29 January 2005 by Published in: Sophia 2 comments

There’s been quite a brouhaha recently over the President of Harvard’s remarks that the reason there’s no parity between men and women among science faculty at his university (or indeed, at most institutions of higher education) is likely due to innate differences in the brain between genders. Following the obvious outrage that ensued, he apologized backhandedly on several occasions, but the furor continues. The president has his defendants, people that say the PC police are out to get him, that a person has to sublimate what’s scientifically been proven for what doesn’t hurt people’s feelings in mixed company and that this sublimation is wrong. These defenders, as well as Lawrence Summers himself, miss the point. It’s not that people are offended at the suggestion that men and women are intrinsically different, even to the nuts and bolts level of brain differences. Most of us are willing to accept that these differences likely exist. Women may tend to have a thicker corpus callosum (though the 1982 study that proposed that, by Christine De Lacoste-Utamsing and Ralph L. Holloway, has not been successfully replicated), while men have larger brains overall (at least when not adjusted for the relative size difference between men and women). Girls usually attain linguistic skills earlier than boys. Boys can turn three dimensional objects in their head faster than girls, and there may be a link between testosterone levels and this ability. Boys can be trained to have a high degree of linguistic skills and equal girls’ supposed natural ability, while girls can be helped to compensate for the gender-given spatial disadvantage through practice (by doing things like playing video games, interestingly enough). There’s also some evidence that shows that the distribution curve for girls and IQ has a large number of girls clustered right around the median IQ (100), so that the bell curve for girls is high and tall. Less of us are autistic or otherwise seriously mentally handicapped, and less of us are intellectual giants as well. Not that IQ has been proven to measure intellectual breadth and life potential (or ability to be a first rate educator at a prime university, for that matter). Boy scores, on the other hand, fall all over the map. They dot the bell curve on out as far as it will stretch, wide and flat, and thus populate the extremes more heavily than girls can hope to. All of these are things we know, having discovered them through rigorous scientific study. What we don’t know, necessarily, is what these things mean. A child’s brain is different than an adult’s, so getting from here to there does not exclude the nature vs. nurture question when it comes to potential gender differences, even as early as elementary school. And how substantial are these differences? Is using both hemispheres of the brain when decoding language really that different than using only one hemisphere? Are these differences really fundamental, or are they interesting but ultimately insignificantly different approaches to thought, like the brain functioning differences between, say, right-handed and left-handed folks? We don’t know any of these things, yet. So what’s especially offensive and discouraging about the university president’s remarks is not that he notes these possible differences, but that he makes the leap that this explains the lack of women among his own faculty. Given such an inevitable explanation, there’s no point in trying to change things, you see? And that position is both unfortunate and dangerous. It also happens to neatly sidestep the pink elephant in the room, the more than obvious explanation, the one we all know is true. Social gender bias is responsible for the lack of parity in men and women faculty in the sciences. This bias is everywhere, it’s endemic, and it exists equally in men and women. This gender bias works against both men and women. It holds women back from attaining high ranks in all kinds of fields (not just academia and not just science) and it holds men who decide to be homemakers (or want sole custody of their children in a divorce) in social disapproval. Everyone knows this, and to not acknowledge it is outrageous and deserves condemnation.

Think bias is a thing of the past? Ok, let’s do a little gedanken experiment, shall we? Close your eyes, and picture a scientist at work in a research laboratory. Did you get Marie Curie or Albert Einstein? I’m betting you got a white middle-aged guy in a lab coat standing over chemical compounds and a bunsen burner, or possibly hunched over a complex computer model of a distant galaxy. You probably didn’t picture a vivacious young girl with sparkling eyes and lipstick. Even though I’ve given you a whole paragraph to think about gender bias, your own and that of others, you probably still pulled up that guy in the lab coat. Don’t feel bad about that. So did I. The thing about biases is not that having the bias makes you a bad person in some way. In many cases it’s just the product of a lifetime of conditioning. The problem arises when there’s a failure to acknowledge that the bias exists. Failure to acknowledge society’s biases means you will never overcome them. You can’t compensate for something you don’t admit is a factor. And the worst part about this is that if women’s brains do turn out to be different than men’s and they do think about problems and solve them in different ways then we desperately need women in those laboratories right next to the men, giving their potential solutions to the questions we are all trying to answer.

