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The sexism Harvard likes

Harvard University President Lawrence Summers has been in hot water for a while, after he had the temerity to suggest that innate biological differences between men and women might possibly be one among several factors explaining the underrepresentation of women in science.

Never mind that Harvard's own Graduate School of Education hosts on its own servers detailed discussions of scientific studies that actually did find differences in how men's and women's brains process information:

Gender-Based Differences
Of particular interest were differences in brain activation patterns in men compared to women. Figure 3 illustrates that activation during phonological processing in men was more lateralized to the left inferior frontal gyrus, known as Broca’s area; in contrast, activation during this same task in women resulted in a more bilateral pattern of activation of this region.

These findings provide the first clear evidence of gender-based differences in the functional organization of the brain for language. They support and extend a long-held hypothesis that language functions are more likely to be highly lateralized in males but are represented in both cerebral hemispheres in females.

...Shaywitz, B., Shaywitz, S., et al. (1995). “Sex differences in the functional organization of the brain for language.” Nature, 373, 607-609.
Let's assume for the sake of argument that that study, and numerous others showing some degree of gender-based difference in brain functions, are completely irrelevant to the ability to perform top-notch scientific research. In other words, let's assume that when it comes to academics, men and women are completely equal.

If such a scenario were the case, as President Summers' enemies vociferously demand it is, then surely any professor promoting false and pernicious notions of gender inequality would have no place at Harvard.

But in fact, at least one such professor did exist very recently at Harvard. And before she moved on to NYU in 2002, she managed to set up an entire, thriving research center to propagate her sexist ideology.

The professor in question is Carol Gilligan, known as the founder of "difference feminism":
Many feminists insisted that there are no differences between males and females. Gilligan asserted that women have differing moral and psychological tendencies than men. According to Gilligan, men think in terms of rules and justice and women are more inclined to think in terms of caring and relationships.
If President Summers had said that men think in terms of rules and women think in terms of caring, he would have been run out of town on a rail, if not actually tarred and feathered. But Prof. Gilligan's reception was somewhat warmer. She became Harvard's first professor of Gender Studies in 1997.

Soon after, in 2001, Harvard dedicated a brand-new Gender Studies Center (financed by a $12.5 million gift from Jane Fonda) to the further study and embellishment of her sexist theories. For example, in her 1982 book In a Different Voice, Gilligan argued that young girls suffer a crushing lack of self-esteem in schools centered around a male-dominated oppressor culture, which must be undermined by striving to, as the Wall Street Journal sardonically put it, "rescue boys from their masculinity."

In an interview with, former philosophy professor Christina Hoff Sommers, author of Who Stole Feminism? and The War Against Boys, points out that Gilligan's scholarship is irredeemably flawed:
Carol Gilligan's research should not be promoted by Harvard University any more than it already has been. She has failed to produce the data on which her celebrated research for "In a Different Voice" was based. She says it's too sensitive to share with others. That is simply unacceptable in empirical research. You have to show others your original data, and she hasn't done this for the three studies on which she based her claims.

She claims that girls suffer a precipitous loss of self-esteem in adolescence, but no one has been able to corroborate this. She's very good at using anecdotes, but that's the problem -- one of the greatest indicators of pseudoscience is a reliance on anecdotes rather than data. When researchers like Susan Harter at the University of Denver tried to test Gilligan's hypotheses, she was unable to find this dramatic loss of voice and self-confidence and self-esteem in girls.

... It does ring true to some parents. The problem is that when you make generalizations about people, some of them seem to apply. That's how astrology works.
Sommers also exposed Gilligan's toxic legacy:
This is the era of the disappearing male on the college campus. Now, overall, colleges are 56 to 57 percent female. There are many schools that are already 60 to 62 percent female -- University of Georgia, Boston University, American University.

So college admissions officers are grappling with the problem of how to attract young men. At Oberlin, for example, one of the college admissions officers suggested ways to make its Web site a little more male-friendly. His colleagues said, "Men are part of the oppressor culture. Why should we do that?" That mentality, I think, is very harsh. I believe that Carol Gilligan created this by drawing attention to this faux girl crisis.
To recap: Larry Summers makes a casual suggestion that gender differences might play a role in explaining disparities between men and women, and is roundly criticized. Carol Gilligan bases an entire career on a corrosive, sexist worldview backed up by fraudulent research, and she is rewarded with a professorship and a research center.

