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February 18, 2005

Academic Filters...

Matthew Yglesias asks a good question: Why are people talking about what Larry Summers said were his "guesses" about gender, genetics, and math achievement? Why aren't people talking about the main point of Larry Summers's talk on the underrepresentation of women in high-prestige prize academic jobs?:

Matthew Yglesias: Summers Redux: Now that the full text of the speech is out, I'm surprised so much of the discussion has focused on the genetics issue to the [exclusion of the] number one [most important] item on the Summers list [of reasons for the underrepresentation of women] -- women's alleged unwillingness to work long hours because they're too busy having kids and taking care of them. This is, I think, undoubtedly a major factor...

I do think that Matt is too glib in characterizing what is Larry's main point. The process of climbing to the top of the professoriate is structured as a tournament, in which the big prizes go to those willing to work the hardest and the smartest from their mid-twenties to their late thirties. Given our society (and our biology), a man can enter this tournament this without foreclosing many life possibilities: they can marry someone who will bear the burden of being for a decade a "happily married single parent," or they can decompress in their late thirties, look around, marry someone five years younger, have their family, and then live the leisured life of the theory class--or not. But given our society (and our biology), a woman cannot enter this particular academic tournament without running substantial risks of foreclosing many life possibilities if she decides to postpone her family, and a woman cannot enter this particular academic tournament without feeling--and being--at a severe work intensity-related handicap if she does not postpone her family.

In order to make progress, you have to either alter society (and perhaps biology) substantially, or back away from the work-intensity tournament model of choosing people for the high-prestige prize academic slots. But everyone in the debate wants to hold onto the tournament model--either because it justifies their current high-prestige position or because they fear that calling for change will get them a reputation as not being intellectually serious. Few want to call for root-and-branch reorganizations of society for fear of being dismissed as utopian dreamers. And so there are few voices saying that the problem of the disparate impact of the tournament system is a dire and severe one. It's better not to talk about it. What good could come from rocking the boat, and making the senior faculty face the possibility that fixing things might actually disturb their lives somewhat? Instead, pretend that things can be fixed with a little more affirmative action at the assistant professor level, and perhaps some extra committee meetings.

I think it is greatly to Larry Summers's credit that he did say that there are real problems and dilemmas here--that he did not stand up in front of that audience and say that real progress was being made, and that everything would be fixed soon with a little more affirmative action at the assistant professor level and perhaps some extra committee meetings. University administrators willing to think about real problems and issues--rather than focusing on keeping the senior faculty quiet as matters drift--are rare, and are badly needed. And I say this as someone who thinks that Summers's views on gender, genetics, and math achievement are almost certainly wrong, are unsupported, and should not be pushed forward by somebody who is twenty years beyond the stage of his career where you throw out lots of unfiltered ideas in the belief that what matters is the quality of your best one.

I am, after all, the parent of a mathematically precocious daughter. I now have less than a decade to build a society that is properly open to her use of her talents. Put me down as demanding a backing-away from the work-intensity tournament model.

Posted by DeLong at February 18, 2005 05:14 PM

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Brad, I would welcome your thoughts about alternatives to the 'work intensity tournament' in academic hiring and promotion. [Read More]

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More thoughts on women in academia. [Read More]

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Half-time assistant professorships, with each year counting as half a year on the tenure clock. [Read More]

Tracked on February 20, 2005 07:26 PM


Here's another problem: because women are, realistically, going to be at a disadvantage unless they decide not to have children (and maybe they'll be at a disadvantage anyway), there is an understandable tendency to prioritize the husband's career choices over the wife's. Which reinforces the whole mess.

I have had this happen to me twice already, and I'm only 26. This is before I take time off to be home with the kids, and this is with me choosing to live apart from my husband for 9 months apart to have better job prospects when I finish law school. My husband is about the least sexist guy I've ever met; both decisions make sense on their own terms. But at some level, I think it's unfair.

We hear a lot about "institutional racism"; there is also such a thing as "institutional sexism."

Posted by: Katherine at February 18, 2005 05:32 PM

What do you do about the person who puts in the effort and time; exemplary effort and tremendous amounts of time, do you ask that person to delay recognition of the achievement? Is the process stretched out for everyone? This is the same set of dilemmas for women in law. Or, more specifically, women in big law firms.

Posted by: Cal at February 18, 2005 05:39 PM

If you want to go the furthest you start early and keep going. It's like saving for retirement. The problem with living in the future like this is that, one, you don't have a life, and two, most of us don't win.
I wanted to invetnt something and change the world. Even if I do sell a patent and make enough to retire I'm still a net loser. If I had stuck to programming and invested my earnings during the biggest stock, bond, and real estate boom of all history I would have had to retire years ago.
I may make a billion dollars as an inventor, but a million buys you about as much fun. Meanwhile I'm a security guard. Gives me lots of time to read and think.

Posted by: walter willis at February 18, 2005 06:25 PM

Gee Brad. You put in about three times as many lines what I posted in ten on Kos. Anyway, I agree.

Posted by: Knut Wicksell at February 18, 2005 06:26 PM

Sigh. I was kinda hoping, on behalf of your mathematically precocious daughter, you wouldn't say all this. Focussing on childbearing is the only issue of import.

"In order to make progress, you have to either alter society (and perhaps biology) substantially, or back away from the work-intensity tournament model of choosing people for the high-prestige prize academic slots."

That's because there's not intense sexism at the graduate level, you assume.

Economists. What DO they know about the experience of women in math and physics? (I mean, we're clearly not discussing biology here, when female PhDs are well-represented.)

Sigh,I should have told you more contemporaneously, I should have forced you to see, if only for your daughter. Well, I suggest you inform yourself by reading *much* the Prof. Howard Georgi (remember him?) has said on this subject. Google him and read what he's learned about women physics majors at Harvard. The fact is that many women do not go on to get their doctorates for reasons that have nothing to do with childbearing, at least when it comes to math and physics.

I certainly hope things are better by the time your daughter gets to a good math department. I really do. As things stand, I can't commend Harvard to her. Please don't quote the end of your post back to me -- it reads too much like a protective afterthought, like Summers' summary assurance that of course socialization might be a factor.

Discrimination, my good man, whom I don't believe is sexist. Discrimination. In math and physics by people who feel so passionately about the subject that they protectively feel it is an indignity to the entire subject area for there to be female professors. Much as in some churches, women are not permitted to be preachers. This is the status quo that would await your daughter in many elite universities.

And in this tournament -- an accurate analogy -- any little unfair call by the umpire, when compounded by others and others, can magnify over time and cause your ranking to slip. Of course, women physics and math majors make the entirely rational decision not to play in such tournaments at the graduate level.

Babies. Pshaw. 22-year-old women choose disproportionately not to go to graduate school, adjusting for grades etc. They don't enter the tournament, despite undergraduate success, long before they're thinking about babies or men or marriage, characteristically. They don't because they're smart and they can see it's still stacked.

Howard Georgi notes this, collects stats on this, has spoken about this at a Fermi colloquim, etc., having presided as Chair of the Harvard Physics Department for many years. All this Pres. Summers didn't know. And friends of Larry still don't know. Very very VERY sincerely, I wish all economists' mathematicaly talented female children the very best. So happy the work of Georgi matters more than these ruminations.

Posted by: Nancy at February 18, 2005 06:28 PM

Thanks, Brad. Good post.

Maybe it's good that this whole messy business of women in academia was out on the table, even if it was done without finesse by Larry.

I'm planning on putting myself back in the market next year, but I'm sure that my years at home with the kids are going to bite me in the ass. I might just end up working in the Bursor's office or something. 8 years of school down the drain.

I wouldn't change anything. I'm glad I was around while the kids were young. But I am sometimes bitter about its impact on my career and jealous of my male colleagues who travel about to conferences and win recognition for their work.

Without any major changes in the world, I would advise your daughter to choose a career that can get going in their twenties and work for a large company that had good benefits. Then if they want to take time off in their thirties, they wouldn't have to start from scratch when they return.

