Unconscious but Pervasive Bias

By Sean Carroll | September 20, 2006 5:10 pm

I was hoping to actually say something substantive about this, but time is precious these days (and it’s been all over the blogosphere anyway). The National Academy of Sciences has released a report, Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering. They seem to think that the relative paucity of women in science is not due to differences of innate aptitude, or even to an aversion to hard work and competitive environments, but to systematic biases within academia. Hmm, fancy that. Cornelia Dean in the NYT writes:

Women in science and engineering are hindered not by lack of ability but by bias and “outmoded institutional structures” in academia, an expert panel reported yesterday…

The panel dismissed the idea, notably advanced last year by Lawrence H. Summers, then the president of Harvard, that the relative dearth of women in the upper ranks of science might be the result of “innate” intellectual deficiencies, particularly in mathematics.

If there are cognitive differences, the report says, they are small and irrelevant. In any event, the much-studied gender gap in math performance has all but disappeared as more girls enroll in demanding classes. Even among very high achievers, the gap is narrowing, the panelists said…

The report also dismisses other commonly held beliefs — that women are uncompetitive or less productive, that they take too much time off for their families. Instead, it says, extensive previous research showed a pattern of unconscious but pervasive bias, “arbitrary and subjective” evaluation processes and a work environment in which “anyone lacking the work and family support traditionally provided by a `wife’ is at a serious disadvantage.”

As Bitch Ph.D. says, “I, personally, am expecting the apologies from Larry Summers’ apologists to start pouring in any day now.”

So I have a question. The reason why most of us were upset by Larry Summers is that he was wrong, in a spectacular and potentially damaging kind of way, and the new NAS study supports this (yet again). But, almost without exception, Summers’ supporters pretended that what got people upset was the very idea of raising the possibility of gender-based cognitive differences, and that these people were anti-free-inquiry and afraid of the truth. Steven Pinker was the most dogged straw-man-constructor, but there were plenty of others. (See also Lawyers, Guns & Money.)

My question is: was there anyone who was actually upset at Summers for this reason? That is, was there any respectable academic who really came out against even asking whether there were gender-based cognitive differences? To make things precise, I’m looking for (1) actual professors or other academics, not crazy blog commenters and so on; (2) people who explicitly were against even asking the question or doing the research, not people who (quite reasonably) argue that bias and discrimination are much more important factors in explaining the current gender disparity; and (3) did so in response to Summers, not some time back in the 1970’s or whatever. I sincerely want to know, did anyone take that position? I’m sure it wasn’t the position of most of us, strawmen notwithstanding, but given the speed and efficiency with which the fairy tale was promulgated among Summers’ supporters, I can’t help but think that at least one person did say it. There are alot of crazy academics out there who say all sorts of nonsensical things, it shouldn’t be too hard to find someone.

  • Alex R

    I can’t remember any such people myself. I don’t remember anyone suggesting, for example, that Steven Pinker ought to lose his job or funding at Harvard for raising such questions.

    However, I can’t give any specific examples, but at the time there were a number of people who argued — and I was and am still one of them — that given the obvious institutional and social biases against women in science, the President of Harvard University should not be “even asking the question” whether biological differences between men and women were the primary cause of the low percentage of female scientists at Harvard University.

    I’m all for freedom of speech and free scientific inquiry. I just happen to think that the “President of Harvard University” is a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week job, the holder of which needs to show some restraint in the sort of scientific questions he or she muses about in public forums set up to address issues at the university.

  • Chris

    Not to be *too* irritatingly skeptical, but…

    For those of us who don’t have time to read the actual report, would someone please summarize what, exactly, the phrase “outmoded institutional structures” actually means?

  • Anshul

    I am not in the Summers fanclub but at the time of the controversy I didnt pay it all much attention. I was under the impression that he said studies were required to determine if gender and intelligence had an intrinsic relationship. But you are implying otherwise.

