Happy Women's History Month

By Jane Weinkrantz

 

    Pardon me if I seem less than enthused with another women’s history month. While the rest of the world designs bulletin boards and assigns research projects, I look at March as business as usual. After all, if women get to celebrate March as Women’s History Month, and there is only one other gender to choose from, whose history are we studying for the other 11 months?  I will be satisfied when the accomplishments of women are such an  integral and acknowledged part of history that students cannot help but celebrate them every month.

    At the moment, chances for such acknowledgment look slim. History took a big step backwards when Harvard’s President, Lawrence Summers, who promised his listeners a provocative lecture, stated that there are fewer females in math and science because of “innate” differences, offending many of the female scientists and professors in his audience at an academic conference. Summers, who is not a scientist, told Marcella Bombardieri of The Boston Globe, “It’s possible I made some reference to innate differences…I did say that you have to be careful in attributing things to socialization…That’s what we would prefer to believe, but these are things that need to be studied.” Bombardieri’s article continued, “Summers said cutting-edge research has shown that genetics are more important than previously thought, compared with environment or upbringing. As an example, he mentioned autism, once believed to be a result of parenting but now widely seen to have a genetic basis.”

    Comparing  women’s lack of representation in particular disciplines and industries to autism is bizarre, not to mention unscientific.  Autism is a neurological disorder; not being a scientist or a mathematician isn’t. While it is certainly possible that our intellectual strengths are inherited genetically, wouldn’t that mean that men and women who chose professions that did not deal with math or science were both genetically so inclined?  Or is that choice genetic for women and environmental for men?

    You might think a guy like Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard, the gold standard of universities, would cite research to support a claim like this. No such luck. The Ivy President’s anecdotal evidence had to do with his daughter who, as a child, was given two trucks; she treated them like dolls, referring to one as “daddy truck” and the other as “baby truck.” When you consider the “daddy truck” who raised her, can we truly eliminate environment and upbringing as causes for such play?

    Summers'  fans and devil’s advocates have suggested that the Harvard President was just exercising his right to free speech. Harvard economist Richard B. Freeman characterized him as a “straight-talking, no baloney president.”  However, a straight talking, no baloney president has an obligation to back up ideas with facts, especially when the subject is science. Said Denice Denton,  the outgoing dean of  the College of Engineering at the University of Washington and chancellor designate of the University of California, Santa Cruz, “Here was this economist lecturing pompously to this room full of the country’s most accomplished scholars on women’s issues in science and engineering and he kept saying things we had refuted in the first half of the day.”  There is no question that Summers’ enthusiasm for provocative and unfounded remarks has damaged the university he represents.  In fact, on Wednesday, March 16,  the Harvard Faculty  of Arts and Science’s approved an unprecedented  motion of “lack of confidence” in Summers’ leadership. The vote was 218-185. Many professors are now calling for his resignation. As an English  teacher, I tend to analyze and over-analyze a person’s choice of words. Summers said we prefer to believe that gender inequities are the result of socialization as though women are kidding themselves about any ability they might have in science and math. Interestingly, since he has been president, the number of tenured female professors at Harvard has dropped significantly. Last year, of the 32 tenured job offers made at Harvard, four went to women. I think Summers prefers to believe this is genetics and not his own closed mind.

    To my mind, what happens to Summers after that vote is not nearly so important as what happens to the young women who want to study science and math and may be discouraged by someone like Lawrence Summers. Think of Kelly Harris, this year’s third place Intel scholar whose research on double stranded RNA dependent protein kinases and inhibitory viral proteins that bind to Z-DNA won her the Intel scholarship of $50,000 and admission to Harvard. What is Ms. Harris, who plans to study for a doctorate in biophysics, to think at this moment in her young and extremely promising academic career? Will she still feel as though her work is taken seriously---that Harvard is a university that encourages and nurtures the work of female scientist. What a shame it would be if  Summers’ penchant for provocation had any effect on young female mathematicians and scientists. So to the Kelly Harrises of the world, I say don’t let anyone tell you what you can and can’t do. Study hard, question assumptions and weave your names into history for  all 12 months of the year. Happy Women’s History Month.                              

 

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