The Proportionalist Subtext in Hennessy, Hockfield and Tilghman's Statement Inspired by the Summers Controversy
June 9, 2005

I will begin with a proposition:

The percentage of males who have the innate potential to become top scientists is greater than the percentage of females who have that same innate potential.
Candid remarks along those lines made by Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers on January 14, 2005 set in motion a great swirl of controversy. About a month later, the presidents of three other universities -- John Hennessy of Stanford, Susan Hockfield of MIT and Shirley M. Tilghman of Princeton -- issued a statement critical of Summers. Here is a key paragraph from that statement:
The question we must ask as a society is not "can women excel in math, science and engineering?" -- Marie Curie exploded that myth a century ago -- but "how can we encourage more women with exceptional abilities to pursue careers in these fields?" Extensive research on the abilities and representation of males and females in science and mathematics has identified the need to address important cultural and societal factors. Speculation that "innate differences" may be a significant cause of underrepresentation by women in science and engineering may rejuvenate old myths and reinforce negative stereotypes and biases.
Interestingly, nothing in that paragraph denies the significance of "innate differences." The authors mention potential consequences of speculating about such things, while they assert a need "to address important cultural and societal factors." The question that we ("as a society") should not ask ("can women excel in math, science and engineering?") happens to be a question that no one is asking anyway. The question that, according to the authors, we must ask is: "how can we encourage more women with exceptional abilities to pursue careers in these fields?"

I disagree. The question we should ask is, "How can we encourage young people with exceptional abilities to pursue careers where they can exercise those abilities, and, at the same time, live balanced, happy lives?" The Hennessy-Hockfield-Tilghman essay is very nicely written, but the ideas in it are about 35 years old. Even before "the women's movement," talented girls were encouraged to study science. My favorite TV show in the '50s was "Watch Mr. Wizard" and each episode featured a girl as well as a boy being enlightened by the Wizard's scientific demonstrations. I went to a summer chemistry workshop in '64, and, yes, there were a few girls in the class.

*

Skulking somewhere between the lines in the H-H-T essay is the premise of proportionalism: that, if all just and reasonable measures are taken, the percentage of females at the top levels of science, engineering and mathematics would be the same as that of males. I don't believe that. If you attribute all differences to nature, you are probably wrong. If you attribute all differences to nurture, you are probably wrong. Changes in policy and culture can alter outcome differences, but they could eliminate those differences only if there were no natural factors contributing to them.

The HHT essay simply presumes an absence of natural factors, while offering political arguments to support the proportionalist subtext, viz.:

As the representation of women increases in every other profession in this country, if their representation in science and engineering does not change, these fields will look increasingly anachronistic, less attractive, and will be less strong.

I get it. We must offer different incentives, different levels of concern to the different genders so that certain fields will not "look . . . anachronistic." Pardon my chauvinism, but that is a typical female argument! Hey, that's just what Princeton, Stanford and MIT need: nice, attractive mixtures of people in all departments! Wouldn't that be nice! There's a place for us! At MIT, a place for us! Imagine! Put a woman in charge of a university and the faculty become a fashion statement!

*

The (partial) resolution of the Great Summers Uproar was, all along, the whole point of it. At the end of every multicultural rainbow, there is a pot of gold. $50,000,000 worth of gold, in the case of Harvard. Read Harvard's Diversity Grovel by Heather Mac Donald (City Journal, June 3, 2005) for details.

Even within a group such as white males, different individuals have different kinds and different levels of ability. Some are good at math, some at poetry, some at mechanical work. Some have musical gifts, some work well with other people. A small few are true political visionaries. If gifts and potentials and abilities are distributed differently by Mother Nature among males and females or among different races or ethnicities, we should simply accept that fact instead of trying to fool Mother Nature. That would not be nice and it would not be just.

 
Copyright © 2005

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