    The reason why most of us were upset by Larry Summers is that he was wrong, in a spectacular and potentially damaging kind of way

    What exactly did he say?

  • Chris

    I think I agree with what you’ve said, Alex, but the musing in question was not actually in a public forum. If I remember correctly it was a closed-door conference and it wasn’t until well into the controversy that the actual transcript of Summers’ remarks were released.

  • Chris

    here’s an address for the precise transcript:


    There’s controversial, provocative, and most likely wrong things said, but I am of the opinion that it isn’t quite as inflammatory as the initial response might have suggested.

  • Anshul

    Thanks Chris!

    From the transcript it appears to me that Summers is saying that there are 3 possible cuases of under-representation of women. Discrimination, genes and environment. All 3 need to be studied.

    Now that is provocative and controversial of course but why is it wrong?

    Also, the NAS study says that environmental factors and discrimination (provably?) exist and are responsible. Agreed. But, this is totally avoiding the gender and aptitude co-relation question.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    He said that “availability of aptitude at the high end” was more important than discrimination in determining the representation of women, in contradition to many efforts to actually look at the data.

  • Kea

    Thanks again, Sean. Amazing how difficult it is for people to understand something they don’t really want to know.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/joanne/ JoAnne

    I just don’t get it. Here’s a scientific report with studies and data to support its conclusions. So, reading these comments (and remembering others from previous posts on this topic), just why is it so difficult for you males to comprehend that us women might just be intellectually equal to you all? Why are you so threatened by this concept?

  • Kea

    They are threatened because it alters the very fabric of their murky reality.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    JoAnne, to take an honest stab at this, I suspect that the biggest factor isn’t really that men want to feel intellectually superior to women (although there’s certainly some of that). It’s more that people generally, even if they are happy to fight against discrimination and injustice elsewhere, are extremely reluctant to admit that they themselves (or whatever group they belong to) might be behaving unfairly. Same reason why some Japanese want to believe that they were forced to invade Manchuria, or some Turks don’t think anything bad ever happened to the Armenians, or some Southerners think that blacks were treated really well in the Confederacy.

    You see some people getting annoyed when others bring up discrimination, because they are really nice guys who would never treat people differently on the basis of their sex or anything else. (I’ve done it myself, it’s a natural reflex.) Some of these guys would then turn around and say something blatantly misogynist, but not all of them. So it’s easier to think that the present temporary (and obviously changing) condition is part of an eternal natural order, especially if it gives them an opportunity to be deliciously politically incorrect. It’s much easier to deplore the sad state of the world when it’s all somewhere else.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/joanne/ JoAnne

    Sean, with all respect, I think there’s a deeper problem. For some men, such as yourself, who actually believe all humankind is equal and tries to treat everyone as such, your explanation is plausible. But, some of the things I have experienced could only have arisen from a much deeper source of conflict.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    I’m sure you’re right. I guess I was thinking particularly of those people who we really would like to think should know better.

  • http://RiofrioSpaceTime.blogspot.com Louise

    Any woman in science knows what outmoded instituitonal structures are. Kea is right again.

  • Sam Gralla

    It’s not just that he was *wrong* (according to you), but that he was wrong in a “potentially damagaing kind of way,” as you said. If he had been wrong in some harmless way, nobody would be so upset. That is where the violation of free-inquiry comes in. Some conclusions cause one to lose one’s job; other conclusions don’t. Is one’s inqury really “free”? This problem exists at some scale in all fields, and is, for example, the reason for the tenure system. The women in science thing is just is a spectacularly extreme example of the usual situation, and so defenders of free-inquiry call upon people to restain themselves back to normal. You may claim that the different evaluative standards for different claims are fully justified given the danger of one kind of claim (those defends would disagree), but you can’t claim that conclusions are only judged only on their truth or falsity. Again you wouldn’t be upset if he had been wrong harmlessly. Freedom of inquiry is certainly significantly violated; you just think that’s the right thing to do in this case. And that’s an okay opinion to have.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Sam, you’ll notice that Larry Summers has very much kept his job as a tenured member of the Harvard faculty, where he is free to inquire to his heart’s content, as he should be. Nobody thinks that “freedom of inquiry” means “freedom to keep your high-powered administrative position no matter what stupid things you say in public.” (We won’t go into the fact that his remarks on women in science were only a very tiny piece of the pressures that made him choose to resign.)