Posted by: Laura at February 18, 2005 06:30 PM

Cal, you reference "the same set of dilemmas for women in law. Or, more specifically, women in big law firms." Yup, and yet women are better-represented even there. Fact is, I don't agree with the whole turn Brad's taken this conversation: the focus of Pres. Summers' comments aren't on childrearing, which wouldn't impact female math and physics PhD's disproportionately. I mean, no one's suggesting they're particularly fertile, right? ;)

I dispute Brad's thesis about what Summers was saying. You can read what Summers was saying and know it.

It's funny that these guys think their love for their daughters is insurance against bias. Men have always loved their daughters and wished them well.

Some are shocked that math or physics would be sullied by the presence of women. Others truly are concerned for us. It's always with deep paternalistic concern that the male math professor explains to the female undergrad that while it's possible to do very well as an undergrad, one shouldn't assume this will be duplicated in graduate school, which requires much more creativeness and -- I have had this said to me by a professor who gave me the best grade in this course in a graduate-level math course as junior at Harvard -- a sort of "naturalness" in math that women lack. This professor, whom I won't name because I nonetheless think he's a great mathematician and I'm more loyal to math people than my sex!, added: please don't take this as an insult, my daughter's asking me about grad schools now as a Yale undergrad, and I'm giving her the same advice.

So it's nice that everyone is really worried about 22-year old women having families. But far in your economics academic heights, perhaps you haven't met the datapoints in your sets and you don't know what they're actually worried about. Economists assume a lot.

My ending assurance remains: I don't assume the blogger or posters are sexist. Just naive.

Posted by: Nancy at February 18, 2005 06:39 PM

um, even if there wasn't a sex discrimination angle, the whole publish or perish race to tenure but no time to actually teach the undergrads really does the students a big injustice. so that sucks.

in so many institutions, the purpose of the place falls to a pale second place behind empire building...

my ex was very angry with me for leaving Berkeley to look for an interesting but lower paying job, when a brand new CS Prof at Berkeley had just bought a house 2/3rds the way up Marin.

Posted by: jerry at February 18, 2005 06:46 PM

Dear Nancy

What might I say, I thought. What needs to be understood, by people who do wish to understand, and you have beautifully said it. For me, the most telling point is the extent to which there are women in biology. Ah, we hear, how often do I hear, biology is a lesser science. Real scientists opt for chemistry, no applied physics, no theoretical physics and math. Could it be that biologists know to much of how distinct the individual is, how abstract the mean? Beautifully said.

Posted by: anne at February 18, 2005 07:01 PM

Actually if she wants to be hugely successful she should probably go into the Energy Engineering fields, where she may well end up having a whole lot of fun, and not a lot of competition.

Which underlies the reality that there are stereotypical attitudes out there, which are largely wrong, but which exist, and which need to be overcome. Pretending that they don't exist (and Humanities faculty are less likely to know their strength) is not going to do anyone any good.

Posted by: heading out at February 18, 2005 07:03 PM

Dear Anne,

Thanks, I thought it a bit didactic but the situation called for it. Fact is, I was actually really *hoping* that Brad wouldn't comment on this. I've been lurking for a while, learning much useful information on economics from him. I didn't want to say what I knew I wouldn't be able to resist saying, LOL. Greatest respect for him. Hoping he wouldn't even subconsciously spin this to safer ground. What Summers said is what it is.

Actually, I think there was, in the 70s and 80s, this idea that physics was the *real* science. Who said "All science is either physics or stamp-collecting." That has some times been the mentality. So "the few, the proud" mentality was particularly strong in math and physics. Modern biology is hardly stamp collecting now. We have to treasure how much fun everyone -- men and women -- are having there now. Kinda envy them. Biophysical sciences and climate sciences: other careers I wish I'd had! It was good that Pres. Summers did mention that there have been advances in biology. He's got at least that down.

I wonder what a biologist would say about his suggestion that same-sex identical twin socialization results should be extended to different-sex, non-identical people. What would a competent biologist say of Pres. Summers' suggestion that masculinity (daddy truck, baby truck, the Jewish communitarian experiences) by direct application affects science performance (or distributions of performance -- Brad's rewriting which ignores the curve *shift* Summers plainly contemplates)? Or how about a competent physicist who knows how many more female physicists there are in France? Would love to hear from some non-economists, maybe even a few more data points like us.

If there is an innate difference, I'm sure the biological mechanism is much more complex than masculinity. Anyone who has spent *any* time with your average group of mathematicians would have a hard time swallowing the idea that these people were selected by biology to be in the room based on their masculinity! That makes as much sense as a 22-year old chosing not to go to grad school in physics based on some hypothetical future marriage.

Summers would have us please reconsider the idea that it's socialization that accounts for disparities in fields such as physics. That's so not new. There are biological differences between men and women. I wouldn't be alarmed if they expressed themselves in different abilities in math -- although why it's got to be a bell-curve as opposed to something 80 percent men and 20 percent women do, I doubt the science can say.

But as to primary causes, Summer's utterly unpersuasive. It discrimination, not socialization. It's happening yards away from his Massachusetts Hall post. And, economist or no, he shouldn't just assume it away.

It's just one place. It's just Harvard. And God has Her ways: much good may come from this.

Posted by: Nancy at February 18, 2005 08:04 PM

Speaking as a female tenured professor in a mathematics department at a good, but not top-tier, university, it can be done. I have two kids and an academic husband (who shared the load for the most part). I'm not at Harvard (or Berkeley for that matter), but I like my job, I make a good salary and I haven't neglected my kids too much. I have found the academic life more compatible with child-raising than most jobs and, once you get past the tenure hurdle you can cruise for a while. How many of us, male or female, get to be professors at Harvard anyway?

Posted by: Vicki at February 18, 2005 08:16 PM

the big prizes go to those who work the hardest and the smartest: why is everyone except Jerry interested in the big prizes and the highest prestige? Why not find a nice small college where you can enjoy teaching and, without fail, be required to teach--and teach a helluva lot. The tone here reminds me of the Republican strivers in the high prestige investment houses who want to be at summer home in the Hamptons, arriving at the best tennis clubs in their BMW leather seats.
Kudos to Jerry for suggesting measures of academic fulfillment that do not even occur to the rest of you.

Posted by: g-lex at February 18, 2005 08:31 PM

It is remarkable and that most people are unaware that a WOMAN is presently one of the leading COMPOSERS of music: perhaps the first woman known to be so, since Hildegard of Bingen in the twelfth century? Her name is Kaija Saariaho. She uses the most advanced modern techniques and writes music of great beauty. I enjoy her chamber pieces the best, particularly "Lichtbogen," and "Windows," a movement from her ballet "Maa." She has just written an opera that reportedly brings the stodgiest oldsters to tears. With no peers other than the likes of Ligeti, Birtwistle, Reich, and Adams, she is making the world a much better place.

Posted by: Lee A. Arnold at February 18, 2005 08:35 PM

"The process of climbing to the top of the professoriate is structured as a tournament, in which the big prizes go to those willing to work the hardest and the smartest from their mid-twenties to their late thirties."

I'd agree with g-lex and go one further. Is it really always the hardest and smartest? I doubt it's always the case, just as I don't think it's always the case in business or outside academia in general.

What perturbs me is that this attitude - that certain rewards follow just because of talent and effort - tends to lead to the conservative/Republican attitude that the "big prizes" (tenure, a large salary) is justified because it is rewarding certain innate (smartness) and external (working hard) qualities. I don't believe this is always true outside academia, and I don't see why academia should be any exception. Surely luck, for one, sometimes enters into it. Also, I imagine, sometimes negative qualities - aggressiveness? -, might play a role as well.

So maybe it's not a "conservative/Republican" attitude at all? Maybe's it's the elite's attitude - it's the mirror they would like to have.

Posted by: Andrew Boucher at February 18, 2005 09:00 PM

After many years in private high-tech industry I'm not convinced that great effort and hard work translates into higher pay, promotions, and other rewards.

More often it is great connections, great, well ass-kissing, and a bunch of other similar skills that get one ahead in the corporate world. I've see a lot of people work very hard with great results and enjoy the reward of only additional work - until the layoffs come. I've also see idiots rise to the top in spite of repeated failure to be finally "punished" with multi-million dollar golden parachutes after destroying the organization. In my experience the latter is actually more often the case.

In the real world, at least the one I live in, women could succeed just as easily as men regardless of childrearing. I think the whole argument is a crock.

