About Critical Mass [dot] Writing [dot] Reviews [dot] Contact
« previous entry | return home | next entry »

January 30, 2009 [feather]
Revolution number 9

Heather MacDonald on the Title IXing of the hard sciences:

Women, feminists proclaim again and again, are strong, indomitable, and equal in every way to men. Except, that is, when they run up against an obstacle, thrown malevolently in their path, that is too formidable even for them, such as ... a sitcom.

New York Times science reporter Natalie Angier recently called for renewed attention to the lack of proportional representation of women in science. (In the past, Angier has made something of a specialty of discovering proper gender role models in nature, along the lines of dominatrix polyps and sexually submissive male arachnids.) The imbalance in the sciences, Angier reported, is especially bad in physics, where just 6 percent of full professors are women. After canvassing some current theories explaining the imbalance, Angier offered her own scapegoats: "Bubble-headed television shows like 'The Big Bang Theory,' with its four nerdy male physics prodigies and the fetching blond girl next door."

Imagine the devastation that such a show might wreak. A 15-year-old math whiz is happily immersed in the Lorentz transformations, the basis for the theory of special relativity. She looks up at the tube and sees a fictional group of male physics students bashfully speaking to a feisty blonde. Her confidence and enthusiasm shattered, she drops out of her AP physics course and starts hanging out at the mall with the cheerleading squad.

Gender-insensitive TV shows are just the start of the barriers blocking girls' entry to the empyrean of pure science. There's also the father of modern physics himself. What self-respecting girl wants to look like Albert Einstein? "As long as we're making geek [culture] chic" under our new, science-friendly president, Angier suggests, "let's lose the Einstein 'do and moustache." We're in whiplash territory here. For years, we have been told that the patriarchy brainwashes women into excessive concern with appearance. Now, however, it turns out that girls with an innate knack for science could be turned away from their calling just because the Uber Role Model is frumpy. If Einstein had looked like Tom Cruise or Angelina Jolie, apparently, girls would be clamoring to participate in the Math Olympiad and earning their proportionate share of physics Ph.D.s.

Which is it? Are women "strong"? Or can they be crushed by fears of a permanent bad hair day and inspired by something as superficial as Hollywood fashion? Given the amount of time and money that most women spend on applying makeup, blow-drying their hair, shopping for clothes, and gullibly attending to preposterous wrinkle-cream ads in women's magazines, Angier's claim that girls could be thwarted by a TV comedy is not wholly unreasonable. It just happens to contradict the usual feminist claim that women are just as tough as men.

The evidence to date suggests that the highest-level math skills--those required for research physics--aren't evenly distributed among men and women. Men greatly outnumber women at the very highest and lowest ends of the mathematics aptitude curve. As Christina Hoff Sommers has documented, men also show greater interest in abstract, non-empathetic careers than women. Of course, the conflicting demands of raising a family and pursuing pure science undoubtedly influence women's career paths as well. If scientific pursuit can be made more family-friendly without in any way damaging its essential strengths, such changes should be contemplated. But the fertility clock and women's greater involvement with their babies are not chauvinist plots; they are biological realities.

Unfortunately, Angier's conviction that sexism lurks behind women's rarity in the most abstract sciences isn't confined to the New York Times or even to academia. A congressional bill, the Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering Act of 2008, would apply Title IX gender quotas to academic science. Barack Obama endorsed the bill during the presidential campaign; women's groups are clamoring for action.

Obama has indeed presented himself as a science president. Rejecting feminist propaganda, however belatedly, regarding sexism in science would be a strong start in justifying that title. In the meantime, stay tuned for the latest twist in feminists' contradictory--dare one say, irrational?--apologetics.

Women don't need this kind of "help," and neither does science.

Where women are interested, they pretty much take over. They are a strong majority of college students, and are also dominating law schools, med schools, and vet schools. STEM disciplines don't attract women in the same numbers as they attract men, and we shouldn't read this as proof of cultural pathology. Those women who do want to enter a STEM discipline should have the same chances that men do--but the emphasis is on chance. Title IX injects a meddlesome and morally wrong emphasis on engineering outcomes, when the emphasis ought to be on ensuring equal opportunity.

Science, meanwhile, is not a game. We can't afford for it to become the playground of ideologues. It is the height of cultural complacency--not to mention decadence--to tinker with it as Congress is poised to do.

posted on January 30, 2009 9:13 AM

Trackback Pings:

TrackBack URL for this entry:


I think you are exactly right on this issue.

"Women don't need this kind of 'help,' and neither does science. "

Title IX for sports is one thing but, as you say, science is no game.

I sincerely hope that this administration and its leaders look at the whole of this issue and do what is best for men, women, science, and the country as a whole.

Posted by: Steve J. Moore at January 30, 2009 12:51 PM

Angier's analysis strikes me as more than a little shallow. Einstein too ugly? There are quite a few pretty ugly executives in the ranks of American business, and quite a few VERY ugly lawyers in the top levels of American law, but this doesn't seem to deter many women from pursuing careers in those fields...