    Still waiting for an example of someone who thinks that gender-based cognitive difference is a dangerous question that should not be asked.

  • Anshul

    @Sean in #7
    All right… so, thats what this is about. I agree with you guys then. That is indeed wrong and damaging. That kind of an attitude is actually dangerous. Thanks for clearing it up for me.

  • M

    If “outmoded institutional structures in academia” means that you can’t do physics while caring a child, I confirm that the expert panel is right.

    But if you mean that distributions of IQ and of similar things have absolutely no gender nor race differences (or have differences much smaller than the 1sigma differences everybody sees in sports and similar things), I would consider this opinion as more crazy than the opinions of “that crazy blog commenter” that has the courage of expressing inconvenient crazy opinions.

  • Another M

    I think people may ask questions regarding gender-based cognitive differences, people may ask whatever questions they like, but I don’t think scientific studies in that area should be funded. It is equivalent to studying cognitive differences between black people and white people. I am not afraid of what such studies will find, but I am afraid of how they will be used. The results are always means and distributions of certain quantities derived by studying large groups of people. They are then used to justify continued discrimination against certain groups. Let’s get this straight: no matter what such a study should find, women should be afforded the same opportunities in math and science as men are. It simply does not matter how your average or “out-on-the-tail-of-the-bell-curve” woman performs on certain tests. The point is: some women are good at science, and they ought to have the same right to a career in science as men do. And I honestly believe that discussions about cognitive differences between the genders are distracting and harmful. It is another way for departments and institutions to avoid making necessary changes to the boys’ clubs that are most physics departments.

  • jb

    This surely violates condition (3), but if I remember, Chomsky has come out against asking these kinds of questions. (I definitely can’t remember the way in which he thinks they should be opposed. I would doubt very much that he thinks one should use institutional power structures to penalize people for studying them.) I think his reasoning is that the only possible interest in questions like ‘Are white people inherently more intelligent than black people?’ or ‘Are Jews inherently more money-grubbing than gentiles?’ or ‘Are people whose last name is Hatfield better looking than those whose last name is McCoy?’ would be for racist purposes, almost by definition. I am actually somewhat sympathetic to this point.

    One anecdotal observation I find very telling is that in the top US mathematics departments, woman graduate students tend to take certain professors as advisors much more than others, and they are more lop-sided about it than the men. To me this says some professors have a much harder time working with women students, whether or not there is anything conscious going on. On the other hand, I don’t know how you could possibly counter this. One unfortunate consequence of rewarding merit much more than social skills (in men, if you prefer) is that the successful people will tend to have much worse social skills than those in other lines of work.

  • Anshul

    Another M, I share your concern but if we do not fund research into gender-based cognitive differences, someday somebody with an agenda will and that can only be bad. In fact, we should get these things done and over with and establish once for all policies that mandate that such differences may not influence the opportunity afforded to an individual. We will need a law some day that makes discrimination on these basis illegal. The sooner the better.

  • umno

    You simply assert that Summers was wrong. But polemic doesn’t substitute for evidence. In fact the very report you cite confirms the difference between men and women at the tails of the distribution of abilities, which is exactly what Summers was talking about. What it claims is that (A) this difference has been decreasing with time and (B) that being on this extreme tail isn’t important for a successful career in science and engineering. Of course (A) might be true–no one denies that there has been discrimination in the past–but that doesn’t mean that there is a theorem that the distributions must become identical. (B) may be true for a typical career, but is unlikely to be true for success at the highest levels of creative research at top universities, which is again what Summers was talking about. You shouldn’t talk of straw men, as you enjoy knocking down your own straw man version of Summers with great pomp.


