Uncommon Desire
Friday Ephemera

Science, Softened

Further to our epic discussion on notions of default gender parity, here’s Christina Hoff Sommers on the prospect of quota-driven, “gender-balanced” and non-competitive science.

Nancy Hopkins, an effective leader of the science equity campaign (and a prominent accuser of Harvard president Lawrence Summers when he committed the solecism of suggesting that men and women might have different propensities and aptitudes), points to the hidden sexism of the obsessive and competitive work ethic of institutions like MIT. “It is a system,” Hopkins says, “where winning is everything, and women find it repulsive.” This viewpoint explains the constant emphasis, by equity activists such as [Donna] Shalala, [Debra] Rolison, and [Kathie] Olsen, on the need to transform the “entire culture” of academic science and engineering…

When the women-in-sports movement was getting underway in the early 1990s, no one suggested that its success would require transforming the “culture of soccer” or putting an end to the obsession with competing and winning. The notion that women’s success in science depends on changing the rules of the game seems demeaning to women - but it gives the equity movement extraordinary scope, commensurate with the extraordinary power that federal science funding would put at its disposal…

[Virginia] Valian is intent on radically transforming society to achieve her egalitarian ideals. She also wants to alter the behavior of successful scientists. Their obsessive work habits, single-minded dedication, and “intense desire for achievement,” not only marginalise women, but also may compromise good science. She writes, “If we continue to emphasise and reward always being on the job, we will never find out whether leading a balanced life leads to equally good or better scientific work.”

Valian may be a leader in the equity-in-science movement, but she is not an empirical thinker. A world where women (and resocialised men) earn Nobel Prizes on flexi-time has no relation to reality. Unfortunately, her outré worldview is not confined to women’s studies. It is a guiding light for some of the nation’s leading scientific institutions… In 2001, the National Science Foundation awarded Valian and her colleagues $3.9 million to develop equity programs and workshops for the “scientific community at large.” Should Congress pass the Gender Bias Elimination Act, which mandates workshops for university department chairs, members of review panels, and agency program officers seeking federal funding, Valian will become one of the most prominent women in American scientific education.

Please, read it all.   

Of course, what matters is that men and women of comparable skill and motivation compete fairly for employment. Whether or not meritocratic selection has been achieved cannot be determined by whether or not gender parity results, since we have no solid basis on which to say that gender parity should be the meritocratic outcome. On what basis could one determine that there “ought” to be a particular ratio of male and female mathematicians, engineers or oil workers? At what point and on what basis – besides political dogma - could one determine that a particular gender is sufficiently “represented” in any given vocation? Yet these are the assumptions of much of the research mentioned above, and of those who wish to “correct” who is interested in what. The belief that, magically stripped of all external influences, the male and female population should be roughly symmetrical in interests, skills and dispositions is just that – a belief; a prejudice, if you will. And not, it seems, terribly scientific.

Update: Mary Jackson has more.