Why don't women succeed? Perhaps because the vast majority of those making the decisions about pay, promotions and rewards have convinced themselves that what I've read on this blog is really true - that women in the technical world (actually in all industries) can't somehow "work as hard" as men over the course of their career due to childrearing choices. Perhaps deep down these decision makers, mainly men of course, know that hard work has little to do with how they got to the top but they can hardly admit that even to themselves.

That is my two cents worth.

Posted by: Pete at February 18, 2005 09:13 PM


This essay was written by the wonderful evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr at 98. This is how a biologist thinks of populations and individuals in a population. The norms are the abstraction, the reality are individuals and how we care for them.


Posted by: anne at February 18, 2005 09:18 PM

Yes, there's discrimination in academic science.

And there's also the possibility that women are underrepresented in academic science BECAUSE they are behaving rationally.

There are now any number of fields and degrees that lead to higher-paying careers. When I was an undergrad, woman engineers were still rare enough that my female classmates got HIGHER offers in industry than their male classmates -- so why would a bright young woman seek out four or more years of grad-school penury in the hard sciences, a path that - IF she's lucky - MIGHT lead to a penurous post-doc fellowship?

Why wouldn't a bright young woman choose med school or law school instead, and go directly to a 6-figure starting salary? Especially if she's facing the competing pressures of family?

Men make lots of stupid, irrational decisions: men are more likely to go scuba-diving and sky-diving, men are more likely than women to knock over liquor stores - - why should we be surprised that men are also overrepresented in choosing to pursue an underpaid career path such as academic science?

Posted by: Bob at February 18, 2005 09:48 PM

Just to underline a point that's emerging very strongly in some of these posts, Summers sets up his argument so that discrimination is something that happens *only* in the hiring process, and women's decisions to leave high-pressured professional careers are attributed mainly to "legitimate family desires," which seems to mean their tastes, in economist jargon. Thus discrimination during grad school, in your first job, in a lab, in who is invited to give papers on hgh-profile panels or to be a co-author etc. is simply ruled out of consideration -- all that is assumed to be pure meritocracy.

The result of this ruling-out is a passing-the-buck argument: society is just like that, this is what women want, what do you want me to do about it. There is more than a whiff of the old she'll-just-get-pregnant argument against hiring women in all of this, especially if, as others have noted, one is hiring on "promise."

Instead of passing the buck, one place to look is at how a university treats bright undergrads, grad students, postdocs, and junior faculty. Senior hires matter, but obviously there will be limits to how much repair can be accomplished at that level.

Summers does say one enlightened thing. He notes that if a Harvard prof has a college-age kid they get a subvention from the University for tuition, but not if they have a younger kid, and this is a bit weird. Of course he then half dismisses it by saying "But I don't think we know much about the child care issue."

Posted by: Colin Danby at February 18, 2005 10:22 PM


Posted by: at February 18, 2005 10:48 PM

It is a big societal issue and as Vicki noted, once you get tenure, academia is a family friendly field. In corporate law, making partner means you're making more money but its still a "you eat what you kill" mentality and you're expected to put in the long hours.

I would say its less a sexism issue than ageism. For many career tracks, you're expected to get in while you're young. The older you get, the less likely you can get on partner track. So you either start your family very young and hope your partner can tolerate being as Brad put it, a married single parent or you spend time with your kids and try to get in the game later and that's tough.

In a recent column opposing Bush's social security reform, Martin Hutchinson made exactly this point. http://tinyurl.com/4jr3e

Posted by: beowulf at February 18, 2005 11:04 PM

bob, something is a bit wrong with your hypothesis -- as it was noted, in biology women are relatively more numerous ans succesful, and if anything, long penurous post-doc period is more characteristic of biology than math or computer science.

Moreover, as one biologist friend of mine told me: when you have a headache, it is just a headache, when I have a headache, I start thinking -- what poisons did I handle today, what could happen wrong?

One aspect that I could notice is that man, on average, enjoy competition and "tournament" or doing something merely because it is difficult. Biology is much more cooperative as an endavor and puts bigger premium on common sense than on very abstract thinking.

The second aspect is that Americans seem to be very prone to stereotyping. E.g. in computer science, it seems that the proportion of man to women among undergrads is 10 to 1, but among incoming Indian students it is something like 3 to 1, and among the Chinese, 2 to 1. One could think that Asian societies are more "patriarchal", but there is something in American culture that is more subtle than that. E.g. meticulous color coding of the clothing of infants. Or separate literature for pre-teen girls and pre-teen boys. Or the fact that there are separate boy-scouts and girl-scouts (when I was 12, I was just a "scout" in a co-ed troop).

Posted by: piotr at February 18, 2005 11:07 PM

let's face it, girls just aren't as likely to be borderline autistic supernerds the way the top 0.001% of guys are. Even when they're smarter, there just are as many obsessive women out there.

The point is, just because less than half of computer science professors are women, doesn't mean computer science professors are sexist. and yes, that doesn't mean that sexism doesn't exist. it just doesn't explain all of the difference in employment stats.

Posted by: the hermit of capital hill at February 18, 2005 11:19 PM

The first part of a book I wrote several years ago on interesting girls in math and science is available online at http://www.sdsc.edu/~woodka/Chapter1.html

There are lots of reasons why there aren't more women in the science and technology fields. Brain power isn't one of them. Boys and girls score equally in math and science until high school when girls are not pushed to take more advanced math and science classes. The social stigma from being perceived as a nerd is also a very strong factor.

As an engineering student, I faced harrassment from professors who felt I didn't belong in their classes. As a professional, I was sexually harrassed, and in spite of good performance, laid off because the men "needed their job" and since I was married, I didn't. As a mother, I was verbally abused for coming in late to work when one of the kids was ill and missing a meeting I didn't even know about that my boss hadn't bothered to show up for (he came in later than I did, usually, and took two hours for lunch).

This is the reality of the world. Not that women are less capable, or not willling to work as hard, or any of the rest of it. It is discrimination, harrassment, and lack of consideration that drives us out of certain fields and the work force. My solution was to go back for an MBA and become a consultant, and I've been much happier ever since. I choose my hours, work when I want, take off when I need to.

America is an insane society. We value work over everything, including our well being. We treat workers like slaves. In Europe, they get six weeks vacation and a 40 hour work week. Here, everyone suffers due to ovrwork and stress. We don't want to pay for health care for everyone. We don't want to guarantee people a retirement income. We let the rich take tax cuts while the poor work three jobs, which is "fantastic" with our president.

When does it end, people?

Posted by: donna at February 18, 2005 11:59 PM

Perhaps we pay too much attention to our elite institutions and their choices. They have a long history of getting things wrong.

I'm thinking of a lower-middle-class Jew in early twentieth-century Germany who couldn't land an academic post after graduation and had to settle for a job as an examiner in the Swiss patent office.

He wound up generating a few inventions of his own, including a refrigerator with no moving parts and improvements on gyroscopes. Knowing the system as well as he did, he didn't need an attorney to write his patent applications. Made a bit of money on the side that way, too.

Before too long, his publications landed him a chair in a university in Berlin, and he ended up at Princeton, of course. But as a freshly minted PhD, nobody wanted to hire him.

Posted by: bad Jim at February 19, 2005 01:05 AM

Freeman Dyson, in the New York Review, recounted this about Cambridge:

The culture of the Cavendish was strongly paternalistic. Rutherford took fatherly care of his students and imposed strict limits on their hours of work. Every evening at six o'clock the laboratory was closed and all work had to stop. Four times every year, the laboratory was closed for two weeks of vacation. Rutherford believed that scientists were more creative if they spent evenings relaxing with their families and enjoyed frequent holidays. He was probably right. Working under his rules, an astonishingly high proportion of his students, including Cockcroft and Walton, won Nobel Prizes.

Posted by: bad Jim at February 19, 2005 02:05 AM

Dear Andrew Boucher, Wow, I so agree with all that.

Bob -- I'm not so sure. Read Vicki's entry above. You'd think that if the lifestyle/time issue where paramount, women would be more likely to select academic. I've got friends inside and outside academia, and basically the latter work harder.

Anne, I'm going there to read it right now. As to women at Harvard -- there are other math and physics departments, Harvard's not the end of the world. Have so few women anywhere is a real problem -- for the women that, but-for discrimination, would be there.

