Gender Fender-Bender

April 2005

Last week, the president of Harvard, Lawrence H. Summers, inadvertently provided further evidence of the opposition to free inquiry that currently governs our institutions of higher learning. Invited to speculate off the record on the "underrepresentation" of women in science, President Summers threw out some hypotheses, including one about innate differentials in aptitude between men and women, that may account for the phenomenon. At this point in his remarks, an MIT female professor of science quit the room, declaring to the press that she couldn't breathe because "this kind of bias makes me physically ill."

"What better proof than she of Summers' thesis?" quipped a friend of mine -- and, indeed, what better evidence of underprofessionalism than a scientist who becomes nauseated at the mere hint of a theory that differs from hers? But this woman had artfully framed her outrage. Her claim of "bias" was intended not simply to discredit the male who had asked whether there may be substantive differences between men and women, but to define the permissible terms of discussion. Her show of outrage and the ensuing media attention it elicited were designed to reinforce the claim that "bias" alone is responsible for the situation President Summers addressed.

This accusation of bias, advanced by feminists and often accepted at face value by the academic community, attempts to transform guarantees of equal opportunity into a demand for equal outcome. Thus, a huge majority of female professors at Harvard recently formed a Caucus for Gender Equality to protest the drop in senior job offers to women since President Summers came into office. 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. Although the university denied these unsubstantiated charges, it nonetheless instituted new rules for departmental searches that now require every committee to provide quantitative proof of how many women it has considered for a position at each stage of the screening and selection process.

Ironically, President Summers himself has on occasion advanced the view that affirmative-action procedures for women are necessary because of men's unconscious bias. That particular unsubstantiated assumption, however, satisfies feminist dogma, whereas there mere possibility of other differences between the sexes offends it. The true character of the campaign against President Summers was corroborated when the same Harvard women's group that is lobbying for more female professors reproached him for "speaking his mind as an individual" last week rather than toeing what they believe should be the university's party line. Lobbying for women in the name of greater diversity, they used the club of gender to silence diversity.

Shamefully, they appear to have succeeded. Sounding more like a prisoner in a Soviet show trial than the original thinker that he is, President Summers recanted his error, has apologized at least three times for his insensitivity, and will no doubt hasten to appoint and to promote as many females as he can. The casualties of this exercise are genuine discussion of why women excel faster in some fields than in others, and the kind of intellectual independence that universities were once expected to promote.

The slogan "gender equality" reduces diversity on campus still further by pretending that all women share the same set of views. Protesting that there are currently only 85 tenured female professors at Harvard, about one-quarter of the faculty, the Women's Caucus boasts that almost all of them agree with its politics. Meanwhile, in a country that has just elected a Republican president and a Republican Congress, one could not find, among Harvard professors, a quarter of a quarter who hold conservative views. Divergent thinkers are driven out of the universities to the think tanks where intellectual initiatives are encouraged rather than suppressed. On the campus, intimidation; beyond the campus, the democratic arena where better ideas can contend and prevail.

Had he been allowed to go on speculating about gender differentiation in the academy, President Summers might have taken up related issues, such as the effects of seeking parity in a marketplace of unequal resources. Given the far lower number of women in the sciences, one unacknowledged consequence of female preference in hiring may be the compensatory pressure to hire and promote women in the humanities and social sciences. The "feminization" of some branches of these "soft" disciplines has been a palpable byproduct of this strategy -- feminization referring not just to the numbers but to what and how women who ostensibly share the ideological disposition of the Women's Caucus tend to teach. Does this not necessarily reshape the nature of higher learning in ways that we would be wise to scrutinize?

Unfortunately, the problem President Summers addressed will persist despite the attempts to silence him. No one doubts that women seeking careers in science face greater challenges than those in other academic and research fields. At a recent forum of Harvard graduate students, a succession of budding female scientists expressed their anxieties about having chosen careers that will conflict, more than most, with their no less strong desires to raise and nurture a family. More than one young woman present felt that a job with reduced pressure during her childbearing years might better suit her needs than competition at the very highest levels. The good news is that most of the young women acknowledged that their dilemma was one of choice rather than a product of discrimination against them.

The very notion of "underrepresentation," based as it is on the implicit goal of numerical parity, greatly prejudices our ability to understand why women make the choices that they do. If women gravitate to the hard sciences less than to other fields, we ought to grant them the intelligence of sentient creatures, recognizing the potential loneliness of such choices while trying to understand why groups and individuals act as they do. It is not President Summers who owes women an apology; it is the complainers and agitators who owe both him and all of us an apology for trying to shut down discussion of an "inequality" that is not likely to disappear.