.19.05 at 3:26 am

One has to remember that Larry Summers is the person who advised the World Bank to dump toxics on the Third World because their lives are worth less than those in the “developed” world. When called on it, he said it was a joke.

Larry Summers has helped to dismantle the African-American Studies dream team Henry Louis Gates spent years assembling at Harvard. One of the first things Summers did when he became president of Harvard was to pick a fight with Cornell West resulting in West’s leaving for Princeton and others among the group to begin planning their exit strategies.

Each year under Larry Summers the number of women professors hired and gaining tenure has declined.

Larry Summers was at the helm of Harvard when Jane Fonda decided to take back her multimillion dollar gift to fund the Carole Gilligan Center for Women’s Studies because Harvard wasn’t doing bupkis. Gilligan had already left Harvard for NYU a few years before Jane asked for her money back.

There may be intelligent things to say about gender differences and math and science achievement but I sincerely doubt that somebody like Larry Summers will say them.

10

hick 02.19.05 at 3:27 am

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11

Bill Gardner 02.19.05 at 3:41 am

Here is a small point in LHS’s talk that bothered me. “And it is a fact about our society that that is a level of commitment that a much higher fraction of married men have been historically prepared to make than of married women.” He should have added that it is a fact about our society that a much higher fraction of married women have been prepared to fulfill their commitments to their children than have married men.

12

hick 02.19.05 at 4:16 am

h lbrl cnsrshp nd hypcrsy n ctn. Why nt pst rl: nly ths plt nc sclts frm whtvr cllg y hppn t b grftng t r llwd t pst. Msgyny s nt nhrntly llgcl r mstkn.

13

Walt Pohl 02.19.05 at 4:22 am

You whine like a stuck pig, hick.

14

david 02.19.05 at 4:30 am

Summers’ comments don’t much seem like progress, when he emphasizes the biological intractability of the problem. He’s on the road towards disabling the committees, throwing up his hands and claiming that there’s not much to be done, at least in the sciences. I don’t see much of a recognition of a problem here that other presidents don’t acknowledge: any examples?

I think the fact that Harvard chased out West because he was unserious, but hired Pinker on the strength of the Blank Slate, suggests that Summers’ conviction that academia is a well-functioning meritocracy is a bit credulous. Prof. DeLong, it seems (not in this thread, but in his comment at his site), similarly believes that the system gets it right more than the data will support.

15

Colin Danby 02.19.05 at 5:44 am

I take Brad’s point that it may be better to have someone who is brutally frank than someone who makes nice meaningless noises.

But people can be brutally frank and badly wrong. Far from just throwing out ideas Summers is making a forceful argument belittling the importance of discrimination, with policy implications that he spells out. The logical structure of the speech is to put forward five possible causes for observable disparities in women’s employment in higher ed:
a. Women are less willing, in their 20s and 30s, to give a massive commitment of time, flexibility, energy, and thinking to a single job
b. Men have greater variance in innate ability than women, so that at the upper end of the distribution, talented men substantially outnumber talented women.
c. There are innate differences in tastes that may incline women away from certain fields
d. Women are socialized by their parents to avoid certain fields.
e. There is discrimination in hiring.
and then to argue that a-c are highly plausible and empirically-grounded, while d-e, though present, have negligible effects. You have to sweep aside some academic hemming and hawing to see this, but overall it’s quite clear, and there’s a pattern of omissions, rhetorical ploys, and logical leaps that reinforces the argument. For example Summers omits from his possible causes discrimination before the hiring decision, like in grad school or postdocs or during one’s first job. The whole thing is set up to make the discrimination argument look as weak and limited as possible.

Additionally I’m suprised people haven’t picked up on just how strong Summers’ genetic superiority argument really was (no wonder folks walked out) — maybe the statistical jargon obscures this, but he’s suggesting that at the upper end, genetically-talented men *way* outnumber women, like on the order of 5:1.

16

hick 02.19.05 at 7:14 am

n, y jst mr lyng lbrl clwns; spnless, fwnng, cndscndng

17

john c. halasz 02.19.05 at 7:32 am

“at the upper end, genetically-talented men *way* outnumber women, like one the order of 5 to 1.”- Which is also to beg the question as to whether “talent” is genetically determined, or that “talent” is correlated to results or achievement. It’s amazing that statistics can be deployed to achieve results that mere mortals can not attain, namely, to abolish the post hoc, prompter hoc fallacy.

