What Summers actually said
I've been following the Larry Summers controversy with some interest, but I didn't want to say anything about it myself until I had read his actual words. I finally got around to reading the transcript of the speech on the weekend, and to my less than complete surprise the whole thing seems rather overblown.
To summarise what I had heard second-hand, Larry Summers (Harvard University's President) was invited to address a conference on
Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce, and upset many people with his words. I haven't been able to find out whether the conference was exclusively about gender disparity or about
diversifying the workforce in a more general manner, but certainly gender disparity was a major theme, and it was what Summers chose to talk about. The way his remarks were presented second-hand gave the impression that he had the gall to stand up and lecture such a conference about the inferiority of women.
He actually said nothing of the sort, and I urge anyone who cares to go and read the transcript. It's not the easiest reading, because it is a faithful transcript of a speech rather than a script, but without reading it anything I or anyone else says will just be a quote out of context, and it is a speech that lends itself particularly well to quoting out of context. I will try to summarise what I saw in his speech:
- There are very large disparities in the representation of different groups in different professions.
- This includes the representation of various ethnic groups in various fields, as well as extreme under-representation of women in
tenured positions in science and engineering at top universities and research institutions.
- One possible explanation for this is a difference in interests between men and women.
- Socialisation probably accounts for part of this difference, but biology also accounts for part.
- Nonetheless there is a real disparity in hiring, and part of it is definitely also attributable to discrimination, even if not overt discrimination.
- We have to look at this imbalance differently at the very top of a field from how we look at it in the field as a whole, because of some real differences in distribution between men and women [I'll come back to this below because it's important and non-obvious].
- There's a limit to how much any one institution can achieve alone, because the overall supply of women at the high echelons of science and technology is restricted.
- However, a lot of institutions (his own included) could do more to help support faculty with young children, and this would probably make them more attractive to women.
- Interruptions kill academic careers, and it is still the case that mothers are much more likely to interrupt their career for childrearing than fathers.
- We should avoid hiring quotas because they distort hiring unacceptably.
I've taken selectively from the speech, and not entirely in order, because it really wasn't a well-ordered and structured argument. I would definitely encourage you to read the thing yourself rather than just accepting my summary as gospel.
Anyway, I want to come back to a couple of these points. I'll start with #6 because I think it's particularly easy to misunderstand, and in the speech he got sidetracked with some foolish statistical handwaving that obfuscated the point. Last week Pinker also spoke about this, and he explained it rather better. The thing is that any one measure of 'intelligence' or 'aptitude' is inherently flawed, and often the only thing that a particular measure can be shown to reliably predict is performance on that measure. This makes any individual measure useless, and when a broad basket of 'intelligence measures' are compared, we get the neither shocking nor particularly illuminating result that men have a better mean score on some, and women on others. However, across a great diversity of such measures, as well as measures of behaviour, there is a consistent difference in standard deviations [note: I don't have a proper reference to give for this, but it was cited by Pinker who does generally know what he's talking about]. Specifically, men have a larger standard deviation than women. This means that even if the mean of the two groups is exactly the same (and in the absence of any serious evidence to the contrary, we should assume it is so for aptitude at science), the distrubitions won't be. At either extreme, there will be more men.
This shouldn't have any consequences at all for the overall proportion of men and women in any field, because the distribution is symmetrical and there will be the same number of men as women with better-than-average ability. However, when it comes to the pinnacle of a field—such as tenured professors at Harvard, which was what Summers was talking about—it can be expected to make a significant difference to the talent pool available. This means that genuinely equal and fair representation would not be split 50-50, and the same is probably true of other positions of extreme prominence, like heads of state, CEOs and so on.
The thing is that this is not an endorsement of the extremely imbalanced status quo, and it only would be if it were backed up with a careful statistical study that demonstrates the difference in talent availability really being as extreme as the disparity in hiring. I don't believe it is so, it's certainly not a mainstream position to argue that it is, Pinker clearly argued that it isn't, and I don't see any evidence that Summers thinks it is. In fact, in the same controversial speech Summers did address several sources of discrimination that he believes affect women trying to get into science and engineering academia, and described these as
something that absolutely, vigorously needs to be combated. There is a world of difference between arguing that an enforced 50/50 division wouldn't be fair, and arguing that there is no unfairness in the status quo.
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