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Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Its not rocket science…

Hmm… women are getting a bit of stick at the moment. We’re either too smart to be considered as marriage material, or too dumb to do the math.

Thankfully this article clears up the latter assumption.


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Harvard President Summer's speech attributing biological differences in women's abilities in science sparks an examination of the situation at BC

By Vanessa Voltolina
Published: Monday, February 28, 2005


Discussions at the college across the river sparked a great deal of controversy nationwide on Jan. 14. During a two-day conference at the National Bureau of Economic Research, a group of Cambridge economists and a small group of attendees from all over the country discussed the role of women and minorities in the science and engineering workforce.


At this conference, Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers caused an uproar when he stated that fewer number of women excel in the sciences and engineering careers due to biological and innate differences between men and women.

Summers claimed he was only stating the hypotheses based on scholarly work, however, his statements offended many people at the conference. While the Harvard president claims that more research needs to be done on this issue, he was acting as a top economist at the time of the comment, and told the press that he was aiming to be provocative.

While many may turn a blind eye to Summers' defense, it is only fair to look at this objectively. The Boston Globe and many national papers have already hung him out to dry.

"The idea that women are less able than men in science has been bruited about for centuries." says Marc Muskavich, Deluca Chair in biology at Boston College.

This widely known stereotype - men excel in math and sciences and women excel in the humanities - has been a prevailing generalization for years. Girls say they enjoy math in earlier grades, but tend to shy away in adolescence. As many girls as boys, however, now take advanced math classes in high school and major in math almost as often in college.

The gender distinction seems to begin during the elementary years, when females tend to be praised for their neat handwriting and appearance of assignments, while boys are judged more on the actual content.

A study conducted by students at the University of Wisonsin-Madison discovered that girls think more about what they say in class; therefore, it takes them a longer amount of time to raise their hand in response to a question. Boys tend to speak as they think, which explains teachers' quick recognition of male students.

Girls are more successful in math and science programs that incorporate a cooperative, hands-on approach than in programs that stress competition and individual learning, according to the National Council for Research on Women.

Therefore, it is possible to surmise that excelling in sciences is based on a socialization issue rather than a biological one.

"The lack of women in the fields of science and engineering can be blamed on the history of politics, not biology," says Melanie McNally, a Beckman Scholar and A&S '06.

"For centuries, there has been a certain political bias against women entering these fields, and a constant obligation to prove oneself to committees and councils of science."

Summers offered two other possible explanations for the small number of women in high-level positions in science and engineering.

The first was the reluctance or inability of women who have children to work 80-hour weeks.The second was that fewer girls than boys have top scores on science and math tests in late high school years.

Summers defended his controversial statement by calling for more research.

"It's possible I made some reference to innate differences, I did say that you have to be careful in attributing things to socialization. That's what we would prefer to believe, but these are things that need to be studied," says Summers, according to The Globe.

With all of this media hype about women in the sciences, BC's own science departments come into question. Do we really believe that biology is a factor in women excelling?

"This suggestion is unfounded and a lack of women in the sciences is not due to a lack of ability in that area, but instead due to personal preference in choosing professions," says Jennifer Bordeaux, a biochemistry major and A&S '06.

"The idea that women have a biological difference preventing them from taking part in sciences is ridiculous," she adds.

Dave Karpuk, A&S '06, agrees.

"I don't think there is a difference between genders when it comes to mathematical thinking. Some people have the right kind of brain for it, and some don't. But I don't think that has anything to do with gender. I know plenty of girl math majors who are just as smart, or smarter, than I am," he says.

But Karpuk agrees that the cards might be stacked against women entering the sciences.

"I think math is traditionally a more masculine subject, so girls are probably turned off or intimidated by the fact that it is male dominated," he says.

"I think it is changing though, pretty quickly too. The male tradition only means that there are more male professors in the department, but that doesn't matter much because unlike other subjects, there's no real way to put a gender biased spin on the material.

"The idea that biology affects the ability to succeed in the sciences neglects to examine other issues in our history and human psychology.

"As a social psychologist, I am keenly aware of how our behavior is driven by context. We are immersed in a culture that communicates subtle and overt expectations for what we are to do with our lives," says Tamlin Conner, Ph.D, visiting assistant professor of psychology.

These cultural expectations exist in the form of stereotypes (women = humanities and men = math and science), which can affect our life paths in subtle ways. A strictly biological explanation neglects the lessons learned from social psychology.

The Premedical Office in Higgins estimated that "the difference among male and female [medical school] applicants is statistically insignificant," with about 78 percent of females being granted acceptance to medical school and 75 percent male applicant acceptance rate.

The information was based on an analysis of the numbers from the class of medical students set to begin their studies in the fall of 2004.

"Some of the best scientists I know, and know of, are women. Some of the best scientists I know, and know of, are men," says Muskavich.

"My experience suggests that the ranges and medians of scientific intelligence and ability are comparable in men and women," he says.

While Summers is skeptical about the fate of females in the sciences, it seems that students at BC have a more positive outlook for the future.

"Science and engineering will see a change in the next few decades - many of the most visible and involved scientists I know are female," says McNally.

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posted by Opus at 10:29

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