Posted by: Nancy at February 19, 2005 05:31 AM

Regarding Piotr's comment, I think that an exaggeration of sex differences in American culture vis-a-vis Chinese culture is untenable. Here in Taipei if I go outside with a purplish blue ski hat (as a male) people will laugh and point. This is more extreme than America. Oh! but I'm from San Francisco, so maybe I don't know anymore about America than piotr does about China. Anyways...

As a teacher, I know that from kindergarten the girl/boy personality characteristics are intensely dichotomized. The bright boys in class seem even louder than American boys. The bright girls even quieter. Of course, among adults this doesn't change. On a date, it is possible to see a man talk for an hour, with the woman only nodding and grunting affirmatives. If she's bored, she fidgets. But still doesn't say anything, and the man is too accustomed to this to take notice of it.
Another example, once I called one of my kindergarten students brave because she volunteered to perform her poem first. The other students all started laughing. (Actually, I expected this to happen.) They quickly helped to educate me, "Teacher, Teacher, only boys can be brave."
Still, the improved sex ratios in China still need explaining. I think the single-minded focus of Chinese culture on education is a simple and sufficient explanation. If high educational status is the end all and be all of achievement, then it is not surprising that more women pursue this path in Taiwan. In America, there are other options that are equally effective as status markers. But in Taiwan, professorship is in some respects even better than wealth. The traditional Confucian heirarchy is scholar/bureacrat (which here tends to come from universities) / farmer / artisan / businessman. Many people still ascribe to it. Consequently, rich businessmen are known by a bevy of impolite names akin to sheister. On the other hand, criticizing professors is taboo. They enjoy a halo of inimpeachability. If I don't like my university instructor, then I don't share it with my classmates to avoid transgressing their moral principals. Of course, many young people are much more westernized than this, and are brimming with criticism of this value system.

Posted by: taipei english teacher at February 19, 2005 05:34 AM

"let's face it, girls just aren't as likely to be borderline autistic supernerds the way the top 0.001% of guys are. Even when they're smarter, there just are as many obsessive women out there."

Hmm, see, a lot of posts are critiquing Summers for *ending* at this point rather than taking it as the starting point. Is this "natural"? I take it from your "let's face it," you think it is. I'd think you'd want to meet some of the female borderline autistic datapoints and find out why they made the decisions they made before you'd make that leap.

As to Bob, "Men make lots of stupid, irrational decisions: men are more likely to go scuba-diving and sky-diving, men are more likely than women to knock over liquor stores - - why should we be surprised that men are also overrepresented in choosing to pursue an underpaid career path such as academic science?" I love this argument! I think it's all wrong -- I can't imagine anything more calculated and less impulsive than the choice of whether to go to grad school. And I think women are just as prone to falling in love with science as men -- which surely accounts for "putting up" with academia.

But really, were I scoring, which of course I don't presume, I'd have to give major points for this one. Pres. Summers thinks of knocking over a liquor store and getting a doctorate physics as opposite ends of the bell curve, and you're not so sure. Heh heh, I've seen more than one physics graduate student lounge, and they do look like shady places to recover after a night of debauchery!

Posted by: Nancy at February 19, 2005 05:43 AM

A not entirely serious suggestion.
Stick the kids in school at 4 as in some European countries. High school graduation at 16, as in the UK. First degree by 20. PhD by 23. Tenure or not by 30-32. Competition for tenure ends when fertility is still high....and I would guess the maternity benefits are pretty good after tenure as well.

Posted by: Tim Worstall at February 19, 2005 06:38 AM

One of the problems in tenure selections is that too much weight is given to research and grants, but not enough to teaching, which is the prime purpose of a university. Women are better teachers than men.
In any case, if there is glaring disparity in male vs female in tenured positions, it is Summers's to fix it, rather than complain or make foolish generalizations about women. Isn't this the main issue?

Posted by: ecoast at February 19, 2005 06:41 AM


Call Me Madame Maestro

THE road to conducting one of the world's great orchestras could have been arduous for a 4-year-old girl beginning to learn music on a homemade piano in Dandong, China, in 1977. But because of the pioneering examples set by female conductors in China at that time, Xian Zhang, now 31 and the assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, could look to a solid lineage of women for inspiration.

"My teacher at the Central Conservatory was female," she said of Wu Ling Fen, who also had studied with a woman. "That makes me the third generation of female conductors in China."

Ms. Zhang, who came to the United States in 1998, was a winner of the 2002 Maazel-Vilar Conductors' Competition. A confident, articulate young woman, she spoke passionately about training with her mentor Lorin Maazel and working with the Philharmonic - an orchestra she described as exceptionally professional and supportive.

After warming up her crisp yet fluid baton technique with a children's concert in December, she made her subscription concert debut with the Philharmonic on Wednesday. In the first of four concerts shared with Mr. Maazel, she led Benjamin Britten's "Four Sea Interludes" from "Peter Grimes" and the world premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage's "Scherzoid," a Philharmonic commission.

Ms. Zhang is one of three women conducting established orchestras in the New York area this weekend....

Posted by: anne at February 19, 2005 06:43 AM

We get trapped in our fields. What does Summers know of biology, of Darwin and population study in biology? Where is the least evidence that would separate genetic ability from cultural influences. Means were abstractions to Darwin and Ernst, while reality resided in the individual. Change the culture; really change the culture slowly I suppose but persistently and watch patterns of behavior change. Have they not done so slowly through the years? But do not expect cultural typings to stay as they have been, for there is no necessity to the patterns.

Posted by: anne at February 19, 2005 07:13 AM

"Ernst Mayr"

Posted by: anne at February 19, 2005 07:19 AM

Nancy got it right:
I'm not entirely convinced by the very argument I put forth above - - but I went to RPI, and I've met more than my share of science geeks of both sexes.
My point was that we need to consider the broader spectrum of the professional careers. Women are approaching parity in high-paid professional fields such as medicine and the law and management; and yes, academic science does have an appeal - but in my experience, a person who's capable of an advanced degree can make a lot more money if they make just about any other career choice rather than academic science.
Why, then, is it necessarily a bad thing that brilliant women preferentially choose medicine or the law over grading 'Intro' quizes? We might be seeing evidence of rational behavior as much as evidence of something nefarious.

Posted by: Bob at February 19, 2005 08:52 AM

"I now have less than a decade to build a society that is properly open to her use of her talents."

In the shorter term, you could start by supporting efforts to create more flexibility in the tenure system:


Via Inside Higher Ed (http://www.insidehighered.com/insider/10_years_until_tenure), a report (http://www.acenet.edu/bookstore/pdf/2005_tenure_flex_summary.pdf) on the rigidity of the tenure system and its impact on female academics, with recommendations for reform.

Posted by: Mary Catherine Moran at February 19, 2005 09:00 AM

As I expected, almost no one here is actually addressing the arguments Summers made (and how many of you have bothered to read them?).

Summers is making two points; 1. There is such a thing as opportunity costs. 80 hours spent working at your job, are 80 hours not available for other pursuits. There are good reasons for thinking that men and women value those opportunity costs differently.

His second point is the 'innate ability' one. Here he is clear that he is speaking of people way, way above average in ability--3-1/2 to 4 SDs. There is EVIDENCE that, in math, those people are more likely to be men.

[But there is no mechanism proposed that I would regard as plausible to attribute this male domination of the upper tail to innate factors.]

But, he also clearly stated that he's willing to consider evidence refuting this. So far, I've seen no one even attempting to do so.

Instead we get:

' "It's crazy to think that it's an innate difference," Professor Georgi added. "It's socialization. We've trained young women to be average. We've trained young men to be adventurous." '

Perfect circularity!

Posted by: Patrick R. Sullivan at February 19, 2005 09:23 AM

Speaking of tournaments, the television game show, Jeopardy!,recently initiated its Ultimate Tournament of Champions to see how last year's millionaire champion Ken Jennings would compare to previous stars. 144 former champions in all will compete.

Fewer than 20% of them appear to be female according to the roster on the show's website.

And, of the seeded former champions (such as Chuck Forest and Million Dollar Master Brad Rutter) only one of nine is a woman. The Tournament's ultimate winner will take home over $2,000,000.

