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Gender disparity on display
By Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY
Researchers have been trying for decades to figure out why men are more successful than women in math and science careers, and experts agree that no one yet has found a genetic reason.
Lawrence Summers' comments about women in the sciences sparked a firestorm.
By Michael Dwyer, AP file

This debate took center stage Friday when Harvard University president Lawrence Summers told the audience at an economics conference that innate differences between the sexes might be a reason.

Summers has been widely criticized since his remarks. A letter sent to him Tuesday from 50 faculty members said his comments "reinforce an institutional culture at Harvard that erects numerous barriers to improving the representation of women on the faculty."

In a written statement, Summers said he was trying to note "in the spirit of academic inquiry" that a variety of factors could be responsible for the gender disparity. (Related story: Summers apologizes)

That academic inquiry has, in fact, been going on for more than 20 years, since the original research that Summers alluded to in his speech was conducted at Johns Hopkins University by Julian Stanley and Camilla Benbow.

Until about 10th grade, girls tend to score higher in math and science, but that begins to change toward the end of high school. Stanley and Benbow found that boys outnumbered girls 5-1 among U.S. high school students with the top 5% of math and science scores. That ratio has held fairly steady since.

"There's never been even a good hypothesis as to what biological (factor) could contribute to a difference such as that," says William Damon, director of Stanford University's Center on Adolescence. "When nothing plausible is found, you begin to be suspicious that maybe there's nothing there."

That one in five of those top scorers are girls is what researchers call "existence proof" that women are capable of excelling in these areas, Damon says. "They seem to have all the same genes that any other woman has. If there was a good scientific jury on these things, you'd have to say that these social and cultural explanations are powerful and compelling, and the genetic ones look ludicrously weak in comparison."

Researchers supporting the cultural explanation say studies have found very little difference in Asian countries between the scores of high-performing girls and boys.

Summers also expressed doubt that discrimination is to blame for the dearth of women in science and medicine at the top universities. That just added fuel to the fire.

According to the National Science Foundation, women today earn 27% of doctorates in the physical sciences and 17% in engineering. But they make up only 10% of university faculty members, says Alice Agogino, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of California-Berkeley.

The biggest single difference is that "women have babies," Agogino says. She was on a Massachusetts Institute of Technology advisory board when the school reviewed its hiring practices.

What the panel found was "scary," she says. "Over two-thirds of the male faculty had children, and less than one-third of the female did. That says it all. The women either had to make a choice of forgoing children or having a career. They couldn't do both."

Nancy Kolodny, a chemistry professor at Wellesley College, says she sees many former students waiting to have children until after they have gotten tenure. She finds those decisions troubling because of their effect on the women's ability to have children at all.

A highly regarded Swedish study found universities were hiring less-qualified men over qualified female applicants for postdoctoral positions, Agogino says.


News Women Turn Math Insult
into Aptitude Adjustment

By ABI Staff, Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology

By Sue Hutchison, San Jose Mercury News

It’s been a year since Harvard University President Lawrence Summers fired the verbal shot that was heard ’round the world and blew the doors off faculty clubs around the nation. At an academic conference, Summers had speculated that so few women are at the highest levels of math and science research because women don’t have the same “intrinsic aptitude” as men.

UC-Santa Cruz Chancellor Denice Denton remembers it well because she was in the room at the time. The former dean of the college of engineering at the University of Washington, Denton had a theory about the impact of Summers’ remarks. She thought the incident might end up being a golden foot-in-mouth moment because it would spark a national discussion and spotlight the daunting challenges faced by women pursuing science careers.

It turns out she was right.

Jumping-off point

Even now, the discussion is at a fever pitch. This month Stanford University’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender held a forum on women in mathematics, using Summers’ remarks as a jumping-off point. One of the central goals was to bring to light unexamined biases against women in math-science careers and discuss ways to “keep women in the biz,” as the institute’s director, Stanford Professor Londa Schiebinger, put it.

“We have to figure out why, when women are getting almost 50 percent of all bachelor degrees in math, they make up less than 10 percent of math professors,” Schiebinger told me later. “Why isn’t math an attractive profession for women who are trained in it?”

A year’s worth of similar discussions, magazine cover stories and research papers that were recirculated in the media since Summers’ salvo have put many of the reasons in the public eye. They range from subtle discrimination — including biases held by women themselves — to poor recruiting and a lack of family programs, such as high-quality day care, on university campuses.

Also, there’s the image problem of math-science careers. Too many girls and young women who are talented math students seem to assume that such careers involve sitting in a room with a computer and working on abstract problems that don’t have a vital impact on the world. Telle Whitney, director of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology in Palo Alto, understands this all too well.

Whitney was a theater major in college before she switched to engineering. “I had been a math whiz in high school, but my feeling was, `What is this good for?’” Whitney said. “More girls need to know that this can take you anywhere. One of the mathematicians at the Stanford forum talked about how her work was helping to find a cure for leukemia.”

It’s good for business

Getting more women into the highest echelons of math-science research shouldn’t be dismissed as an exercise in political correctness. It’s about the bottom line. That means creating more diverse applications, and, yes, selling more technology. Google executives have already figured this out, and that’s why they have made recruitment of women a top priority.

Nurturing talented women has to be part of our central mission to improve the nation’s lagging competitiveness in science and technology. Thanks to Summers, we’re finally addressing it, but much more needs to be done.

As Denton told me recently, “This is especially important to Silicon Valley because we have to build capacity. If we don’t include girls, half the population, we’re going to be in a lot of trouble.”

It’s hard to argue with that.
Sue Hutchison’s column appears Mondays and Wednesdays. Contact her at [email protected] Posted on Wednesday, February 15, 2006 in the San Jose Mercury News








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