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.



So Nancy Hopkins accuses Harvard president Lawrence Summers of committing "the solecism of suggesting that men and women might have different propensities and aptitudes". Yet at the same time she declares that women - and presumably only women - find "repulsive" a system where "winning is everything". Hmm. Isn't that just confirming that men and women do, in fact, have "different propensities and aptitudes"?




What exactly is stopping her from testing her theory that forcing the scientifically interested to lead what she defines as a balanced life will improve research?

Perhaps she should persuade some investors and prove it?

Personally I believe her theories have been tested and proved false, and that's why we have the type of people in science we have today. I think she just trying to cover up for the failure of women in science.


I am a woman, and a scientist. I have never asked for any favors in my career, nor have I benn offered any.

However . . .

I can recall the shock on people's faces when I said (in high school) that I was planning to major in math or physics at university.

I have noticed subtle sexism along the way - as a graduate student, I noticed that, while promising men and women were equally encouraged in getting a PhD, and distinctly unpromising men and women were equally discouraged from doing more than a Master's, there was a distinct difference in the treatment of people who looked marginal. Marginal men were encouraged to work harder and try for their PhD's (encouraged in), while marginal women were encouraged to get a Master's and a job (encouraged out).

I have also noticed (I am usually the only women in meetings) that what I say is ignored until, some 10 or 15 minutes later, one of the men says it. Then it is found, more often than not, to be a valuable contribution to the purpose of the meeting.

I have been told that I am too "agressive", while men who are much more (shall we say) determined than I were described as "forceful" and "dynamic".

I am also aware of the enduring sexism in sport. For example, when women started winning regularly in non-segregated pistol and rifle shooting contests, the decision was made to have separate men's and women's heats, with the women firing fewer shots.

My own experience shows that, just like the culture of sport needed changing to accept that women's sports have an equal value to men's, so the culture of science needs changing. Until "he's forceful, she's agressive" and "it's a good idea - would one of the men here care to make it?" are considered ridiculous, women will continue to be underrepresented in science.

I disagree with much that Nancy Hopkins appears to be demanding. I think that her methods are all too likely to fail, because she is attacking the wrong target. However, just because someone is a fool who attacks the wrong target doen't mean that there isn't a valid target or that we shouldn't attack the valid target.



I think we should take care to keep in mind what can credibly be dealt with, at least without imposing intrusive or discriminatory measures. I don’t think one can, for instance, legislate against surprised expressions in high school, however misplaced they may be. (I’m not suggesting you were advocating anything of the sort, but some of the figures we’ve discussed here previously seem keen to use the weight of law against not dissimilar things.)

I can’t speak to the issue of how marginal candidates were dealt with in your experience or which adjectives are used in particular meetings, which sort of highlights my point. (Though in my experience such incidents *would* be thought of as ridiculous and I’ve seen more than one comedy sketch based on very similar examples.) When addressing “subtle sexism”, subjectivity gets rather tricky and one can all too easily set off trying to police the unenforceable, or introducing egregious bias, or simply chasing shadows. (Was it subtle and systemic sexism, or just rudeness, opportunism or simply a mistake?)

“My own experience shows that, just like the culture of sport needed changing to accept that women’s sports have an equal value to men’s, so the culture of science needs changing.”

But although there are such things as women’s sports, as distinct from men’s, I’m not sure there’s such a thing as “women’s science” with criteria and methodology that differs from “men’s science.” And I’m certainly not convinced that science would benefit from being made less demanding, competitive or single-minded, as Nancy Hopkins seems, bizarrely, to believe. And, again, there’s the claim that women are – somehow, obviously - “underrepresented” in science. But how does one know what a “representative” gender ratio “ought” to be?


Nancy Hopkins' self reported reaction to Summers' speech was hilarious. She claimed that she became nauseous and almost fainted. Hardly what one would expect from a feminist.

And when one asks that women's sports should be equally valued as men's, I want to ask in reply, "By whom?". Clearly the participants in women's sports place a high value on their efforts, else why participate? However, the spectators apparently prefer to watch men's sports as evident by the attendance at the various sports events. Should we compel people to watch women's sports? Or limit the attendance at men's sports? The fact is that men are, on average, faster and stronger than women and their competitions are more compelling.



“Nancy Hopkins’ self reported reaction to Summers’ speech was hilarious.”

Yes, Hopkins said something about having to leave halfway through for fear of throwing up or fainting. “I just couldn’t breathe,” I believe she said, such was her rage, while no doubt on the way to her Victorian fainting couch. Clearly, she’s made of stern stuff and is eminently suited to an open and rigorous testing of ideas.

Actually, this isn’t an entirely trivial point and it’s symbolic of the broader attitude of many of Hopkins’ colleagues during the Summers protest. I still haven’t spotted anything swoon-inducing in Summers’ speech and the hyperventilation is a wee bit suspicious. Exactly how scientific is it to recoil in theatrical indignation, choked with feelings of vengeance, without actually pausing to address the substance of Summers’ argument? Pretentious exasperation and the subsequent rush to punish those who disagree don’t exactly suggest a confidence in one’s own position. Though it is, it seems, an increasingly favoured ploy. I don’t, of course, think this reaction was due to Hopkins et al being female, but it was probably a result of their being dishonest little ideologues all too accustomed to hearing whatever they wish to hear. Again, it’s all a bit passive-aggressive and not terribly scientific.


Hopkin's and Valian's only point seems to be that, because (faceless) women are not leaders in the fields of Math and the hard sciences, the Fed's should intervene and award these (faceless) women their 'due' leadership positions.

Problem is, awards in science go to the named individuals who perform it, not to faceless "groups" of this or that politicized demographic. Put another way, Watson and Crick discovered DNA, not "men."