Have women been 'socialized' to not pickup $10,000 bills left lying around?

Posted by: Patrick R. Sullivan at February 19, 2005 09:32 AM

I'm amazed at the amazement. If Bill Cosby gave a speech about the problems in the American media industry, and spoke for half an hour on the economic and commercial pressures toward dumb, violent and sexy programming, and then for two minutes on whether we should also consider the possibility that it's because the media industry is full of Jews, then what would the headlines be? The suggestion of female genetic inability to reach the highest levels in science is the only newsworthy part of the whole speech, which is why it's the bit that made news.

Posted by: dsquared at February 19, 2005 09:38 AM

Patrick, Brad deliberately phrased the initial question not as a free-for-all around the LS argument, but around a rather narrower and more interesting question and most people are trying, thoughtfully, to stick to that question. I hope folks won't respond to your trolling.

There's a broader discussion over at CT.

Posted by: Colin Danby at February 19, 2005 09:55 AM

This conversation reminds me of when I was relatively new Assistant Professor at Wisconsin. My wife was in medical school, and our daughters were two or three.

A journal editor came to give a seminar, and other members of my department and I had dinner with him. We had a pleasant converstion, but when he learned of my home situation, he told me I couldn't possibly be serious about scholarship or getting tenure. Perhaps he was, in a sense, right, because I always thought that the worst that could happen to me was that I would have a great job for six years and then move on.

Nevertheless, he sent a message that would be discouraging to anyone who thought that work in the academy and family could be balanced. This message is corrosive, but almost certainly typical. To the extent it discourages people--and especially women--from pursuing academia, it is also a shame.

Posted by: Richard Green at February 19, 2005 11:55 AM

Summers's argument is incredibly paternalistic. It's true there are different societal pressures that keep women from pursuing some courses less often. This needs to change. I think making the tenure system more flexible is a way to start.

Posted by: Unstable Isotope at February 19, 2005 12:00 PM

Patrick, first of all I think your comments are foresequare in the debate. The suggestion that Summers' point about lifestyle was one good idea buried among a set of mediocre ones is pretty apologist: Summers was using this lifestyle issue to carry water for non-nefarious explanations for the absence of tenured women of science in places like, well, as he thinks of it apparently, HIS place.

This idea that a discussion of making academia fair for women by addressing lifestyle communications necessarily begs the question of whether that's all it would take. And, although I obviously disagree with most of your points, I appreciate your honestly.

"But, he also clearly stated that he's willing to consider evidence refuting this. So far, I've seen no one even attempting to do so."

Speaking of circularity . . . . We're convicted of being dumb unless we prove otherwise. I like this quote of Summers that you rely on. Because it shows what liberties he's taking with assumptions.

At bottom, you're resting on the logic of an economist, and criticizing a great particle physicis, Prof. Howard Georgi, who has looked at this issue in depth -- including the stats. One is making a whole bunch of assumptions, and the other is informed. My money's on Georgi.

Bob, re your comment "Why, then, is it necessarily a bad thing that brilliant women preferentially choose medicine or the law over grading 'Intro' quizes? We might be seeing evidence of rational behavior as much as evidence of something nefarious." Could be. All I know is that there are women, like men, who want to give up all the glamour [/sarcasm] of money to do something meaningful like math and science. That their scientific love and passion is just as strong.

All that said, I'll let you in on a secret. I think spacial imagery/neurological differences in the brain might well exist between men and women, and my $ is on that as part of the explanation. But to suggest discrimination, conscious and unconscious, isn't the overwhelming problem here and now is just silly. Look, I'm not into victimology or whining, and or the politics of personal destruction (were it necessary, Summers seems to be imploding). I just honestly know that anyone who has met these women he's talking about -- I have, Prof. Georgi has -- couldn't with a straight face think that there's not a big discrimination problem.

More than anything, I'm irked that economists who may have shunned any contact with bright math and physics female people at any stage in their academic career would presume to make all these assumptions. Truly irked by all the wild assumptions.

So, yeah, Bob, women could be just being more rational. But have you met and talked to young women who choose not to go get a doctorate? Prof. Howard Georgi has, and that's not what he's found out. Part of it is the cultural riff having to do with tournaments that Brad aptly descrbies. Part of it that it's not rational to play a game that's going to be stacked, bit by bit, against you. Like, *none* of it is "gee, I'm 22 and I have straight As in Physics/Math and I need to start a family 10 years from now so I must put aside my intense love now." But I repeat myself.

Posted by: Nancy at February 19, 2005 12:37 PM

"We're convicted of being dumb unless we prove otherwise."

People arguing against Summers are, it seems to me, conflating what Summers said with a possibly widespread view which overlaps with his only for a few outliers. I assume this is because they want to debate not the former but the latter.

Posted by: rilkefan at February 19, 2005 01:45 PM

Nancy: "So, yeah, Bob, women could be just being more rational. But have you met and talked to young women who choose not to go get a doctorate?"

Yes, actually. I knew a young woman at RPI who went to Harvard for a physics PhD. But I also knew a young woman who switched from a Chem major to a Chemical Engineering major. And she got job offers substantially above her (male) classmates, and comically higher than she would have gotten had she gone on to pursue a PhD. in Chemistry. (But then, this was in the '70s, when employers were actively recruiting women engineers because they looked good in their annual reports.)
I'm pointing out that going into academic science for the love of it is not a completely rational decision; and, as men are often less rational, that might explain some of what we see here.

Posted by: Bob at February 19, 2005 02:23 PM

I repeat some comments I wrote a few years ago to a Women's Faculty Committee at an institution I taught for at the time. Their question was: "have child-care responsibilities affected your tenure prospects?" After I stopped laughing, I wrote:

The main problem with childcare politics in this country is that the men have, somehow, succeeded in making it a women's issue. I am constantly appalled to read articles in the popular press which make the choice between a career and taking care of one's children a dilemma for women alone. The assumption that childcare is solely the woman's responsibility--that if the children are inadequately cared for then the fault is hers and the husband is faultless--is astoundingly prevalent, and it baffles me that women do not resist it more vehemently. (The men of the world must be pretty astounded at how easily they have gotten away with this massive sleight of hand, too).

What needs to change in all tenuring systems is simply that the candidate's child-care duties have to be figured into the assessment of their performance. If you have small children and are doing your fair share, you can only give some 25%-50% of your energies to your career--that is my experience, and my wife's as well. So if I can keep up a reasonable rate of production with 50% or less of my energy and attention, this should be factored into an assessment of my future productivity. When the childless are very productive in their early years, I think grave suspicions should be cast on their potential: where are they going to find the time to do *more* academic work in the future, given that they are not currently being slowed down by child care? Are they just sprinting across the tenure finish-line, after which they'll produce much less? Over the last few years, as my children have gotten older, I have found more and more free time opening up for me, and more and more academic work has emerged as a result. Too late, of course, given the tenure system, but ideally the system would have spotted me early, noted that I was not doing too badly in light of the amount of child-care I was doing, and rated my chances more highly than those of the childless junior faculty who have no competing obligations.

What I am proposing is a fundamental change in expectations for tenure. I think the questions at tenure review ought to be predicated on the assumption that young people are having small children, and devoting a significant proportion of their time to raising them (and that assumption should be gender-neutral, of course). When someone is *not* devoting a significant proportion of their time to child-care, either because they are childless or because their spouse is doing the work, that's when the really hard questions ought to get asked: why aren't they vastly *more* productive than they are, when they are not taking care of small kids? Sure, they've written some good books, but so what? What children do they have to show for their years at our university? What career, or advanced degrees, does their spouse have to show for their years here? How have they facilitated their spouse's career in its early years, how have they raised decent and responsible children who are welcome in any company? I am not saying that people who don't spend a significant percentage of their energies on child-care should * never * get tenure; they might make other contributions to the community that would compensate. But they ought to be considered second-class citizens, and there ought to be some fundamental questions raised about their suitability for the profession.

I also think that it is a fundamental mistake to portray the deficiencies of the tenuring system as though they are uniquely harmful to women. You need to say: the tenure process is not a problem for women per se; it is a problem for any parent who want to raise their own children. If you only focus on the damage to women, then you reinforce the stereotype that the problem of child raising is a woman's problem, that the job of raising children itself is the woman's job, and so on.

