My comments about the text by the three original authors follows the bullets.
A private response to a text by three respected people from Stanford, Princeton, and MIT
Harvard President Lawrence Summers' recent comments about possible causes of the underrepresentation of women in science and engineering have generated extensive debate and discussion—much of which has had the untoward effect of shifting the focus of the debate to history rather than to the future.
- Interestingly enough, the reason why a meaningful discussion about a scientific topic is primarily based on the data from the past and not so much on data from the future is that we know the past, but we don't know the future - at least I don't know it. Maybe the authors of the text above know the future and they can therefore use it as the primary argument, in which case I apologize. ;-)
- ... fair enough ...
- This is an important educational and political question, but president Summers wanted to modestly suggest that we should first ask whether we should expect a higher percentage of women to pursue careers in these fields. The answer is definitely not obvious, although it is treated as a self-evident dogma in the sentence above.
- Other, more hard-science oriented research - and also president Summers in his speech and others - have also identified the need to address other important factors.
- Lawrence Summers was much more polite - he did not explicitly identify the idea about "important negative stereotypes and biases" as an "old myth" although there exist reasons to use this language.
- Sounds fine, except the fact that the causal relation between these politically attractive cliches and the question under consideration is not explained.
- This assertion could very well imply that the nation will always be considerably less than the sum of its parts, although I don't exactly know what the second sentence means quantitatively. The sentence above is based on the assumption that the only natural situation is when different groups of people feel as much at home in all fields as other groups of people. What is missing is a piece of evidence supporting this statement - especially because there seems to be evidence that the assumption is not true. So I suppose that the opinion that everyone must feel equally at home everywhere is treated as another dogma that does not have to be justified - and the heretics who do not believe this dogma must probably be tortured.
- Well, definitely - if the words "talent pool" are defined scientifically, as opposed to a definition with a politically twisted meaning.
- Well, it does not seem terribly realistic to say that computer science and state-of-the-art electronics, for example, look "anachronistic" just because they happen to be pre-dominantly run by the males. Or are males themselves anachronistic?
- The only sense how can I understand the statement about the field being "less attractive" is based on the visual feelings of the males. Obviously, their sentence seems to imply that they think that a field with a higher concentration of males is less attractive - which does not sound as a terribly balanced and fair comment about the genders. Some fields are attractive for someone but not attractive for someone else.
- A field would become "less strong" if it did not use the talent pool, as discussed in the previous paragraphs. There can be various reasons why the talent pool is not used efficiently - and the political criteria that would eliminate some talented people and replace them by people who better fit some quotas would be one imaginable reason of reduced strength.
- It's hard to understand why "human health" and "the environment" were picked as examples of the "critical societal problems". First of all, they are just two examples of important problems for the society. Second of all, these particular societal problems are not associated with the fields in which women are most clearly underrepresented. Their percentage is lowest in fields like computer science, physics, mathematics, engineering - and neither of these fields seems to be primarily focused on human health and the environment.
- Note that the authors themselves acknowledge that there are differences between the way how boys and girls typically learn mathematics. What the authors do not allow to be questioned is their assumption that the different ways of learning mathematics must always statistically lead to the same careers and outcomes.
- I am happy to agree.
- There are many factors that can be destructive. Equal expectations from two people who are not equal represent another important example - once again, the three authors only see one side of the coin.
- It is definitely politically possible to impose new policies and offer the same benefits (and pay the same salary) to a person who does 1/2 of the work that another person does, and the remaining 1/2 of the time is dedicated to other activities. Another question is whether it is the right thing to do and whether the society will benefit from such policies. And it is not too hard to guess what the economists such as Claudia Goldin or Lawrence Summers think about this question.
Although we have a very long way to travel in terms of recruiting, retaining and promoting women faculty in scientific and engineering fields, we can also point to significant progress. According to the National Science Foundation, almost no doctoral degrees in engineering were awarded to women in 1966 (0.3 percent), in contrast to 16.9 percent in 2001. And in the biological and agricultural sciences, the number of doctorates earned by women rose from 12 percent to 43.5 percent between 1966 and 2001.
- Great. But I guess that until the percentage will be below 50 percent in a single field, there will exist some type of dissatisfaction. How many generations of fair treatment will be necessary before one will be "allowed" to argue that the theory of discrimination and discouragement as the only explanation can't fit the rich data that paint very different pictures in different fields?
Our three campuses, and many others, are home to growing numbers of women who have demonstrated not only extraordinary innate ability but the kinds of creativity, determination, perceptiveness and hard work that are prerequisites for success in science and engineering, as in many other fields.
- The women at Harvard have demonstrated at least as much creativity, determination, perceptiveness, and hard work as the women at these other universities - and it is not quite clear why exactly the three campuses are mentioned and not Harvard even though this discussion was initiated by the president of Harvard University. The only explanation I have is that the three authors wanted to picture their campuses as the "nicer ones" although such a description can't be justified.
- ... and to which many women were not friendly in the recent decades, judging by the numbers how many of them chose these fields.
... Oh, and finally, let me say that the text was written by the presidents of MIT, Stanford, and Princeton. Although there are three of them, I doubt that their text will become as stimulating and important as the speeches of the president of Harvard University.