18

bad Jim 02.19.05 at 11:09 am

Elsewhere some women comment that they’re tired of this subject, discouraged by the near unanimity of male opinion that members of the opposite sex can’t make the grade. Unfortunately, they’re right that many ostensibly liberal men note our mild sexual dimorphism and generalize freely therefrom.

This is a teaching moment, though. It’s time to point out that the differences between the sexes are not exactly what we think they are, and that they may be moving in a direction opposite to our comfortable preconceptions.

Aren’t boys losing ground against girls in the U.S. and the U.K.? Girls getting better grades, graduating in increasing proportions? Isn’t there alarm expressed in some quarters over this trend? Blame placed upon estrogen-mimicking chemicals leaching from plastic soft drink containers or what not?

Men aren’t that fragile or women that hardy, or vice versa.

We’ve been handed an opportunity to make a little progress and we ought to make the most of it.

19

dsquared 02.19.05 at 3:22 pm

Perhaps Dad doesn’t have the same kind of emotional ties to children as Mom does, namely, ties that effectively remove the passion required to sustain an 80 hour work week combined with a 24 hour intellectual involvement.

Two points here, really.

First, to be true this sentence would have to refer to “American Dad” and “American Mom”, because one of the things we do know is that similar patterns of behaviour are the exception rather than the rule in international comparison.

Second, the really offensive thing in the Summers’ speech is not anything to do with this sociological point; it’s his statement without evidence (via his assumed rank-ordering) that genetic inferiority of female professors is a much more important factor than discrimination.

And, I suppose as a bonus, I think he sets up a rather sneaky little false implication by suggesting that “work needs to be done” to distinguish whether

a) female academics are just as good as male ones, so we should search for more of them

or

b) female academics are basically just affirmative-action deadwood so we should get rid of them.

whereas an honest inquiry would also consider

c) female academics are in general massively superior to male ones, because discrimination weeds out the merely superior ones, so we should increase our affirmative action efforts.

and finally, I reiterate my suspicion at the time; a large amount of communication is non-verbal, and Summers is world-renowned in the economics profession for his ability to nonverbally communicate the message “I am a supercilious prick who thinks he was born better than you”, and the female academics may have been responding to this rather than elements of his speech which show up in the transcript.

20

Oscar 02.19.05 at 3:46 pm

Bitch Ph. D. wrote “He is explicitly saying that women are not in science because…”. If that inability to read is characteristic, I suggest not linking to her any more. (Or maybe she doesn’t know what “explicitly” means? – as many don’t know that “literaly” means?)

While there is a lot to dislike in what Summers wrote, it does seem that the majority of complaints were about the genetic differences argument. Is that really a bad argument? (Not that there aren’t other factors – and don’t try to list good women mathematicians – I know all about them already.)

21

Colin Danby 02.19.05 at 6:34 pm

Actually, Oscar, in the passage following your ellipsis Bitch Ph.D. does a pretty good job of summarizing Summers. “Explicitly” is there in the service of her main point: Summers and some of his defenders have sought to deflect criticism by claiming that he was just throwing out hypotheses. As the transcript shows, that’s a crock: there is a very clear, tendentious, overall argument.

As for whether the genetic differences argument is good or not, why don’t you start by asking Summers what his evidence is?

22

Joe M. 02.19.05 at 6:34 pm

Dsquared: Summers considered — twice — the very proposition that you claim is missing: That existing female academics might be far superior due to discrimination in the hiring process. He points out that discrimination in hiring, by definition, would mean that female academics who manage to get hired anyway would have to be of higher quality. But then he points out that there is “little evidence” that the average female academic is much better than the average male. That is precisely what enables him to say that something other than hiring discrimination must be at work here as well. An open-minded person would be willing to think about all the possible explanations here.