The result for me, as a father who takes himself to be jointly and severally responsible for the raising of my children, is that I am penalized from two sides--my own productivity suffers immensely from my split obligations, but whenever I compete against childless women in the job market they are given greater consideration because they are women, DESPITE the fact that they don't have children!! I have lost several jobs to women without kids, and have been told on several occasions that the committee thought I was just as good, perhaps better, but since my competitor was a woman she was given the job. [I then offered to list the names of four institutions at which this happened, along with the names of faculty members at those institutions who have told me that gender determined the outcome].

Let me stress that am NOT complaining about the "reverse discrimination" that gives a previously disadvantaged class a temporary edge over the previously advantaged class in order to redress an historic wrong--this I think is a justifiable practice.

What I am complaining about is the fact that this practice does not *reverse*, but actually *continues* a pernicious form of discrimination: discrimination against child-raisers. Back in the bad old days, the functionally childless--i.e. men--enjoyed a huge advantage over the child-raisers--i.e. women-- in a way that kept women from attaining the levels of academic achievement which they deserved. Now, the same thing is still occurring, except that some of the functionally childless are women, and some of the child-raisers are men. I am glad to see women filling up the ranks of the academic profession, as other professions. But the fundamental injustice to child-raisers continues, and it continues to lead to injustice for women as well.

What is the result of this new system? Well, consider the rule of thumb I have suffered under when losing jobs, and that I have heard invoked in hiring committees I have served on: if a male and female candidate are roughly equal in qualifications, then hire the woman (no consideration of child-care involved). This is sometimes followed by the gloss: because if we take the man, we had better be able to show the administration that he was *astronomically* better qualified, better published, etc.

Consider the economic strategy you should adopt, in light of this system, if you have a two-career couple where both people want to remain employed: they should make sure that the man works on his career non-stop, in an insane and single-minded way, because he has to be astronomically well-qualified if he wants to get any job. On the other hand, the woman will continue getting some jobs so long as she is roughly as good as the competition, so she is under comparatively less stress to show results in her career, and thus has more time for things like, e.g., raising children.

My point is that the current hiring system, which is gender-sensitive but child-care blind, is actually further *entrenching* the system according to which women raise the children and men focus on their careers. This is an unintended consequence of horrific proportions, I think, and it all stems from the confusion of two historical injustices: the discrimination against women, which was (and is) an extremely bad thing, and the discrimination against child-raisers, which was (and is) also a bad thing. The two issues were confused for a very natural reason, namely that so many of the child-raisers were women. But by continuing to confuse them--by giving women preference as though all and only women were child-raisers--we are actually continuing a system that makes it more likely that women will have to raise the children.

Men who raise children suffer from this system. Who else? The women who married feminist men suffer from it, as well, because they find their husbands unemployed after a few years. And the children of feminists suffer from it, economically, because their parents don't get good jobs. No, the result of gender-preference in academics is easy to see around us: the best and most prestigious jobs are still going to men who do no child-care and are ruthlessly single-minded about their jobs. And then a few of the jobs also go to women who have no children, thus perpetuating the bias against child-raisers. Finally, a few also go to women who are trying to "balance" their careers, i.e. take care of the children because their high-performing husband is neglecting them.

Brad's right--the whole tournament has to be restructured.

Posted by: Tad Brennan at February 19, 2005 05:36 PM

Sigh! Brad, thanks for the attention you have paid to the population of the human species in other venues. There are now 6+ billion of us with a much higher percentage of the total able to spend the time and energy doing "academic" work. This means that Harvard (or Yale or MIT or Stanford or Berkely, etc. etc.) have less and less relevance. There are so many bright, clever people that the "elite" universities can't even come close to containing them. Over time, less and less of interesting and important academic work will come from these institutions and more and more will come from Michigan, Miami, Maryland, Viginia Tech, Wisconsin, the University of Washington, UCSD, etc. etc.

In addition. there is the obvious point that the great bulk of Western civilization has been and is patriarchial. Women in the US and Western civilization have only been accorded anything approaching civil rights for a few decades...and the tribal desert religions that still form the basis of our US society are hardly really egalitarian where women are concerned.

Any rational member of the species would conclude that it is much too early to start making Hernstein and Murray type judgements. Let's wait 500 years and see if women really receive equal opportunity to develop intellectual prowess in the arcane field that is now working on super strings before we conclude there is some "genetic" cause. Summers sounds like Stephen Pinker.Only someone with the arrogance of an economist (or evolutionary psychologist, two non science sciences) could fail to recognize or be sensitive to the impact of his remarks from his supposedly "august" position.

Brad, I trust your daughter will be no more constrained than my granddaughter or grand niece. (My daughter has already been constrained but has three sons purely out of spite.)
However, I suspect that we are a few hundred years from anything approaching cultural equality of opportunity if the world gets lucky and starts to find rational, sane and humane leaders to help us muddle through.

Posted by: Sam Taylor at February 19, 2005 05:55 PM

"His second point is the 'innate ability' one. Here he is clear that he is speaking of people way, way above average in ability--3-1/2 to 4 SDs. There is EVIDENCE that, in math, those people are more likely to be men.

"[But there is no mechanism proposed that I would regard as plausible to attribute this male domination of the upper tail to innate factors.]'

There's even less to suggest it isn't. Who's the female Beethoven, Shakespeare, Vermeer, Schwarzkopf? For every Thatcher or Golda Meir, there are a dozen Churchills.

But there's an easy way to prove me and Larry Summers wrong. If we are, there a host of qualified women being underutilized right now. All some entrepreneurial university president would have to do is harness that talent and outcompete the Harvards and Berkelies. The proof of the pudding....

Posted by: Patrick R. Sullivan at February 19, 2005 06:05 PM

[But there is no mechanism proposed that I would regard as plausible to attribute this male domination of the upper tail to innate factors.]

What's wrong with the unpaired-chromosome wider-variance model suggesting a contributing factor? Or the different-hormones-during-early-brain-development fact? If evolution can find a way to make the impregnating parent more variable, it likely will, and either of the above might have that effect. I don't see a priori why one would expect the tails of the distributions of traits for creatures with 1% different genotypes to be the same. And I can well imagine that women are on average 0.x sigma innately smarter than men but that longer tails win out for men at the level of the few individuals we're talking about. The brain scan people reportedly find that men and women use different mixes of white and gray matter - again, it would be surprising if the result was identically-shaped distributions of talent across a wide set of tasks.

Posted by: rilkefan at February 19, 2005 06:36 PM


"his only for a few outliers"

I actually dispute, politely I hope, Brad's reconstruction of Summers' comments. I've read them and I don't think that the innate ability comments were outliers.

Nor could they be. The general time burdens of tenure track are somehow hitting women in math and physics much harder than in other areas.

Brad rightly says that Summers is past the point in his career when he can through out a bunch of ideas and hope to be judged by his best. Summers' speech as a more nefarious, cohesive whole.

Brad's right that more "affirmative action" at the assistant professor level isn't the solution, and that restructuring that makes senior faculty unhappy (in terms of hours in) might be part of the solution. The elephant in the room is discrimination, nonetheless, when you're discussing this problem. (Who knows what anyone means by "affirmative action." Summers referred to "marginal" candidates. Many women have the belief that they should not enter the tournament because that is how they'll be viewed and treated.)

OK, and to be concededly mischievous, let me add, as my ever-analytical beau puts it, that the most frightening thing about the whole set of comments was Summers' preface that he had thought a lot about these issues.

Posted by: Nancy at February 20, 2005 05:13 AM

Tad Brennan,

Thanks for your very interesting post. Nice of you not to complain about the reverse discrimination, but you should. If women were better-represented in the academy, there wouldn't be such horrible hiring decisions. I believe ending discrimination -- little things that magnify along the way. I also believe that *if* innate differences exist in some fields, the better we learn this and what affect they have (I personally as above doubt in the extreme they account for the current disparities), the better for everyone.

But I've seen this before in my time-intense field -- handicapping the Dad who wants to be a good Dad. It's a real shame.