    No one is saying that women can’t be “equal” to men, and especially in science at the highest levels, such straightforward comparisons between people are impossible. We all know brilliant women scientists with accomplishments at the very highest level. And there has historically been discrimination against women. But in academia, and especially in physics that tends to be populated by people with liberal ideology, for at least two decades there has been a systematic effort to recruit and aid women, and this goes all the way up to the faculty level. In many cases, stronger men have been pased over in the favor of women, from grad school up to professor level. Inded, if you are a women that is reasonably talented, that is if you can land a post-doc in one of the top groups, you are more or less guaranteed a faculty job, while the same is not at all true of the men. If people don’t believe this, they can check out the research records of people who got hired say in particle theory in the last 10 years.
    Perhaps this is justified. Regardless, it certainly explodes the myth that there is a boot on the throat of women in science, when where it really really counts, there is not only no discrimnation, overt or subtle, but rather the reverse–an active helping hand.

  • http://epistolary.net candace

    Oh….a helping hand…that must be why women are paid less in academia!

    “Explicable differences amounted to 77% of the overall pay gap between the sexes. That still left a substantial 23% gap in pay…”

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    umno, I do not “simply assert” it, I can point (for example) to a brand-new report by the National Academy of Sciences. Which joins the book by Xie and Shauman, the MIT faculty report, and countless smaller studies. I am not sure why, despite all the evidence and hard data that accumulates, the importance of discrimination continues to be classified as an “assertion.” There’s no need to set up a straw man version of Summers, quoting him directly is quite telling enough.

    And if the “distribution of abilities” is decreasing with time in some measurable way, then it’s presumably not reflecting something innate, is it?

  • Eric Dennis

    Sorry to further disrupt the progressives’ back-patting party, but here’s an idea. Were one really interested in uncovering the fact of the matter regarding the contribution of innate (or at least intrinsic) cognitive differences to success in quantitative academe, one might do the following.

    1. Get solid data on sex-specific IQ distributions.

    2. Assuming normal distributions, and assuming perfectly IQ-determined performance and rewards, calculate the expected penetration of women into various categories of high mathematical achievement/recognition.

    3. Compare the predictions to the data.

    4. Dismount the PC hobbyhorse.

    Well, maybe you need to do 4 first. Fortunately, one brave soul has already supplied the requisite intellectual apptitude and effort for this task. See:


    A sneak preview. Predicted number of female mathematicians in the National Academy of Sciences: 7.1. Actual number: 7.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Sorry, the thin air up here on my PC hobbyhorse makes it hard to think straight, but how would such wanking an analysis account for the changes in such distributions in different countries and as a function of time?

  • Eric Dennis

    It doesn’t, nor was it intended to. What it accounts for is the recognition that the current huge male/female disparity in a couple highly relevant categories is exactly what one would expect from the known IQ differences, sans sexism.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Except that it doesn’t, since IQ differences are purportedly stable, and the male/female disparities are not. The “agreement” is just playing around with numbers until you get the right answer, and then patting yourself on the back. In other words, if you are honest, this is clearly not the right explanation.

    Still waiting for the example requested in the post.

  • Eric Dennis

    I don’t know if IQ diffs are stable on the relevant time scale. I do know they are not stable over ~50yrs. I don’t know about IQ time-dependence in different countries. I do know that none of that is relevant to my point, and I do know that waiting won’t help you. You’ve got to dismount. Nice chatting with you though.

  • Brett

    I actually did come across somebody who advocated not asking any questions about intrinsic differences between the sexes, and it was definitely in response to the swirl of controversy surrounding Summers’ statements. The person in question was a professor of education, and she was very interested in improving the training of elementary school teachers. Her reasoning was that any discussion of possible sex differences would tend to erode the confidence of young girls.