What’s more, you should keep in mind that you (and your ideological soulmates) are alienating a potential friend in Summers. For instance, after describing the sociological fact that there are more men ON AVERAGE than women who are willing to devote obsessive amounts of hours to their jobs, he goes on to say this:

“[I]s our society right to expect that level of effort from people who hold the most prominent jobs? Is our society right to have familial arrangements in which women are asked to make that choice and asked more to make that choice than men? Is our society right to ask of anybody to have a prominent job at this level of intensity? . . .”

Those are questions that I would think your side would applaud. Summers is expressing a willingness to rethink the entire set of incentives and job requirements in academia so that academia is more friendly to women. But your side would prefer to stick its fingers in its ears and ignore the fact that academia might not be a comfortable fit for many women. Ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away, and it sure as hell doesn’t help to demonize one of the few university presidents who is willing to talk about the problem out in the open.

23

aspiring libertine 02.19.05 at 7:06 pm

Those are questions that I would think your side would applaud. Summers is expressing a willingness to rethink the entire set of incentives and job requirements in academia so that academia is more friendly to women.

So he’s a feminist? Goodness gracious me, I wonder why no one noticed that. Perhaps there is some evidence, somewhere, in Summers’ secret files, that proves that women in general and feminists in particular are genetically predisposed to masochism, and so alienated one of their best potential allies, who could have no doubt helped them make sense of their tendency to self-boycott through criticism of perfectly sensible ideas like Summers’. Hmm. Food for thought.

24

Joe M. 02.19.05 at 7:22 pm

Need I add, being a smart-aleck doesn’t solve the problem that Summers was talking about either.

25

Sebastian Holsclaw 02.19.05 at 8:06 pm

One thing that has always troubled me about sociology–if it were 100% just a choice, if it didn’t represent any difference in ability, if it didn’t represent any difference in discrimination, if it didn’t represent any difference in commitment, would we be able to tell that somehow?

26

JR 02.19.05 at 11:31 pm

Re the genetic argument: this is an important scientific debate to which an economist like Summers can make NO relevant ontribution. On the other hand, as president of the institution, he is responsble for assuring laws barring discrimination are enforced.

It would fine for Summers to chat about the genetic variability theory over dinner. But why, when he admits the science is unclear and he personally has no qualifications to comment on it, was he discussing it in this venue?

His remarks reek of bad faith – “I could be wrong” means “I’m sure I’m right,” “I’d far prefer to believe something else” means “I’m smugly satisfied to believe this,” the cute invocation of his twin daughters is cynically designed to disarm his listeners.

The only way to read his remarks was as an argument that disparate outcomes in hiring are not a sign of discrimination and that therefore he does not intend to take steps to change the status quo.

27

John Lederer 02.20.05 at 12:14 am

I am fascinated that in this somewhat fierce discussion the genetic argument seems to be the red flag.

No one has advanced a single fact or reference to refute or support Summers.

Is there a greater variation in intelligence/aptitude in men than in women?

If so, would it imply that there are more men in the suitable pool for professorships?

If the answer to the first question were “yes” or “no” it would shed considerable light.

Moreover, assuming that Harvard cannot control the initial years of its professor applicants it is probably immaterial to the immediate question whether the difference in variability is genetic or social.

28

Colin Danby 02.20.05 at 12:40 am

To amplify JR’s point, this is a bright well-educated guy with a staff, an excellent library, and a job that lets him pick up the phone and talk to any natural scientist in the world — this is not your Uncle Steve after a couple of drinks. The disclaimers of knowledge are strategic — every one of them, I think you’ll find, serves as an excuse for administrative inaction.

Part of what annoyed people at the original presentation is how loosely-thought and thin the whole thing was — any first-year grad student could have done a better job. One of the perks of academic power is a license to natter on like this, because subordinates are too cowed to point out logical and evidentiary flaws in what you say.

29

rilkefan 02.20.05 at 3:03 am

John Lederer, some useful links can be found at Gene Expression.

30

Bill Gardner 02.20.05 at 5:48 am

JR,
You raise good questions.

“Re the genetic argument: this is an important scientific debate to which an economist like Summers can make NO relevant ontribution.” I am sure we both recognize that he was not trying to make a scientific contribution with his remarks. My guess is that he was either a) making a sincere but extremely ill-advised effort to share his understanding of the research at the conference (that’s how he frames it); or b) as you suggest, rationalizing a policy based on indifference about gender equity.