At Harvard, it would seem, gender-based distinctions are good for the goose, but not for the gander.

Scrappleface expresses the same idea, only he uses a lot fewer words. And makes it gut-bustingly funny to boot.

Running for the Right points out a recent CNN report on gender-based differences in brain structure and activity:
Scientists say males have more activity in mechanical centers of the brain, whereas females show more activity in verbal and emotional centers.

...To find out why these differences exist, scientists have taken voyages deep inside the gray matter using MRI scans.

The scans show that in most women, the corpus callosum area, which handles communication between the brain's two "hemispheres", is larger.

In layman's terms, it means that the two sides of the female brain "talk" better to each other -- which could explain why studies show women tend to multi-task better.

On the other hand, the scans show men tend to move information more easily within each hemisphere.
None of the above proves that men or women have an innate advantage in certain academic subjects, or whether such an advantage, if one exists, outweighs other factors like upbringing, personal preference, social pressures, or sexism. But at the very least, it demonstrates that the question is a legitimate topic for further research and debate.


Sharon said...

""But at the very least, it demonstrates that the question is a legitimate topic for further research and debate." 

Indeed it does. Too bad said research is likely to be done by those least able to "keep it scientific", rather than taint their findings with emotional and politically-correct influences.

Larry Summers is a former Clinton official, and for that reason I was, in the past, apt to write him off. He is, however, someone who has demonstrated a certain fearlessness when it comes to dealing with the Divas and Divettes of academe. In the Becker-Posner Blog, two University of Chicago law professors state that Summers' may have hurt himself not be speaking out, but by speaking out in his role of Harvard's CEO. In doing so, he has emboldened his detractors (who've been itching for an issue upon which to raise Summers' gallows:

"(A)t the very least, it demonstrates that the question is a legitimate topic for further research and debate. The apology signaled weakness, and it cannot help a leader to appear weak. Summers has enemies in the Harvard faculty who will be encouraged by his apology to press him for concessions on issues important to them—such as diversity hiring."Rather than engage in a debate, his detractors have attacked the details instead of the substance of Summers' points (big surprise there, lol):

"The apology was particularly unfortunate because it dignified the criticisms of Summers’s remarks at the conference, and those criticisms were obtuse—which brings me at last to the substantive issue. The critics misunderstood Summers to have been claiming that female scientists are inferior to male scientists. Not at all. He made no comparison between male and female scientists. He was venturing possible explanations other than discrimination (the politically correct explanation) for why there are fewer female scientists than male.Therein is where he broke rank, and Harvard's professors and students will make him pay for furthering, rather than limiting, the debate.  If that isn't the definition of "intellectual irony", then what is?


Posted by Sharon

Anonymous said...

GB, I agree that the furor was overblown, but you're completely misrepresenting what Summers' critics are saying. There is no double standard here.

The issue is not that he said something that is taboo or off limits. As you mentioned, research on the topic is ongoing and encouraged both at Harvard and throughout "liberal" academia. None of his critics are saying that such speculation would be out of place in an academic setting, or calling for censorship of such opinions.

The issue is that he made these comments in the context of having recently been criticized for Harvard's poor record of tenuring women in the sciences since he assumed office, so it comes off as a lame excuse. Of all the possible reasons for the lack of representation of women under his watch, he chose to focus on the one possibility that let him off the hook. His selective consideration of the evidence could reasonably be interepreted as bias, and such prejudice is a problem when held by the guy in charge of hiring and tenure decisions. It didn't help that the scientific findings he mentioned completely failed to back up his point.

If he were invovled in research into the subject, or speaking in an academic context where it could be interepreted as helpful speculation, there would have been no problems. But he was speaking as the president of Harvard University, and in that context the comments were inappropriate. 

Posted by Big Ben

Anonymous said...

BB, why the scare quotes around "liberal" academia? Surveys (I'll dig up some links if you want) regularly show that 90% or more of university faculty identify themseleves as Democrats or liberals.

Summers may not be a scientist himself, but as the president of Harvard, and as a pretty smart guy who has been thinking long and hard about the issue of under-representation of women professors in science, surely he is capable of providing "helpful specualtion" on the issue.

Moreover, far from purporting to make a definitive statement, Summers hedged his remarks extensively and closed by saying the following :

"Let me just conclude by saying that I've given you my best guesses after a fair amount of reading the literature and a lot of talking to people. They may be all wrong. I will have served my purpose if I have provoked thought on this question and provoked the marshalling of evidence to contradict what I have said. But I think we all need to be thinking very hard about how to do better on these issues and that they are too important to sentimentalize rather than to think about in as rigorous and careful ways as we can."