Posted by: david foster at January 30, 2009 1:58 PM

Steven J. Moore wrote:

Title IX for sports is one thing but, as you say, science is no game.

That's certainly true enough, but the way in which it worked in athletics should worry the bejeezus out of anyone pushing for it as a solution for the "problem" of disproportionate representation of the sexes in the sciences.

When, after Title IX was enacted and male/female proportionality mandated for athletics, and not enough women athletes could be found to create that golden ratio, schools did what they had to do: they abolished men's teams until the proper proportion had been struck!

(See Tilting the Playing Field: Schools, Sports Sex and Title IX by Jessica Gavora, which is reviewed at the link).

Posted by: Minerva at January 30, 2009 3:29 PM

Do we have figures for women in the sciences at the community college level? Such positions do not require the sort of rarefied abilities ascribed solely to men by the biological explanations. So I wonder if women are achieving in math and sciences in those domains where they *are* competitive with men. If not -- if, say, women are under-represented in community college sciences, or biological sciences (which don't always require the same level of math ability as the most advanced physics) -- I would remain concerned.

I teach at an all girls college preparatory school. I am one of nine male teachers. The highest levels of college prep math and science have been taught by women at this school for 100 years, and our school has been among the most competitive in the state. We have as many girls in upper level math and sciences as our brother (all boys) school.

I'm prepared to accept certain biological differences, but I want to see the exact numbers. Where *exactly* do women start to drop off? Do they drop off in the same content areas at the same rates in every modern nation? Do they drop off at the same rate in the same content areas in all-girls as compared to co-ed settings?

Title IX as a solution is clearly fallible, but I'm not prepared to start treating my girls differently (in, say, academic advising) based on the research on biological determinism I've seen.

Posted by: Luther Blissett at January 30, 2009 8:25 PM

It's often asserted that women (on the average) have more "emotional intelligence" than men, along with greater verbal ability. If this is true, then one would expect to see proportionately fewer women in fields that do *not* make great use of these skills--after all, most people try to pick careers that use their full range abilities.

In theoretical physics, emotional intelligence and verbal ability are probably not overwhelmingly important--I'm sure they are very handy in academic politics, but are not a critical factor in the job in the same way they would be in, say, a sales management job or a school principal's job or certain kinds of law. A person who has the intellectual firepower to be able to do theoretical physics *and* a high level of verbal skill and emoitional intelligence might well be happier (and better off financially) in a job that uses all three of these skill families. (Or, of course, he/she might have such a strong enough interest in theoretical physics to want to pursue it anyhow.)

I've been thinking for a while that the theory of comparative advantage, as developed in economics for the study of trade between nations, probably also has applicability to individual career choices.

Posted by: david foster at January 31, 2009 7:15 AM

Will Title IX require schools to get more men to become nurses or elementary school teachers?

Posted by: Darren at February 1, 2009 7:34 PM

I think few kids have much realistic information about what is involved in various careers..about the only one portrayed in the media are law, medicine, and police work, and these in pretty distorted fashion. Look at career guidebooks in libraries or the bookstore and they are mostly dreary complilations of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or else very superficial "hot-trend" stuff.

Since you're doing advising, Luther, I'd be interested in your thoughts on what conceptions/misconceptions your students may have about the world of work.

Posted by: david foster at February 2, 2009 7:49 AM

David, luckily I just do academic advising for course selection and not for career or college planning. We have professional college counselors for the heavy lifting. My part is to help students choose the courses that are best for their academic abilities and interests.

My experience of their ideas of the work-world are a bit skewed because my students are, on the whole, a highly motivated group who have competed hard to get into this high school from the start. At the same time, few of them are hyper-professionalized in comparison to their college freshman counterparts I experienced as a grad student or adjunct instructor. These kids want good jobs, but they are mostly at the "humanities or hard sciences or social sciences" level of decision making.

Which is to say, I don't get a clear picture of how they imagine the world of work. They know about deadlines and strict demands from their teachers, and they all for the most part work their asses off in school, clubs, extra curriculars, part time jobs, and community service.

One thing that has surprised me is how little they know about humanities and social science based careers. They take a standardized test that translates their skills into career options, and many asked me what a career in social science or communications meant. They know a good deal about science, engineering, law, medical, tech, and business careers, but they had no idea that an archaeologist might study the clothing and makeup of Bronze Age Mycenaean queens (as Bettany Hughes, whose documentary we are watching, does).

Posted by: Luther Blissett at February 2, 2009 7:22 PM

Science is not a game? What? Tell that to Stanley Fish:


Posted by: guez at February 6, 2009 4:32 PM


"the sort of rarefied abilities ascribed solely to men by the biological explanations."

Well, there goes your chance of having rarified reading skills attributed to you: nobody is attributing the highest math/science skills solely to men. Do you even know what a statistical argument is?

Posted by: Kirk Parker at February 7, 2009 1:20 AM