This brings me to the real point of my story, which is anecdotal, but especially meaningful to me in the context of this discussion. Last weekend we took Sophia to the Science Center here in St. Louis. We’ve been very excited about the number of wonderful educational things for Sophia to see and explore. There’s all sorts of great cultural opportunities that were simply not available to her where we used to live. As you probably know, because I’ve written about it, Sophia has an age appropriate and completely commonplace fascination with dinosaurs. We encourage it, and she has started to assimilate all sorts of facts about them: whether they are carnivorous or not, their names, what they look like, distinguishing features, etc. It’s really delightful to talk with her about these things. It’s true that she plays dinosaurs going to the ball, and dinosaurs coming over to play with the horsies, which is probably not the same sort of play boys engage in with their dinosaurs, but she is still absorbing all the salient facts (the carnivores often crash the party and scare the others off, for example). It’s all good, as they say. At any rate, we went to the Science Center, which is – astonishingly – free (though parking is seven dollars) and had the best sort of time. There’s a life-size animatronic display of a T. Rex and wounded Triceratops which I’ve been told many children are afraid of but which Sophia worked up her courage to go right up to and observe for a long time. She’s still periodically talking about how the T. Rex had clawed the Triceratops and how the Triceratops was hurt. It made quite an impression on her. A woman had set up a display nearby with different skulls, probably intended for older children, but Sophia listened very closely as she explained which belonged to dinosaurs and which were present day animals, and pointed out similarities and differences between the different skulls. Sophia was fascinated by the whole thing, and truly enjoyed touching the different skulls. Then, we moved into a darkened room with a sophisticated diorama of ancient St. Louis, complete with models of the ocean animals that were present here when this area was under water millions of years ago. A man was there, either a volunteer or an employee of the Science Center, and as we walked up he was talking to a boy whom I’m pretty sure was almost exactly Sophia’s age. He was a bit physically larger than she was and a bit less verbal than she, which is how I’m deciding they were close in age. The man was talking about the display to the boy, and telling him, particularly, about trilobites. Then he reached into his vest – he had one of those fishing vests with the seventy tiny pockets all over – and pulled out a trilobite fossil, which he handed to the boy so that he could see it. He talked about how it was unusual because it was curled up, and most fossils of trilobites are found flat and opened. Sophia edged up real close, and actually placed herself between the boy and the man, looking at the item and listening curiously. The boy set the item down on the display, and the man promptly picked it up without letting Sophia so much as touch it, and tucked it back into his pocket. Then he went on to pull a small nautilus fossil out of another pocket. I thought to myself, “Oh, he’ll give Sophia a chance to see this one, he was just intending to take turns. Don’t jump to conclusions.” As you have probably guessed, from reading the leading paragraphs, he did no such thing. He reached over her, completely ignoring her and her rather obvious interest, placing that second item too next to the boy and taking it back up from him when the child showed little motivation to touch the beautiful thing, again without giving Sophia any chance at all with it. I needn’t tell you, I suppose, that I was furious. I did nothing, because I thought it was important not to show my fury, but I ran through all the possible things I could have done in my mind. Would complaining to someone have changed that man’s attitude? No, probably just made him resentful and even more determined to exclude girls from his show and tell. I prompted Sophia to ask the man for the fossils directly, because I figured he couldn’t refuse a direct request from an interested child, but she was too shy to. I couldn’t blame her for being reluctant, walking right up to the man and watching everything he did should have been signal enough that she wanted a chance at touching the fossils. I don’t know what I could have done to improve matters for her, but I saw a thousand things I might have done that would not have helped and most of them would have been counter-productive, so I elected to let it go and not attract her attention to the obvious slight. Making a big deal out of it, too, could have imprinted something negative on her and I wanted the experience overall to be positive. What can I do? I don’t want her to grow up in a world where her clear interest is shunned in a place that is supposed to be specifically designed to be safe and welcoming to children and their scientific inquiry. I have no power at all to change the world. I can only compensate, compensate, compensate at home, filling in her interest with my limited knowledge, and my even fewer – as of this moment, none – fossils. Still, it makes me despair a little, because I want her to have all the open doors and get to pick one, instead of being faced with a series of closed doors she has to break through. It makes me sad that this fight still has to be fought, and it makes me sad that I can’t fight that fight for her. Ultimately, she has to make her own way. But she is so young and small, yet, and the deck seems – when things like this happen – stacked against her.


iTunes says I was listening to Somnambulist (Simply Being Loved) (feat. JC Chasez) from the album “Emotional Technology” by BT when I posted this. I have it rated 3 stars.


Sat 05th Feb 2005 at 6:28 pm

Yes. Trying to test out the comment bug I introduced when I "fixed" comments.

Sat 05th Feb 2005 at 6:29 pm

Woo me! Fixed!

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