    In fact, I would not be surprised if a lot of people involved teacher training and directly in elementary education held similar views. When I was in school, discussion of any sex differences in the classroom was taboo, at least when the differences could somehow be construed to cast females in a negative light. Discussions casting males in a perhaps negative light were not actively suppressed in the same way, but they were kept to a minimum.

    One very clear example of how information about sex differences (although not intrinsic sex differences) was handled sticks in my mind. In elementary and middle school, one point that was always mentioned in our health curriculum was that, “Since girls enter puberty before males, there is a period when girls are faster and stronger than boys.” However, I noticed that, even in the midst of the age range where this was supposed to occur, the scores on our regular P.E. tests were always worse for the girls than the boys. This puzzled me, so I dug a little deeper. (It seems a little odd now, but every student had free access to everyone else’s fitness test scores.) The best scores for the girls were better than the best scores for the boys–much, much better, in fact. This was the effect the health text books were pointing out. Yet the way the books always phrased it, the statement was actually false. All else being equal, the girls would be more physically able at that age, but all else was not equal. The girls were, on average, in significantly worse shape than the boys. The next time this subject was discussed in health class, I pointed all this out to the teacher (after class, when there was nobody else around), and I was told in no uncertain terms that the research I had done was unacceptable and this was not a fit topic to be thinking about.

    I’ve gotten a bit long-winded in telling this story, but I wanted to point out there is some body of people who beleive any discussion of gender differences is harmful. I have no idea how numerous they are, but they are definitely there within our education system at several levels.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Brett, I can understand why people might not want to raise the issue of gender-based cognitive differences in elementary-school classrooms (although I’m not necessarily sympathetic). There are lots of things that we don’t bring up in elementary school. I was actually wondering whether anyone was against academics doing research into the question. I’m sure that some people are, but I’d like to see some specific non-anonymous example, to better understand what their position really is.

  • Brett

    This person (and I must confess I have forgotten her name, so I can’t help you with the “non-anonymous” part) really felt that all research on sex differences was inappropriate. She was afraid that if any potentially negative information about females’ abilities was in currency, young girls would inevitably be exposed to some of it (though not necessarily in a classroom setting) and that this would be damaging.

  • cpviolator

    “I was actually wondering whether anyone was against academics doing research into the question. I’m sure that some people are, but I’d like to see some specific non-anonymous example, to better understand what their position really is.”

    The problem with ‘doing research into the question’ is that research produces results and results don’t always go the way you want.

    I think there may be a lot of people who don’t actively oppose doing research but would react strongly against published results that differed from what they personally ‘knew’ to be true.

    If you are against research that finds a particular result (assuming that the researchers have followed proper and honest procedures), then actually you are against research, period, and you might as well come out and say it.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Right. That would be bad, if such people existed. Any examples?

    (Of course people who “react strongly against published results that differed from what they personally ‘knew’ to be true” definitely do exist; witness the folks in denial about the new NAS study or its many predecessors. But maybe that’s not what you had in mind.)

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Sean, perhaps you should ask professors who are against doing such research to email you. They may not want to expose themselves to the whole world by posting here. :)

  • Jack

    Maybe Sean can find us an example of a professor of Women’s Studies who has publicly stated that she or he welcomes research into gender differences?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Why? Have I set up a straw man by accusing “professors of Women’s Studies who have publicly stated that they welcome research into gender differences” of some dastardly deed?

    Women’s Studies programs are full of people who study gender differences for a living. Start with Carol Gilligan and go from there.

  • assman

    Why are women are outperforming men at the college and highschool level in mathematics. Is this due to socialization or discrimination against male students?

  • http://www.allysonbeatrice.com/blog/ Allyson

    To be fair, it was a straw woman. I googled for a half hour and found many articles angry at feminist critics of science…but none of them cited/identified any of these critics. I’m sure it can’t be an entire army of combat boot-wearing, Ani DiFranco-listening, short-fingernailed straw women that are being cited. Right? Because that would be paranoid.

