In which John Tierney annoys me: women in science edition

John Tierney writes in yesterday’s New York Times — correctly, I think — that science departments don’t need federally mandated quotas, a la Title IX, in order to improve the situation of women in science.

So what’s so annoying? Stuff like this:

The members of Congress and women’s groups who have pushed for science to be “Title Nined” say there is evidence that women face discrimination in certain sciences, but the quality of that evidence is disputed. Critics say there is far better research showing that on average, women’s interest in some fields isn’t the same as men’s.

Are these really the only two choices? Couldn’t we — without “Title Nining” away our autonomy — push our profession to be as open and as attractive to all mathematically talented people as we can? Is it possible that an effort of that kind could drastically increase the number of women who enjoy successful careers in research mathematics? Of course — because that’s exactly what we’ve been doing for years, and a drastic increase is exactly what happened. Not that you’d know it from Tierney’s article. There, any disparity between men and women is understood by all reasonable people to be the result of immutable personality differences. In which case our choice is: freedom, or an assault on human nature by the full coercive power of the state?

Feh.

On his blog, Tierney writes

Why, now that women students are approaching a 3-to-2 majority on campus and predominate in so many disciplines (including many science departments), is Washington singling out a few male-dominated departments in engineering and physical sciences? The answer from advocates of this policy is that science must be “Titled Nined” for women to get “Beyond Bias and Barriers,” to borrow the title of the 2007 report from the National Academy of Sciences on women in science. The answer from their critics — call them the Anti-Title-Niners — is that this bias exists largely in the imagination of well-organized activists, and that women on average just aren’t as interested as men are in these disciplines.

I just want to draw your attention to a rhetorical trick in that last sentence. Have you ever noticed that when you want to forbid people from thinking critically about what you’re saying, you can stick in a “just” and make your assertion seem like an eternal fact about the universe? Read the last sentence again without the “just.” Sounds different, doesn’t it? I learned this trick from listening to a lot of sports talk radio in my car, where you routinely encounter arguments of the form “Brett Favre is one of the five best players in the history of the National Football League. He just is.” If women report being less interested in going into mathematics, you might ask: why is that? But if they just are less interested, well, what is there to say?

If you want to see some different views about women in science (which do not, I guarantee, suggest that evil men are conspiring to hold the sisters down, that unequal representation is proof of discrimination, or that math departments should be federally bludgeoned into numerical parity) have a look at Amanda Schaffer’s six-part series in Slate or the work of Virginia Valian.

And now I will make fun of Tierney’s “about my blog” blurb. He writes:

With your help, he’s using TierneyLab to check out new research and rethink conventional wisdom about science and society. The Lab’s work is guided by two founding principles:

  • 1. Just because an idea appeals to a lot of people doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
  • 2. But that’s a good working theory.

Cute! But let us not forget the idea “girls don’t care for math, and left to their own devices they wouldn’t be interested in boring boy stuff like scientific careers” does appeal to a lot of people, and it kind of is the conventional wisdom. Dare I say Tierney just isn’t taking a particularly bold or contrarian stance on this issue?

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5 thoughts on “In which John Tierney annoys me: women in science edition

  1. ubuntucat says:

    Maybe a lot of women as they exist in our current culture are not as interested in general as men are in science and math. But they, like the men, do not exist in a vacuum. I’ve worked in schools for the past eight years and have an English background. How many times have I sat in on a science or math class with a really good teacher and thought, “If I’d had this teacher in high school, I might have been more interested in that subject”?

    Our interests don’t just come out of nowhere. They’re heavily influenced by our experiences (positive and negative) with various subjects. I think some of these “That’s just the way it is” biological predeterminists “doth protest too much.” If men were really naturally more interested than women in science and math, you wouldn’t need to say they were, and it wouldn’t hurt to make sure all women who were interested in science and math got all the encouragement they needed.

  2. What I find so annoying about people like Tierney is that given:

    1) Social forces can clearly have quite large effects (e.g. the huge recent gender shifts in law, medicine, and biology, or that there are many more women in astronomy than physics).

    2) The evidence for biological gender differences are mostly pretty dubious and, even in the studies that purport to find them, appear to be quite small.

    they look at the situation in, say, math and conclude that the paucity of women must be biological.

    Also, I second your recommendation of Valian’s work; her book “Why so slow?” is fascinating and should be required reading for all math search committees…

  3. Jeff says:

    I find it interesting that in the two paragraphs you have quoted, he has virtually the same final sentence saying that critics think women aren’t as interested in some of the disciplines as men. Aside from simply rewording the sentence, the main difference is that on his blog he says “just aren’t as interested” whereas in his NYT article the “just” isn’t there.

    This is complete speculation but I wonder if he put it in his article and an editor removed it.

  4. slger says:

    Here is an outstanding resource for understanding the “science of bias”.

    Virginia Valian, “tutorials for change” from Hunter College, funded by NSF ADVANCE

    http://www.hunter.cuny.edu/gendertutorial/tutorials.htm

    This set of narrated case studies leads to recommendations for mitigating the effects of subtle bias. This website should be considered as a literacy test for Mr. Tierney, university faculty and administrators, and the federal agencies themselves.

    It would be great to hear more feedback from faculty in departments subjected to federal agency bias pressure. Note that NSF, in particular, has lost EEO cases of retaliation against its own staff.

  5. [...] That’s pretty far from “safe playgrounds stunt kids’ growth.”  All the more so when you stop to think that there might be other reasons that kids who were fearless about heights at 18 might have broken their arms more as kids.  Maybe they were fearless about heights to start with!  The authors of the study explicitly raise this possibility.  Tierney does not — strangely, considering how much he digs innate biological explanations when it’s time to explain where all the women math professors are. [...]

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