The latter reading requires that you attribute either bad faith or false consciousness to him. I don’t know the guy, so I will go with reading (a). But reading (b) has the following on its side. Bad faith and false consciousness on the part of Harvard administrators has a long, distinguished history. My senior year, the issue was getting the university to support Nelson Mandela and divest from companies doing business in South Afrika (ooops). We were told, with a straight face, that the administration wanted to keep the investments because they could do more good for South Africans that way. LHS was either a grad student or junior faculty member at that time, and it would be interesting to know where he stood.

By the way, I disagree that an economist can make no relevant contribution to discussions of genetics & behavior. I’m not a practitioner, but to me it looks like behavior genetics is a discipline in the early stages of development: more data fitting than theory testing. Behavior genetics would benefit greatly from getting more economists (and anthropologists, and neuroscientists, and …) involved.

31

Ajax Bucky 02.20.05 at 7:57 am

Cultural selection over time becomes genetic selection.
Arguments against altering provably harmful cultural norms that proceed from a premise of genetic inalterability are defensive posturing by the enfranchised.

32

cm 02.20.05 at 9:37 am

The statistical arguments put forward to motivate the genetic/socialization issue remind me of the mock story of a guy who “proved” that crickets hear with their legs by cutting them off and observing how that causes them not to run from sounds anymore.

And john c. halasz, regarding “talent”, what about the aspect that it is ascribed based on socially defined categories? Or in other words, what is “achievement”, and who adjudicates it?

33

john c. halasz 02.20.05 at 12:24 pm

cm:

I’m a bit perplexed. “Begging the question” means the fallacy of petitio preincipii, assuming in one’s premises what one claims to prove. The other fallacy was clearly named. The third fallacy goes by the name of irony. Oddly, the point of my comment was similar to that of Sebastian Holsclaw. But by “achievement”, I simply meant the long-run attainment of results of scientific significance. There are plenty of cases of that occurring from unlikely quarters. (Google, e.g., Barbara McClintock.)

Now it may well be that there is a neurobiological basis for exceptional mathematical ability, just as with, e.g., musical ability. And there may be adventitiously a genetic component to that. But equally, there would be no evolutionary reason for them, since neither exists in nature. The deployment of an argument from a statistical tail to rationalize a status quo faces the problem that there are several statistical tails involved and that makes for a very intricate and floppy tail.

34

Tom 02.20.05 at 12:55 pm

Isn’t this 80 hours business a bit of a crock?

A single person or a disengaged father probably would take 80 hours to do the work of a successful professor. But anyone who has learned how to be a parent has learned how to do things a lot more thoughtfully and efficiently than that.

35

Dianne 02.20.05 at 5:31 pm

A number of studies have demonstrated that men are treated differently from women from the time that they are infants, throughout their education, and into their working life. Given this huge amount of confounding data, how can one even reasonablly speculate as to whether there are genetic differences between women’s and men’s ability to succeed at science or academia?

36

Dianne 02.20.05 at 5:53 pm

Below is a link to the reference for an amusing little study. The authors taught undergraduate women volunteers how to do a hockey wrist shot. They also collected data from the same women about their perception of their competence and the appropriateness of learning this maneuver. Quoting from the conclusions: “Gender appropriateness impacted the participants’ perceptions of competence and actual performance in the study,” In other words, if you tell people they shouldn’t be able to do something, they won’t be able to do it. Women are told throughout their lives that they shouldn’t be able to do math and science. Is it any wonder therefore that they are underrepresented in these diciplines?

(reference: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=12848231)

37

John Lederer 02.20.05 at 8:26 pm

After looking at a bit of research (generally backing up Summers “hard” science comments), and carefully rereading the transcript, my conclusion is that academics have too much time on their hands.

This issue should be most interesting to micro-meteorologists –how did all that storm activity arise in that little bitty teacup?

38

John Lederer 02.20.05 at 8:34 pm

After looking at a bit of research (generally backing up Summers “hard” science comments), and carefully rereading the transcript, my conclusion is that this issue should be most interesting to micro-meteorologists.

How did all that storm activity arise in that little bitty teacup?

Academics have too much time on their hands.