    Back to Google.

  • Kea

    …short-fingernailed straw women

    There’s nothing wrong with short fingernails. For rockclimbing or combat, short fingernails are necessary.

  • jb

    Regarding item (3), do you want someone who didn’t take a position on this issue before the Summers incident, and then took that position after it? Or do you just want someone who took that position after it, as well as possibly before? If the second, you could imagine someone reasonably not going through the trouble of stating their position if they had already stated it before. And I would guess Chomsky would be such an example. (Sorry to keep bringing him up.) If the first, you would hardly expect to find (m)any such professors, even if you thought lots of them were against such research.

  • Eric Dennis

    Sean, Suppose you had a pre-determined and inflexible view on cognitive differences between the sexes, and you wanted to maintain that view despite contrary evidence. Would it be more effective to explicitly announce that you don’t care about evidence, that facts are meaningless to you? (Some have, and much more generally than on this issue.) Or would it be more effective to dismiss and divert attention away from the evidence, perhaps with scholarly, analytic pretensions?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    jb, it has been widely claimed that a chorus of voices spoke out after Summers’ speech to decry the fact that he would even raise the possibility of gender differences in cognition. I would just like to find actual examples of people in that chorus. If it was powerful enough to force the president of Harvard to resign, it can’t be that hard.

  • patrickd

    I suspect that the reason that the impression is in the wind that some academics are against simply asking the question is that Sommers was pilloried for doing just that. The closest thing I can find to an assertion of fact in his remarks is:

    “So my best guess, to provoke you, of what’s behind all of this is that the largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people’s legitimate family desires and employers’ current desire for high power and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination. I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong, because I would like nothing better than for these problems to be addressable simply by everybody understanding what they are, and working very hard to address them.”
    What is this, if not a call for research?

  • http://RiofrioSpaceTime.blogspot.com Louise

    Fellow blogger Nigel Cook has written a post on the role of women in physics that is so nice that I can only recommend it.

  • http://www.woodka.com donna

    The real problem, and what we NEED a study on, is why ANY kind of discrimination is tolerated in the sciences. Discrimination is a social bias designed either as a cover for inferiority complex or a cover for creating social gain by inequitable means, to create a “lower class” based on some quality. Obviously its a power trip, but why it is tolerable in fields such as science or engineering or any technical field is a really Good Question.

  • Dan

    Sean, how about this quote from Harvard psychology professor Mahzarin Banaji?

    “In this day and age to believe that men and women differ in their basic competence for math and science is as insidious as believing that some people are better suited to be slaves and other masters.”

    Source: http://www.thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=505409
    (scroll down to the last paragraph).

    Now, Banaji does not say specifically that research should not be done, but clearly this is the implication. No research is necessary because the facts are already known. Anyone who thinks these facts may not yet be clearly established is to be demonized.

    It took me less than 5 minutes to find this.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    That’s pretty close, as she does appear to think that the facts are already known, and the slave/master analogy is somewhat hyperbolic. But thinking that we already know the answer to something isn’t quite the same as saying that a question is too “dangerous” to ask because we don’t want to know the answer. If that’s what Pinker and friends are complaining about — professional psychologists claiming that we already know there aren’t any significant gender disparities in mathematical abilities — it seems to fall somewhat short of the though police squelching freedom of inquiry. Maybe you could spend another 5 minutes?

    By the way, Banaji’s Implicit Association Tests are very clever and quite eye-opening. It’s interesting to probe what attitudes we all have that we won’t admit ourselves.

  • Dan

    “Pretty close”??!! You asked, “was there any respectable academic who really came out against even asking whether there were gender-based cognitive differences?” It seems to me that Banaji’s remark clearly satisfies this criterion. The unmistakable implication is that no one should ask whether there are gender-based cognitive differences, because we already know the answer with such absolute certainty that anyone who does not accept it is not only wrong, but beyond the pale. This goes far beyond a statement to the effect that “the evidence convinces me, and here’s why”, which is what I would expect from an honest scientist.