I think our society benefits best from "whole persons," and without sounding too culturally narrow, having a vibrant and meaningful family life is, for many people, a way that they really come to understand and value more deeply life itself and intergenerational relationships blah blah blah. And don't we want our surgeons, our prosecutors, and our professors of biology, to be these creative, multi-dimensional people? Wouldn't, I mean to say, the actual work prduct of academia (and elsewhere) benefit from a lifestyle that values leisure. [Insert something nice about French culture here.]

Posted by: Nancy at February 20, 2005 05:24 AM

"And don't we want our surgeons, our prosecutors, and our professors of biology, to be these creative, multi-dimensional people? Wouldn't, I mean to say, the actual work prduct of academia (and elsewhere) benefit from a lifestyle that values leisure.'

Not necessarily. And how would you ever know?

Posted by: Patrick R. Sullivan at February 20, 2005 09:07 AM

Nancy, by "a few outliers" I was referring to people of the sort who compete for jobs as math profs at Harvard. Summers thinking that there are fewer women than men among the handful of people per million innately in that category does not in the least convict you of being dumb.

Interestingly, the top google link for "mathematicians" is to a site about women

[] (by which I mean Prof. Brad DeLong), is there data regarding the hours worked by French mathematicians vs Americans of similar accomplishment (in terms of results or career stature)? Or say economists? I'll have to take a survey of my Italian colleagues in physics, but my suspicion is that they work as hard (at least in their early careers) as Americans do.

Posted by: rilkefan at February 20, 2005 09:28 AM

I'm actually less-inclined to justify the changes based on a perfectionist ideal for adults--i.e. that we should foster social changes that make adults more cultured, better-rounded, etc.

I'm more inclined to argue for it based on the aim of turning out even *minimally* decent kids. If you have spent any time around young kids these days, you know that a lot of them are rude, self-centered, and disrespectful. Talk to any grade-school teacher about whether kids these days are the same as kids ten or twenty years ago--they are not. They are significantly worse. They are not sufficiently well-behaved--their basic levels of impulse control are not good enough--for most teachers to do anything but crowd control and reactionary enforcement of discipline. That's the fault of parents who deliver them to the schools completely uncivilized--look around and you will see feral children everywhere.

And raising children to be civilized is unavoidably labor-intensive (Matt Y. has some interesting reflections on this at his blog). It just takes a lot of time, per child, and economies of scale are illusory. The time has to be put in by someone, and for various reasons I think that the parent does it best (or foster-parent or adoptive parent--I'm not trumpeting the necessity of blood ties here, but of a parenting commitment).

I know there are studies that argue that, on various metrics, warehoused kids do "no worse" than kids raised by their parents. There is also the line taken by Summer's pal Pinker that kids are so thoroughly hard-wired that parental input does fairly little. But while that might suggest that Brad' daughter always would have been mathematically *talented*, even if she had been raised by wolves, there is still a great difference between kids whose talents are developed and those whose talents are not, and a further difference between high-performing kids who are wretched and suicidal and ones with the same Pinkerian endowment who are stable and contributing members of society.

The intergenerational transmission of culture and values is really slow, slow, work. We have been experimenting for a few decades with out-sourcing the job to Disney and minimum-wage workers. I don't think the results look encouraging for the future.

That's how I'd set about justifying the shift to taking parental obligations more seriously.

Posted by: Tad Brennan at February 20, 2005 09:30 AM

To paraphrase Thurgood Marshall, I didn't learn anything new from Summers' comments or the ensuing discussions. Anyone who has followed pop culture and observed the tenure process knew all the issues and arguments. His condescending tone reminded me of Rumsfeld at his worst. These gender issues are an unknowable unknowable, and in academia we have to do promotions with the women weve got, not the women we wish we had.

Particularly delusory was his call for a followup study to see if we promote inferior people. There is no way to do this for people promoted under previous systems. Especially in math, conventional productivity varies after 40 or 50. But some people devote time to teaching, working with younger collegues, serving on committees. Some of this is busy work, but some is very valuable. He's kidding himself or spinning bullshit to the audience.

I certainly don't think he should be lose his job, but it didn't raise my estimation of his decency or integrity, much less social intelligence. Nor did he provoke constructive discussion.

Posted by: Roger Bigod at February 20, 2005 11:10 AM

Nancy, while in the case of most people I would agree with your beau's concern about the "thought about it a lot" quote, in Summers' case I would suspect that there's less thought there than "a lot" would suggest. I've heard from people who knew/know him at Treasury and Harvard that Summers is one of those people so persuaded as to their incomparable, all-knowing brilliance that "thought about it a lot" can often mean "spent more time thinking about it than simply in the car on the way over here".

[Not true, by the way.]

Posted by: Steady Eddie at February 20, 2005 10:33 PM

Steady Eddie,

Thanks for your post. Yeah, I know people who sat in at meetings with him in Washington and they say the same thing. The guy probably discounts discrimination in tenure decisions because his family background protected him from any politics whatsoever when he was in academia.

"I define truth as the system of my limitations and leave absolute truth to those who are better equipped for it." Nice.

I'd add, as entirely relevant here, Einstein's quote to the effect of: "Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen." ;)

Posted by: Nancy at February 21, 2005 07:52 AM

Rilkefan, re not understanding "ouliers" in context: oops.

Patrick Sullivan: "Not necessarily. And how would you ever know?" Hmm. Good point, good question. I refer you to the more recent 80-hr-work-week thread in this blog. Some studies about errors of judgment when working at that rate.

Tad Brennan: One thing, in any event, you'll find me pointedly not contesting is a lot of what it is in Tad Brennan's post. I see no merit in fighting mother nature on this one: women do have, will have, and probably should have a bigger role in socialization and child-rearing. [Deleting concern regarding whether Summers' mom spent enough time making sure he had smart female playmates.]

Posted by: Nancy at February 21, 2005 08:01 AM

Here's some science:


In general, men have approximately 6.5 times the amount of gray matter related to general intelligence than women, and women have nearly 10 times the amount of white matter related to intelligence than men. Gray matter represents information processing centers in the brain, and white matter represents the networking of - or connections between - these processing centers.

This, according to Rex Jung, a UNM neuropsychologist and co-author of the study, may help to explain why men tend to excel in tasks requiring more local processing (like mathematics), while women tend to excel at integrating and assimilating information from distributed gray-matter regions in the brain, such as required for language facility. ....

The study also identified regional differences with intelligence. For example, 84 percent of gray-matter regions and 86 percent of white-matter regions involved with intellectual performance in women were found in the brain's frontal lobes, compared to 45 percent and zero percent for males, respectively. The gray matter driving male intellectual performance is distributed throughout more of the brain.

According to the researchers, this more centralized intelligence processing in women is consistent with clinical findings that frontal brain injuries can be more detrimental to cognitive performance in women than men. Studies such as these, Haier and Jung add, someday may help lead to earlier diagnoses of brain disorders in males and females, as well as more effective and precise treatment protocols to address damage to particular regions in the brain.

Which would seem to indicate that all the head-banging is okay for our host, but he might not want to encourage his daughter in it.

Posted by: Patrick R. Sullivan at February 21, 2005 09:01 AM

After some comments critical of Summers, I worried that I might have been unfair. So I read the transcript again and came across these gems:

"First, it would be very useful to know, with hard data, what the quality of marginal hires are when major diversity efforts are mounted. When major diversity efforts are mounted, and consciousness is raised..."

Far out, President Summers.

"Or does fetishizing the search procedure make it very difficult to pursue the targets of opportunity that are often available arising out of particular family situations or particular moments, and does fetishizing and formalizing search procedures further actually work to the disadvantage of minority group members."

How does he know that I keep my diversity materials in the same locked drawer with my collection of high heels and frilly female undergarments?

I wonder what this says about his decision making processes. There's a whole paragraph of policy considerations and alternatives, superficially rational and objective. But he can't resist indicating contempt for any critics. This guy is going to make some momentous decisions in Harvard's history, affecting the character of the place as deeply as establishing the House system and the professional schools. Can anyone read this and the IMF memo and come away with confidence that he isn't going to screw up?

Posted by: Roger Bigod at February 21, 2005 11:04 AM


thanks for your supportive comments. But I think you *are* contesting a central point I wished to make. My post argues that women *should* not be given any greater responsibility in childrearing than men--neither for the outcomes nor for the day-to-day drudge work. So if by "women...should have a bigger role in socialization and child-rearing" you meant "bigger than men do", I disagree.