39

john c. halasz 02.20.05 at 11:01 pm

The tempest in a teapot observation is an obvious one. But the determining factor is less an over-supply of time on hand than an excess of self-obsession. Still, I find the general form of the “problem” curious: that a potential must be subject to determination. A capacity to learn, the open-ended acquisition of new contents, must be reduced to prior causes. There is a level of encrusted metaphysical belief evinced here, reification. The acceptance of the contingincies of fate is subject to the false mastery of the activity of explanation. A hard moral problem is converted into a “solvable” technical one.

40

John Lederer 02.21.05 at 12:03 am

Perhaps it is more an obsession with group identities?

Seems to me Harvard, or any university, would be best served by trying to get the best faculty members it can — determined one by one on individual merit.

If that results in a disproportion of men to women, Scientologists to Baptists, left handed to right handed, or ectomorphs to endomorphs, so be it.

It seesm to me the best example one can make of not disciminating is to not discriminate. The best promise you can make to anyone that they will be evaluated on the merits is to evaluate them on the merits.

41

Canadian 02.21.05 at 1:14 am

Can Harvard be a kinder gentler workplace ? We pay attention to Harvard because of its academic excellence. Professors go there are smart and also driven. They are not like you or me. So I doubt that Harvard will lead the way to a kinder gentler workplace. It is not possible to stop academics from working exceptionally long hours because they can think and work at home if nothing else. Harvard will still hire the best and the best comes from working harder than most people . Olympic atheletes work just as hard. My guess is that they dont have balanced lives either. Both the Olympics and academia are tournaments. But academia works slighly differently. The tournament nature of academia comes from the fact that its free for any individual to read the very best article in the field. There is little need to read the fourth or fifth best article nor are we going to put those articles on our reading list. The academic community at large creates the tournament. As for comparing with other countries, the EU has a larger population and perhaps similar income to the US. But we dont look to many schools there for academic leadership in fields where local knowledge is not an advantage. Certainly Harvard can become a kinder and gentler place but it will not longer be Harvard and we will no longer care. Put another way, if a president at podunk U make the same remarks, it will be essentially ignored. Unless we stop paying attention to great scholarship, there will always be room for someone to be great. And being great will come at great sacrifice. If Summers’ unique policies remain in place, Harvard is taking an interesting gamble. Either the status quo is right and Harvard will decline or Harvard is right and the gap will increase.

42

Tom Hudson 02.21.05 at 10:15 am

John Lederer asks if this is just “an obsession with group identities.” I’m facing the input side of the question that Summers was dealing with the output of, and I don’t think so.

I teach computer science at a mid-sized public liberal arts university. The number of women in the major was always “low”, and has dropped even further since the dot-com crash. There’s a faction of the faculty that holds “we welcome any student, regardless of irrelevant factors of their identity,” but they seem to be missing something important. Why are so few young women in our major? Why do so many drop out? Why have those numbers gotten worse in recent years?

I know from experience that there are plenty of women who can thrive in the kind of job that a computer science major prepare them for. Perhaps Summers would say that I found all my girlfriends (not to mention my wife) in the tail of the gene pool. More interesting to me is that all of them entered my field after taking all of their formal education in other disciplines.

Posting to a blog that discusses economics so much, I should probably consider the possibility that women are not in my field as much any more because the percieved economic rewards are smaller since the dot-com crash, but then I’d have to explain why men aren’t leaving in the same proportions. (Although my program is small enough to be worried about sample size, the same phenomenon seems to be happening in similar proportions all across the US.)

43

cehwiedel 02.21.05 at 10:08 pm

At the risk of entering the debate a little late: the salient point for me is not whether President Summers, as an economist, is stepping out of his area of expertise to comment on the dearth of women at the highest levels of academia; it is the unprofessional response by Professor Hopkins. As an academic, as a professor at a prestigious research institute, she should have responded by citing technical reports, not by getting woozy; by listing studies in support of her position, not by stalking out like a teenager who can’t think up a stinging reply. The arguments on the merits of the questions raised by President Summers should have been made then and there, not tattled to the Boston Globe. Professor Hopkins does not polish her academic credentials by refusing to debate the issue; women academics are ill-served by her temper tantrum.

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