News & Politics

Larry's Taste

Harvard President Larry Summers' speech does prove something about the status of women in the sciences.
We've finally got the goods. After weeks of outcry over Harvard University president Lawrence Summers' unpublished comments at a recent conference on diversifying the science and engineering workforce, Summers' office has finally released his eyebrow-raising speech in its full, what-the-fuck glory. That speech, for those who've been otherwise occupied, was delivered after he'd heard countless papers, the results of years of research, on how discrimination contributes to the low numbers of women and minorities in science and engineering.

And what did the president of the most prestigious university in the land say about why women aren't represented in numbers equal to men in the sciences and high tech? Oh c'mon, just guess. This is the same guy who, while working as chief economist at the World Bank, described Africa as "underpolluted." His point? Given the fact that Africans die so young, he thought developed nations should be shipping their pollution to the African continent at a much greater rate -- after all, most of its denizens wouldn't live long enough to suffer the toxic effects of radioactive sludge anyway. That's Larry Summers for you. Always thinking pragmatically.

He demonstrates the same sort of pragmatism when it comes to gender issues. Women, he asserts, simply don't have a "taste" for scientific work; often they just seem to prefer childrearing to high-powered jobs. As evidence, Summers cites his daughters' fondness for asserting that they possess "daddy trucks" and "baby trucks," thus demonstrating that unsocialized females will always use heavy machinery to build families, rather than bridges. He also credits his insights to several unnamed studies from "empirical psychology" showing that aptitudes and taste preferences are biologically determined.

Summers goes on to explain that if it were true that discrimination keeps women out of the sciences, there should be examples of institutions whose nondiscriminatory policies have allowed them to create powerhouse departments packed with all the hyper-brilliant women passed over by the discriminating institutions. The absence of such departments allows him to argue, in effect, that the tiny number of existing smart women have already been hired and that the women passed over by allegedly discriminating hiring committees weren't very smart to begin with. Even better, he says discrimination isn't really about institutionalized sexism; it simply reflects the "tastes" of hiring committees who naturally gravitate to their own kind.

So the next time a white guy is hired instead of you, just remember it's not really about discrimination or stereotyping. It's because the white guy interviewing you has a perfectly understandable -- and probably biologically determined -- taste for other white guys.

The truly disturbing part of Summers' argument is its inexorable circularity, so similar to the tautologies of ingrained cultural prejudice. If indeed female hires are so important in the sciences, he asks, why isn't there a way to measure how well they perform when compared with their male counterparts? "That question ought to be a question that has an answer that people can find," he asserts querulously. One way to get that answer, he suggests, is to measure female performance in citations -- that is, the number of times other scholars in their field cite them in new work. In other words, let's measure women's true worth by looking at how much notice an arguably discriminatory profession gives to its least-valued members.

Measuring a person's success in citations is like measuring it based on the Google ranking system. Citations can be gamed, especially when the entire mechanism for producing them relies essentially on an old boy's network. I cite you, you cite me, we both cite our friend Fred over at another Ivy League school. When I was in academia, people gamed citations by throwing in little footnotes about their friends. It's incredibly common to see a cite of someone who has made a point "in conversation" or "while discussing" something. What if men never want to chitchat with their female colleagues, while they do it with other men all the time? Women automatically drop in the citation index.

In the end, Summers' speech does prove something about the status of women in the sciences. It provides us with an extremely important case study of why certain fields and professions are still dominated by men. If you need "an answer that people can find" concerning why there are so few female scientists and engineers, look no further than Summers' speech. With men like this in charge of our nation's higher education, it's no wonder women are still struggling to be recognized as anything other than baby-makers and whores.
Annalee Newitz (sciencewhore@techsploitation) is a surly media nerd who is holding it together by reading Judith Butler's latest collection of essays, Undoing Gender. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.
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