I take no stand on whether Mother Nature makes men equally good at it or not. In my own case, I think I have always been demonstrably less good at child-raising than my wife is. I am vastly better at it than if I had never spent so much time at it, and it may well be that men in general could improve enough to reach parity. And I did a better job than any non-parental woman would have done for those same hours, i.e. we could not have improved our children's experience by hiring it out. The only way we could have done better for our children would have been by shifting all of the burden onto my wife. This would have been manifestly unfair, and arguments from natural ability would not make it fair.

Suppose that in a country that depended on coal-mining, there were a genetic sub-population that always bred for short, stocky physiques, i.e. a race of dwarfs living among us. Mother Nature would have made them clearly better than the rest of the population at coal-mining. But nothing follows about whether the burden of providing society's coal should be shifted prejudicially onto that sub-population. In fact, I would think it was a paradigm of gross inequity for the society to legislate such a burden shift, or even for there to be general expectations that it was "their job", or that when the coal ran out, "they" weren't doing what "Mother Nature" made them so clearly better at.

In a few millenia we may finally conclude that women as a class are better than men as a class at child-rearing (and of course individual variation is so great that already one can point to pairs of men and women in which that man is *much* better than that woman). But even then there will be no normative conclusion to be drawn from it.

Now, if it really were coal-mining at issue, we would allow economics to solve the problem--the two sub-populations would be like countries that traded with comparative advantages. But as Kieran at CT points out, somehow when women enter the picture, the most right-wing conservatives instantly forget the market and instead turn to Mother Nature.

Posted by: Tad Brennan at February 21, 2005 11:33 AM

Tad Brennan,

Yes, I realize I agree with what you say but that I then take it in a different direction. (I really liked your stab at Disney and childcare workers. I'm aghast at some of what popular culture will teach the kids, when they get their hands on them.)

"In a few millenia we may finally conclude that women as a class are better than men as a class at child-rearing (and of course individual variation is so great that already one can point to pairs of men and women in which that man is *much* better than that woman). But even then there will be no normative conclusion to be drawn from it."

OK, a couple of points. Yes, the jury's not officially in. But the "even then" part is where I bet we depart. I like your point about how the children of feminists shouldn't be punished, and the whole tournament should be restructured. However (and I say this as someone who disagrees without qualification with just about everything Summers said except that he thought about it a lot -- apparently his pataltry results is as much "a lot" as he can handle) I think it's hard to have it all, all at once, for women. Restructuring the tournament may be not punishing women for taking time off to raise children, or not creating a tournament-culture with huge hourly commitments, or even granting tenure at earlier ages.

I don't think it's even plausible to have substantially greater childcare by men as an option. I say this as someone who was watched with pride as my brother, "retired" early from the tech industry, does a great job raising his kids. I strongly suspect women, who *are* different, are coded to be twice as patient and nuturing in this context, so it's just rational for them to do childcare (ages 0-4). I hope I can say this and retain my self-described status as feminist!, but I just experientially see it everywhere. I'm not sure I need to wait 2000 years to know this.

Just as I don't need to wait 2000 years to know that the main problem with the absence of tenured female physicists is discrimination and socialization, not childcare.

In any event, I don't think it should be *hard* to adjust the tenure process on a technical level, but on a practical level it's like moving heaven and earth, isn't it? I'd worry especially that good guys like you would be the first crushed: any accomodations for childcare would have to be gender neutral.

Ah, but you say, that's the point of being civilized and having culture to begin with! Even if nature picked women, couldn't we invest substantial effort and resources and equalize it so that it met our conception of "fair," investing some social resources to get it done? I'd rather take those same considerable social resources and use them to eliminate not-so-overt discrimination from women in science-based tenure tracks.

Ah, but now we're really in Berk., CA, which I'm not so sure is a reality-based community! Ain't gonna happen anyway. What's going to happen is that Summers is going to stay in charge, he's going to think of female professors as "marginal," and he's going to be trained not to say it out loud in the future. I'm not sure I mind him staying right where he is. He's an "existence proof" of what a lot of guys in academia surely think, just as certainly that female physics professors who have tenure at Harvard are proof that he's wrong.

Posted by: Nancy at February 21, 2005 12:57 PM

Roger Bigod,

I can I think give you a little of the political background on what Prof. Summers was saying when he said: "Or does fetishizing the search procedure make it very difficult to pursue the targets of opportunity that are often available arising out of particular family situations or particular moments . . . "

As we all know, Prof. Summers' talk was in part a response to critics of how he's overseen the tenure process. In particular, Prof. Summers continues to preside over a bit of a war in some departments between suddenly, quickly hiring someone who becomes "movable" and always doing a broader search based on merit. Some Harvard faculty members, including Prof. Howard Georgi, have openly criticized these "target of opportunity" hires on the basis that people will just naturally look to quickly hire people they know about, are familiar with, are friends with, etc. It makes the lateral tenure hire process too clubby, and in a faculty that's white and male, and keeps it white and male.

That's the criticism, which has been presented publicly and privately to Summers over the last year, and that's surely what he was dismissing with deployment of the word "to fetish."

He doesn't have a doubt that it's his natural brilliance that got him where he is now. He believes strongly in the ability of people like him to see the obvious intellectual merits of, well, people like him. Cue the lawyers.

I'm not so sure about your last point that it's going to be a disaster, his continued presidency. At least he's honest about what he's thinking. One suspects some old presidents of Harvard felt the same way, but we never got to hear it. The Harvard Corporation now has its second female in its entire history governing the place.

It's all a question of perspective. When the owner of this blog went to college at Harvard, only one third of the undergrads were female. That struck me as strange. I wonder if it struck the precocious males as strange. It appears that Larry Summers would find it strange *not* to run Harvard like one big gentlemen's club.

I confess that here in DC I actually belong to one gentlemen's club. It's really nearly all gentlemen, and some names that you'd recognize. Hardly any women. A smattering of non-whites. I think the women in the club are twice-as-smart, present company excepted, but I know the club had to look "outside" its normal search mechanisms to find us. One might say, ahem, they made a fetish of it! LOL, to good effect. ;) Fetish away, say I. A great new verb, I intend to use it every day.

Posted by: Nancy at February 21, 2005 01:09 PM

Can anyone read this and the IMF memo and come away with confidence that he isn't going to screw up?

What about the Mexican currency crisis? The widely cited work at the World Bank that the best development investment is primary education for girls? Participation in the economic team responsible for a (sadly temporary) turnaround in America's fiscal situation and eight years of record growth?

I'm surprised that few people have taken issue with his use of Becker on racial discrimination by producers in competitive markets. Why would US universities have the same incentives?

Posted by: Gareth at February 21, 2005 01:17 PM

I spent some time around the teaching hospital of a research university, so I have stories about hiring and tenure issues. People tend to hang on the words of authorities like Deans and department Chairs. It's the nature of the position that they can't play gadfly at public meetings.

I wasn't suggesting that his attitudes on women faculty would damage the university significantly. But I've read that Harvard has assembled a big block of property and plans a huge expansion of science facilities. His decisions about that project will have an influence for decades.

Posted by: Roger Bigod at February 21, 2005 04:44 PM


Allston. An emperor building an empire to himself. Starving the faculty of arts and science of cash in the short term to do it -- despite the fact that there's plenty of money in the endowment to do it.

[You do realize that you've just convinced me you're a loon, don't you? When we here at Berkeley lose people to Havard FAS, they apologize--they say they know they're unlikely to be able to rebuild an intellectual community as strong as they have in Berkeley, but that Harvard has infinite resources.]

To his credit, he's letting some local kids attend at no cost -- to give hope to local kids that it's possible. That's a wonderful thing.

Posted by: Nancy at February 21, 2005 05:20 PM

As the parent of a mathematically precocious daughter, it would be well to consider the statement of "bad Jim":

"Perhaps we pay too much attention to our elite institutions and their choices."

This is especially true if your daughter is inclined to the theoretical nature, in which case a routine job such as the one Einstein had in the patent office, might be a more conducive atmosphere to original thought than an academic appointment.

Posted by: cloquet at February 21, 2005 05:40 PM

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