Like religious fundamentalists seeking to stamp out the teaching of evolution, feminists stomped Harvard University President Lawrence Summers for mentioning at a January 14 academic conference the entirely reasonable theory that innate male-female differences might possibly help explain why so many mathematics, engineering, and hard-science faculties remain so heavily male.
Unlike most religious fundamentalists, these feminists were pursuing a careerist, self-serving agenda. This cause can put money in their pockets.
Summers's suggestion—now ignominiously retracted, with groveling, Soviet-show-trial-style apologies—was that sex discrimination and the reluctance of mothers to work 80 hours a week are not the only possible explanations for gender imbalances in the math-science area. He noted that high school boys have many more of the highest math scores than girls, and suggested that this might reflect genetic differences. He also stressed the need for further research into all three possible explanations.
The foul brute may as well have rapped that women are "hos," or declared that they should be kept barefoot and pregnant. The most remarkable feminist exercise in self-parody was that of MIT biology professor Nancy Hopkins, who famously told reporters that she "felt I was going to be sick," that "my heart was pounding and my breath was shallow," that "I just couldn't breathe, because this kind of bias makes me physically ill," and that she had to flee the room because otherwise "I would've either blacked out or thrown up."
Such fatuous feminist fulminations have been good fun, as have the eviscerations of Hopkins as a latter-day "Victorian maiden exposed to male coarseness, [who] suffers the vapors and collapses on the drawing room carpet in a heap of crinolines," in the words of George Will. (More on Hopkins below.) But most of the commentary has glossed over one important point:
For all its foolishness and irrationality, the feminist hysteria about Summers furthers the career agendas of feminists who seek thinly veiled job preferences or quotas for themselves and their friends. Such preferences are most easily justified as a remedy for male bias. And bias can more easily be blamed for gender imbalances if the possibility that more men than women are gifted with math-science brilliance is banished from public discourse.
This feminist-careerist agenda is conveniently ignored by the less hysterical critics of Summers, who make no claim that he said anything inaccurate but nonetheless reproach him for what a Los Angeles Times editorial portrayed as a gratuitous and insensitive ego trip. To the contrary, until his disgraceful capitulation to the power of political correctness, Summers was making a much-needed effort to break the self-serving feminist-careerist stranglehold on honest discussion of gender imbalances.
Summers had already been under pressure from the "huge majority of female professors at Harvard [who] recently formed a Caucus for Gender Equality to protest the drop in senior job offers to women" on his watch, as Ruth Wisse, a professor of literature at Harvard, wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. "Offering no evidence of discrimination in hiring and not a single example of a superior female applicant overlooked in favor of a less qualified male, the caucus charged the president with having reduced 'diversity' by failing to hire enough female professors."
Harvard has already caved in to such pressure by requiring numerical records of how many women are considered at each stage of the faculty screening and selection process. Now that Summers has succumbed to feminist re-education, can numerical "goals" for hiring, promotions, and departmental chairmanships be far behind?
Inconveniently for preference-seeking feminists, scientific evidence shows that while women do better than men at certain verbal skills, men do better than women at some other intellectual tasks. These include visualizing three-dimensional subjects in space—essential to much engineering and science work—and mathematical reasoning. More than twice as many boys as girls scored in the top range (750-800) on last year's SAT math test, for example. Among serious scholars, the only debate is about whether the pattern reflects acculturation or genetics. A substantial body of work suggests genetics.
In the November 2000 issue of Psychological Science, for example, a team headed by Vanderbilt University's Camilla Persson Benbow summarized earlier research showing "sex differences in mathematical precocity before kindergarten"; "sex differences in mathematical reasoning as early as the second grade (among intellectually gifted students)"; and "pronounced sex differences in mathematical reasoning ability" in a 1980 study of 9,927 intellectually talented 12-to-14-year-olds.
New data collected 20 years later from 1,975 of these 9,927 people, the article said, showed "the predictive value" of early SAT scores "for identifying students with promise for math and science careers."
None of this is to suggest that men are biologically better suited than women (on average) for success in medicine, law, business, politics, journalism, liberal arts, languages, or the vast majority of other academic and professional fields. Indeed, some 57 percent of all four-year college degrees go to women. Nor is it to suggest that all mathematical geniuses are men, or that women cannot reach the top, or that sex discrimination has been completely eradicated.
But if most mathematical geniuses are men, as many studies suggest, then the fact that men still dominate the few academic fields requiring mathematical brilliance is not entirely attributable either to sex discrimination or to the reluctance of mothers to work 80-hour weeks. (This reluctance is itself seen by some feminists as a sign of discrimination, including society's failure to pressure fathers to spend as much time with their kids as mothers.)
This is why so many feminists have personal stakes in silencing talk, and stigmatizing study, of possible gender differences in mathematical-reasoning ability. It was an awesome display of their power that lobotomized Summers—brilliant economist and possessor of the most prestigious post in all of academia. Amid serial apologies, he contradicted his January 14 remarks by swearing allegiance to the feminist dogma that "the human potential to excel in science" clearly has nothing to do with gender.
It is ironic that while shouting down any hint that men might be more capable than women in mathematics, many so-called "difference feminists" have long contended that women are morally superior to and more caring than men. This, says Daphne Patai, a former professor of women's studies at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst), illustrates "the opportunism, inconsistency, and double standards that abound in contemporary feminism, often feebly justified by attacks on logic and reason as 'masculinist.'"
Boston civil-liberties lawyer Harvey A. Silverglate placed this episode in its larger context in a piece in the Boston Phoenix:
"The modern university is the culmination of a 20-year trend of irrationalism marked by an increasingly totalitarian approach to highly politicized issues. Students are subjected to mandatory gender-and racial-sensitivity training akin to thought reform.... Faculty members and administrators are made to understand that their careers are at risk if they deviate from the accepted viewpoint."
All copiously documented in The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses, a 1998 book co-authored by Silverglate. All in the name of "diversity." And as Daphne Patai says, there is a "big payoff for throwing science to the winds and embracing feminist politics." Consider the same Nancy Hopkins who almost "blacked out" on hearing Summers speak. She became a feminist heroine in 1999 by finding—as chair of a committee to look into her own (and others') complaints—that pervasive sex discrimination was the reason MIT had so few female science faculty.
The Hopkins committee's report was eviscerated by professor Judith Kleinfeld, of the University of Alaska (Fairbanks) as an exercise in "junk science" by self-interested female faculty members. It "fails to prove gender discrimination on the MIT campus and amounts to little more than a political manifesto," wrote Kleinfeld in a 24-page report, adding that Hopkins "got a pay raise of 20 percent, triple the laboratory space, research funds, and numerous other benefits."
Also lionized was Robert Birgeneau, then the dean of MIT's School of Science, who championed the Hopkins study. Since then he has risen like a rocket, becoming president of the University of Toronto five years ago and chancellor of the University of California (Berkeley) last year.
Who knows? Maybe Birgeneau—or better yet, Hopkins—will be the next president of Harvard.