    You seem unaware of the irony of your dismissal of Banaji’s remark. Don’t you think it might help to create a “chilly climate” for such research?

  • Paul Krapivsky

    JoAnne says: “Here is a scientific report with studies and data to support its conclusions. So, reading these comments (and remembering others from previous posts on this topic), just why is it so difficult for you males to comprehend that us women might just be intellectually equal to you all? Why are you so threatened by this concept?”

    I suppose that none of us participating in comments read the report. But other people did, and in today’s column in NYT one of those people John Tierney writes:

    “I never thought the National Academy of Sciences was cynical enough to publish a political tract like the new report on discrimination against female scientists and engineers…” (the full text requires subscription).

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Dan, yeah, I’d say it’s pretty close. And I don’t agree with Banaji’s comment — although, from experience, I know how careful one should be in interpreting interview snippets bereft of context. Obviously, even if she had given detailed reasons for believing that the question had already been answered, it wouldn’t have made it into the interview. I personally don’t think we know everything there is to know about gender and cognition, and I think it’s an empirical question rather than a moral one (as the slave/master business is). But really I was looking more for someone to say we shouldn’t be asking these questions because they are politically out of bounds, not because we already know the answer.

  • Dan

    Sean, no one is going to say that the question shouldn’t be asked because it’s politically out of bounds; that would be too easy a position to attack. They’re going to say (as they did and do) that the question is already settled scientifically, and that anyone who disagrees is a (insert demonizing word here).

    And speaking of the chilly climate, I’m posting these comments anonymously (which I don’t usually do here, or anywhere else). I’m afraid that what happened to David Deming (for example) could happen to me.


  • Dan

    Joanne, I am personally acquainted with a number of female physicists who I am quite certain are my intellectual superiors. I have no problem at all with this. I think it’s good that there are brilliant women, smarter than me, who have chosen to do physics. I wish there were more of them.

    I do, however, think that it is *possible* that differences in male and female brain physiology *may* account for *some* of the relatively few women in the upper eschelons of physics and math.

    According to Professor Banaji, this is an “insidious” notion comparable to support of human slavery.

  • http://impropaganda.blogspot.com Suz


    How do the following graphs fit in with the “innate differences” hypothesis to explain the paucity of women at the top in science disciplines?

    Figure 1 here:
    I guess that’s some pretty fast evolution of women’s abilities in physics…

    Women on physics faculty by country, previously re-posted on Sean’s Preposterous Universe blog

    Regarding Umno’s comment:
    ” Inded [sic], if you are a women that is reasonably talented, that is if you can land a post-doc in one of the top groups, you are more or less guaranteed a faculty job, while the same is not at all true of the men. If people don’t believe this, they can check out the research records of people who got hired say in particle theory in the last 10 years.”

    Check out the 1997 Nature paper by Wenneras and Wold (“Nepotism and Sexism in Peer Review”) which studied the grant reward system. It showed that women had to be 2.5 times more productive than men to be ranked the same “competence” as men. These were funds from Swedish Medical Council for biomedical research. There could be differences in different disciplines and in different countries, but if you, Umno, have actual data or a study backing your claim that any “reasonably talented” woman can land a job, you should post it or cite a specific study. It would certainly run counter to the bias that is documented by actual DATA on this topic.

  • Sean P.

    Feminists in attendance at Summers’s speech had a great response. Some walked out. Some broke into tears over Summers’s oppressive suggestion. Some asked for his resignation. Could not Summers see, argued even others, that some issues are beyond the pale of discussion? Reasonable minded people see the feminist reaction to Summers’s speech as incredibly immature. But, reasonable minded people would be wrong. Can they not see that part of the oppression of women is the suggestion that women and men could be different?

