Some of you have expressed curiosity about academic life. Anecdote time: My eldest two and their significant others will be interviewing for academic jobs soon. Some of their friends and colleagues are applicants this year. One was recently wined and dined and interviewed by a university. He didn’t get the job. He asked the bearer of bad news why, hoping to learn for the next time. The response was that the women on the hiring committee had a problem with him (He was afraid some rumors of his behavior – not always model – had reached them.) But instead, the problem seems insurmountable: he was, they said, an alpha male and that made them uncomfortable. The other two making the final round were women. His specialty has a large proportion of women; I suspect that has to do with verbal skills, although saying so might make my male readers faint or vomit. So, we get a feel for the ambience of such departments.
This isn’t surprising. Objections I’ve heard from hiring committee faculty have been that an applicant was too “masculine.” Another was blackballed because the women felt he established more eye contact with the male than the female interviewers.
Probably more common in the liberal arts, this runs through the social sciences and especially ethnic, women’s, and other “studies.” I thought such criteria were less likely in the sciences, engineering, business, but the reaction to Summers indicates not. This also suggests how (though he seems plenty alpha) such frauds as Ward Churchill are hired.
Most of you have probably already seen quite a bit on Summers, but if not here is his abject apology. Jonah Goldberg describes Nancy Hopkins of MIT who was present and objected. Promptly, she enlisted the Boston Globe, telling them that “she had to leave a lecture delivered by Harvard president Larry Summers because if she didn’t she would have ‘either blacked out or thrown up.’” This is a quite clever power play. If facts aren’t strong, resort to a series of fallacies: attack the man, plead for sympathy, bring the ersatz authority of the Globe to bear. Above all, stop conversation. Ah, such is the academic marketplace of ideas!
And such power plays have consequences – whether it is in hiring practices, in the courses taught, or in the projects researched. We—our children, our families, our universities and our nation—are the worse for it. Let’s look at what Summers actually said:
He offered three possible reasons for this gender gap. The biggest, he suggested, was that fewer mothers than fathers are willing to spend 80 hours a week away from their kids. The next reason was that more boys than girls tend to score very high or very low on high-school math tests, producing a similar average but a higher proportion of scores in the top percentiles, which lead to high-powered academic careers in science and engineering. The third factor was discrimination by universities.
I went through college in the sixties and grad school in the seventies. Sure, discrimination may have occurred; certainly dirty jokes did. But I never felt that my mind wasn’t respected. Women’s liberation was barely beginning, but my teachers would speak with reverence of their female mentors of a yet earlier time. I’m sure that many thought I was flakey (I was), but when it came to the life of the mind, it was the ideas that concerned them. They also respected their female colleagues (and gay ones, too, as far as that goes). But few of my women friends were interested in science – and they were the honors kids, the ones with the Ford grants and the National Merit money.
Let’s get some sense of proportion. Whether or not there are differences in ability doesn’t shake my sense of who I am; some things am good at, some not. That is, well, a fact. We all recognize that generalizations may be made and exceptions still stand out. If I were a good scientist and a woman, I’d figure, fine, that’s who I am. I’d be curious, I suspect, about those brain waves, those broad conclusions derived from deep research. But I’d like to know the general while still comfortable in my particular skin. I wouldn’t throw up. (I thought that kind of stuff was caused by the boning in nineteenth century women’s corsets.)
What strikes me as especially pernicious about this – and pernicious in a way that is symptomatic of other such politicizing of research – is that real problems are obscured and the workplace is made into hostile, judgmental territory. Sure, there may be discrimination and I suspect for good evolutionary reasons women aren’t as strong in these areas, but the third of Summers’ reasons will now get no attention. True, my friends were in the liberal arts; true some were as flakey as I. Still and all, most did not achieve as much as their male counterparts (often husbands they had met in classes where both had excelled); marriage requires compromises. Commuting marriages work for a while, but become increasingly difficult–sometimes for the parents, always for the children. It isn’t as if American writers hadn’t warned us. Margaret Fuller recognized the problem a hundred and fifty years ago, though her optimism was pretty much pre-marriage. Edith Wharton, surveying the wreck of her marriage and sensing the importance of duty as well as the importance of using her excellent mind, tells us “life is full of compromises.” And she knew.
Those tradeoffs have been remarked by those who have surveyed women in upper management outside academia – a disproportionate number aren’t married, an even more disproportionate number do not have children. I don’t think we should be cut slack – a woman should publish as much and as well as a man, should perform in the business world as honestly and profitably as a man. But using women’s talents is good for her happiness and the economy as a whole; having functional (or at least not dysfunctional) households is important for our happiness as well as the country’s productivity. Publishing a good book is important, but few would weight it as much as a good child. Some books live for centuries, but most – well, the royalties are likely to stop coming in a few years. However, a child’s problems will be with you the rest of your life. (Yes, it can be done – but with a lot of compromises. I’m pretty sure I know which my husband would weight more – and he is both a better father than I am mother and has published a dozen books. But he has not been able to devote himself obsessively to his career – nor I to mine. And neither of us could run the house or nurture the children alone.)
Some discussion of how those trade-offs can be managed (are managed by some in creative ways) to best use the talent of women and keep the playing field level would be interesting. Flexible graduate careers, flexible work choices have been proposed. But the woman who defined the mommy track was a powerful professional; those that attacked her were less professional than she but more ideological. Ideology, they felt, trumped biology. It doesn’t.
Now, no thought will be given to what’s difficult. Seeing discrimination is easy; however not only do I suspect it is for the most part wrong, it helps only the woman threatening to sue and pump up the smug self-righteousness of a few. But we do have problems: judging a hire on whether the male is too alpha, too “masculine” is hardly building the best faculty. Instead of discussing problems and solutions, we will hear mea culpas from Larry Summers until, eventually, the whole discussion disappears in the fog of feminist science.
Let’s finish with Pinker: the truth cannot be offensive.