Viewpoint – What the President of Harvard should know

Carleton Professor of Systems and Computer Engineering, Monique Frize responds to recent comments made by the President of Harvard University.

“Lawrence Summers, President of Harvard University, spoke before a meeting of the National Bureau of Economics Research on January 14 about the causes of women’s under-representation in science. He suggested that, since fewer girls than boys have top scores on science and math tests in high school, perhaps genetic, rather than social differences explain why so few women are successful in these fields.” (Extract from Letter to the Editor sent to several American papers by women scientists and engineers).

I will make three points in my response: First there is compelling evidence demonstrating that in verbal skills and mathematical tests, there is more variation in performance within each sex than between the two sexes. In fact, Japanese girls do much better than American boys on mathematical tests at all levels, and their performance is very close to that of Japanese boys, showing that gender is obviously not the main factor. It seems more probable then that culture, the education system, and other social factors have an important impact on how well students do on international tests. The second point is that gender schemas (akin to stereotypes, but more complex) are at play and that even egalitarian parents may unconsciously apply these to their boys and girls, especially with regards to career expectations and school performance. (See “Why so slow?” by Virginia Valian.) A third point is that in performance assessments, whether at school or at work, several researchers show the continued existence of a double standard, whereby boys and men tend to be over-rated, while girls and women tend to be under-evaluated. Valian also discusses the disastrous consequence of the cumulative effect of these assessments which tend to spiral down women’s careers and spiral up men’s.

Now bring into the equation the fact that women do an unfairly larger proportion of domestic and child care tasks and you have a system that continues to facilitate a man’s career and ignores the needs of some couples who wish to balance work and family during the decade when the children are very young. European data shows that, in spite of an almost equal number of qualified women at the early stages of an academic career, many highly competent women leave science at each level of promotion until less than two percent of them remain at the full professor level. Time will not fix this, as many falsely believe, since we have cycles of advancement, followed by cycles of retrenchment. Remedies? Everyone needs to know more about gender schemas and how they affect the performance of girls and boys who, given the same educational opportunities and expectations in their performance, should have similar success rates that depend only on their innate abilities. Let us ensure that our girls and boys develop their full potential and learn respect for each other. Universities must make more effort to attract and retain more women faculty and judge performance for tenure and promotion on quality, not quantity (counting beans). Training sessions on the meaning and operation of gender schemas and how to be as fair as possible should be provided at all universities and the President of Harvard should be the first to enrol. The performance of administrators should be tied to some degree to the number of qualified women faculty they attract and retain in the next five years!

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