Those statements seem reasonable enough to me. But however inappropriate you personally may find them, the point of my post remains valid: The disparate reactions to Summers and Gilligan suggest that Harvard has no problem with generalizations about gender-based advantages and disadvantages, so long as they flatter women and villify men. 

Posted by GaijinBiker

Anonymous said...

Also, BB, it seems to me that much of the criticism of Summers' remarks I've read totally ignores the angle you mentioned -- that he is shifting blame away from Harvard's own hiring practices -- and focuses purely on the "Larry Summers thinks women are stupid" angle.

Ironically, Summers' attempt to get people to think dispassionately and critically, not emotionally, has had precisely the opposite effect, and among people who should know better. 

Posted by GaijinBiker

Anonymous said...

The scare quotes weren't something I gave much thought to, it's just that it seems silly to me that right wing blogs always seem to refer to "liberal academia" when the fact that research with anti-PC implications is encouraged shows that the nature of academia is primarily academic rather than political. In the sense of being accurate descriptive of the demographics, there's nothing wrong with "liberal academia", but the same could be said about "male academia", or "white academia" or "upper middle class academia", none of which are regularly heard.

You seem to have missed one of my main points; It's not that "Harvard has no problem with generalizations about gender-based advantages and disadvantages, so long as they flatter women and villify men", it's that there's a difference between professors stating their theories in an academic setting and the president of a University giving a speech about something that isn't even in his field. If a psychologist or evolutionary biologist had made the same points in an academic setting there would have been no problem. It's not the views stated, it's the context. 

Posted by Big Ben

Anonymous said...

(1) Terms like "white academia", etc., are less heard than "liberal academia" because liberalism is a political philosophy that indicates a certain viewpoint on issues that arise in an academic context. On the other hand, different white people, middle class people, etc. can have completely different opinions on various subjects.

(2) The benefit of a liberal arts education (which places like Harvard claim to provide) is that it empowers the recipient to critically evaluate ideas outside the narrow field of his specialty.

Summers is not a scientist, but he is more than capable of assessing and evaluating the consensus of scientific opinion on gender-based differences.

Insofar as gender-based differences may be one factor hampering Harvard's ability to hire women science professors -- which is one of Summer's responsibilities as president -- then it was entirely appropriate for him to address the topic in a speech on difficulties in hiring women science professors.

The man should not be required to censor his opinion, and he certainly hedged his comments enough and invited people to challenge them. I get the feeling that Summers' mind is open to new evidence on the subject of gender differences, but his critics' minds are shut. 

Posted by GaijinBiker

Anonymous said...

This isn't a particularly important point, but liberals also "have completely different opinions on various subjects." And it's silly to suggest that one's race, class, and gender don't also affect one's viewpoint on various issues. My point was that academics' views on most issues are generally more informed by their specialties and research than by their political views.

All public figures censor their opinions to match the fora they speak in. Most of the "gaffes" that politicians are called on are saying something true at an inappropriate time or in an inappropriate manner. That Summers was unable to foresee the easily predictable reaction to his remarks shows ineptitude as a public speaker, which hampers his effectiveness as president of Harvard. 

Posted by Big Ben

Anonymous said...

Summers was not at a county fair campaigning for votes. He was speaking to a select audience of researchers and academics. I would have thought such an audience would be intelligent and mature enough to handle his remarks without flying into an uproar. I was wrong.

I would fault the response of his critics (which you admit in your initial comment was "overblown") rather than Summers' remarks themselves. He spoke in good faith and invited serious comments and challenges; instead, he got a lynch mob.

To me, criticizing Summers for inspiring the vitriolic response of his critics is (very roughly) analogous to saying a rape victim was "asking for it" by dressing provocatively. 

Posted by GaijinBiker

Anonymous said...

girls are better than look at 

Posted by cube

Anonymous said...

Summers makes a casual suggestion that gender differences might play a role in explaining disparities between men and women, and is roundly criticized.Ah, no. It wasn't "casual" -- he said it in a multi-day conference and prefaced tha he had given it a lot of thought. Also, he didn't say it "might play a role" -- he said that it plays a much bigger role than discrimination.  

Posted by Cassford



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