This willful predilection to advocate for groups in what are wholly individualistic enterprises is just one of the Prog-movement's annoying blind-spots. And another reason why I'll not be voting "D" in November.


Oops, bad grammar!

I meant to write: "[...]Watson and Crick discovered DNA - "men" didn't."


Most of those mentioned above believe that in order for women to compete fairly with men the entire “culture” must first be drastically refashioned and, eventually, made “gender balanced.” This, it seems, is to be achieved with some kind of coercive “affirmative action” until women and men are roughly equal in number and status in any given sphere. Again, this presupposes that a “gender balanced” environment in, say, physics or mathematics is some kind of natural state, from which all else is aberration - and thus, apparently, evidence of sexist bias.

The broad circularity of the argument is hard to miss and creating egregious forms of discrimination against men (and talented, driven women) scarcely seems a noble or justifiable course of action - especially if, even now, none of them can prove the premise of the endeavour, i.e. that a “natural” and “unbiased” maths or physics department would, somehow, be “gender balanced.”

But the arguments I’ve read by Valian and Hopkins aren’t so much logical as ideological. Valian believes that “intense desire for achievement” somehow marginalises female scientists. Do female scientists not have an intense desire for achievement? Really? If a person doesn’t have that drive, should they be surprised if others overtake them? Meanwhile Hopkins appears to believe that men and women are dispositionally indistinguishable (see her reaction to Lawrence Summers), but then claims that women find competitive environments uniquely “repulsive”.

And these are the titans who will build us a kinder, fairer world?


It is very worrisome.

Worse thing is, at the "all-you-can-eat" buffet of young inductees, these "academic" types are well into their thirtieth helping of tender, suggestive Freshmen.

And largely on the taxpayer's dime.

It ought to be a crime.


What’s extraordinary, to me at least, is the vehement and farcical hostility among many left-leaning academics to legitimate questions and statements of the fairly obvious. It seems there are those who’ve staked a great deal, ideologically and career-wise, on a belief that human nature doesn’t exist or is infinitely plastic, and that social construction is the ideal explanation of just about anything with political implications. Even when arguments for social construction aren’t supported by evidence, the belief is still strong, not least because it implies that human beings and their societies can be “corrected” in accord with the tastes of authoritarian ideologues. Viewed in this way, the individual becomes a mere plaything of Almighty Society, a means to an end, to be reshaped as desired.

“Engineering human souls” is, I believe, the expression.



"I have also noticed (I am usually the only women in meetings) that what I say is ignored until, some 10 or 15 minutes later, one of the men says it. Then it is found, more often than not, to be a valuable contribution to the purpose of the meeting."

This isn't a phenomena that is limited to men vs women. Having attended far too many meetings I have noticed that certain people will regularly contribute more than their "fair" share and others will make little or no contribution. That an idea is discussed let alone endorsed or not can depend upon lots of factors. I've certainly seen a fair number of men make suggestions that were not endorsed until an "alpha" male repeated/rephrased them. Having also once worked in a mostly female environment I've observed that behaviour there as well. Even children recognise that a minority of "Mean Girls" can determine who and what is "in" or "out". That doesn't magically vanish or become limited to male vs female when we leave school.

It's also the case that some people put across ideas in clearer ways than others. You may recognise your idea as being identical to another but that recognition may not be shared. That failing is certainly true for me.

That's not to say I don't recognise that women are disproportionally members of the group that have less to contribute to meetings. Whether that is caused by sexism or because they are more likely to share some traits of the low contributing men, I don't know.

An anecdote from the opposite end of the spectrum: I currently work as a contractor for a company where a woman has charge of certain policies that indirectly affect me. The woman is in her position because she had experience dating from early in the company history. However she hasn't kept up to date with technological development or evolving customer needs. Thus she works to a paradigm that was valid ten years ago but is outdated now. This results in poor decisions being implemented that were in practice avoidable. Co-contractors, concur on the problem but we do not have the ear of the board to the degree she does. Now I blame the problem on the Peter principle but I suspect that were she a male ignoring or blocking female suggestions, many would talk of sexism.

What this boils down to is that it is pretty much a universal human condition to feel that our contribution is not recognised, that we deserved more success. How often is this blamed on sexism?


The following is perhaps indicative of the ideological outlook to which Valian et al appeal. A reviewer of Valian’s book asserts:

“Without question, a primary reason for sex discrimination in the workforce is the fact that corporations profit by paying women low wages…”

No actual argument or context is offered, unfortunately, but the reviewer is very keen to push the appropriate buttons. In most developed countries it is, I think, illegal to pay men and women differently for doing the same work, and differences in pay are now overwhelmingly the result of differing job choices and the not incidental fact that a great many women interrupt their careers to have babies. If corporations do indeed profit from this situation, that would seem to be a secondary feature, not a primary cause. Corporations don’t as a matter of routine coerce female employees to abandon or interrupt their careers in order to have children. Often it’s a considerable inconvenience for employers.

The review continues,

“Do people harbour secret biases against women that they don’t dare admit? ...Valian believes that because all of us hold unconscious biases against women in employment… affirmative action goals and timetables are one way to force us to overcome our biases...”

Well, people may or may not - and rightly or not - harbour “unconscious secret biases” regarding gender, sexuality, height, hair colour, attractiveness, or any number of other things. But it doesn’t automatically follow that one should therefore insist on “affirmative action” until women and men are equal in number and status in every given sphere. (“Affirmative action” could, conceivably, do great harm and be much more unjust – to men and women - than the current state of affairs.) And the same might be said of short people, or fat people, or people with unpleasing features. If I felt I’d been overlooked by an employer due to some perception of me as, for instance, being gay, I wouldn’t expect every employer in the country to be forced to examine their “unconscious biases” until every unconscious assumption, however nebulous, had been minimised or “corrected”.

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