    I believe that if mankind is ever to awake from its patriarchal disease, then each person must come to grips with his oppression of the fairer sex. Man must move quickly to remove any and all potential or perceived traits of sexism he still has. We must create a world where no person will look at his surroundings through a sexist lens. Man must fight to stamp out any and all suggestion of gender differences any place he sees it. Any professor who suggests that boys are more interested in sports than girls must see his tenure revoked. Any thinker who suggests that males prefer action movies and females prefer romantic films should lose his credibility. Any person who suggests that females are more naturally inclined to be nurturers and males more naturally inclined to be warriors must have his sensitivity questioned. Any social scientist who suggests that heterosexuality is normative (even if he grants homosexuals their rights) ought to have pen, typewriter, or computer confiscated. Man cannot rest until he creates a gender inclusive and gender neutral world for all mankind.

  • http://quantumrealm.blogspot.com/ Rose

    Comment on Scientific Bias-Womens’ vs Men: I might feel offended but the knowledge that he will soon squeeze out a kidney stone while claiming he is in the worse pain ever allows me to comment: the women in science will soon accept you and you will soon attain the status of a seasoned male, until then, you’ll just have to accept our knowledgeable “bias”.
    After you pass the kidney stone, feel free to comment on womens’ perspectives regarding scientific acheivements in a male dominated world.

  • Jo

    It is interesting to review the comments in this discussion months after the report form the National Academy (“Beyond Bias and Barriers”) was released. The theme that runs throughout the Summers episode, the reactions to the report, and the press coverage of both is that people prefer to muse and postulate than to dig into research and study the data. And the press prefers to cover hot controversy and wild speculation more than it cares to cover rationale argument and scholarly dissection of a topic.

    First, no one that I heard said that Summers shouldn’t have said what he said because it was politically incorrect, but some did say he should not have spoken as he did because his speculation is blatantly wrong; a responsible leader with the visibility of Harvard’s president shouldn’t be spreading wrong information. If he had mused that someone really should take a look at whether the Earth is flat, he would seem foolish and people might argue that the comment was irresponsible (what if it were taken as seriously by the press as his comments about gender were — can’t you see the headlines: “Harvard President Suggests World if Flat” or “Columbus was wrong? asks Harvard president”). Because few people who covered or read his comments examined the facts, and thanks to the press-worthiness of the comments, the possibility that women are held back in science primarily by their lack of aptitude appeared to have the credibility of a great scholar and many responsible newspapers behind it. In fact, this absolutely cannot be the driving force for the position of women in science because, as Sean pointed out, the numbers of women in science have changed much faster than the genetics of a human population can change. We have 35 times more female engineers today than we did 25 years ago. Is that because women’s average IQ has changed so much in one generation? No, it’s because legal and social factors have reduced certain barriers dramatically. So the objection to Summers’ comment was that despite being baseless and wrong, because it was issued by the president of Harvard, it garnered quite a lot of coverage and therefore had an effect that was disproportionate to itsvalidity.

    Second, it was striking that when the NAS report was released, people complained about the very thing that so many of you have begged for: let’s have data on the subject. The report contained a long analysis of the available research on gender differences and concluded that innate ability could not explain the current situation. However, John Tierney’s editorial in the NY Times, for example, included a complaint about having to “slog through” the report, which was too full of data. What does he propose? Should we have written a report based on conjecture and opinion just like Summers’ comment? Sure. That would have had a big influence.

    Third, the press. Sigh. Why was the Summers event covered on the front page of the NY Times quite a few times and the NAS report was buried on page 17? And why were op-ed pieces offered only days after the release of the report rejected by the NY Times because it was now “old news.” The Summers furor was promoted by the press for many months.

    It’s a sad reality that most people in our society would rather not hear the facts or attempt to understand the arguments — it’s hard and it’s boring. It’s better sport to lap up the inflammatory comments that are based on nothing — it’s easy and it’s exciting.

    Sean, I have also searched for people who argued that the question shouldn’t be asked. Every time, I reach a dead end. I believe your hypothesis about the straw man is supported by the data.


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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