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A conservative woman analyzes Larry Summers' remarks about women

By Rachel Alexander
web posted March 14, 2005

Harvard University President Lawrence Summers arrives for a faculty meeting at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts on February 22
Harvard University President Lawrence Summers arrives for a faculty meeting at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts on February 22

Larry Summers, the President of Harvard, has come under fire from feminists for suggesting that women have not excelled as well as men in science and engineering because of inferior intrinsic aptitude, among other reasons. Now, no one denies that women are different physically from men, and it is clear that those physical differences can affect how the sexes behave; it is not disputed that men in general are physically more aggressive than women because of stronger upper body strength and the influx of testosterone. Where Summers got into trouble, however, was declaring as if it were a fact that minute physical differences between the brains is unequivocal evidence that men's excelling in certain areas over women is because of innate differences -- not just a result of societal or cultural influences.

There has never been any conclusive proof of a correlation between the physical differences in men's and women's brains and differences in their intellectual ability even though a vocal segment in society has latched onto differences that have been discovered between men's and women's brains and used them to try and explain away differences in behavior and ability between men and women. These explanations have usually resulted in the most unflattering traits being assigned to women. At one time, for example, it was claimed that women's larger parietal lobes were proof of their inferior intellectual ability -- until it was discovered that women's parietal lobes were actually smaller than thought.

The current fad of junk science reasoning goes something like this: because women have more connective tissue between the brain's left and right hemispheres, women must be more in tune with their senses, and unlike men, unable to use their left or right hemispheres exclusively to focus on excelling in the fields associated with those areas of the brain.

Of course, as this theory has been gaining momentum, a similar theory that would have been used to bolster this is being shushed because it is being discredited. This study found that the corpus callosum, a large tract of neural fibers which connect both brain hemispheres, is enlarged in women. However, it is now becoming apparent that these neural fibers aren't really enlarged in women. Another recent study by H. Haug found that the female cortex has a higher neuronal density than males. Yet another study by T. Rabinowicz found the exact opposite, that men have a higher neuronal density in the cortex. The research goes on and on by those determined to prove that women's brains are the reason they do not perform as well as men in some areas.

Considerable publicity has been given to one particular study of how women and men process verbal language. The researchers found that women tend to process language simultaneously in both hemispheres, whereas men process it on the left side only. However, what is rarely discussed is that when this same test was given to oriental people who use pictographic written languages, both genders used both sides of their brains. Nor is there much discussion of the fact that these studies have not conclusively found that women who have reached adulthood have better verbal skills than men. Furthermore, studies revealing that prisoners' communication skills greatly increase while in prison have been ignored, yet perhaps they offer the best explanation. Maybe girls develop better verbal skills than boys because of a sense of physical inferiority, not anything innate.

The fact that there is debate over Summers' remarks at all is indication that it is not an established fact that women have inferior intrinsic aptitude. We would not be having this discussion if Summers had stated that this topic was under speculation -- instead of referring to it as if it was an established fact.

It is revealing that there is never any discussion of the opposite side of this argument -- why more men than women score the lowest grades on these tests. Where is the correlating theory that men must have inferior brains? Similarly, where is the inquiry as to why more boys than girls have learning disabilities and mental retardation?

There is also a curious lack of discussion over the gains women have made in the hard sciences in recent years. Over the last 30 years or so, women's share of engineering degrees has increased from .6 to 20 percent in engineering, 2.9 to 15.5 percent in physics, 2.3 to 22.8 percent in computer science, 7.6 to 29 percent in math (46 percent of bachelors degrees in math went to women), and 10 percent to over 40 percent in medical degrees. Women represent 24% of employees working in the math and science fields. Doesn't it necessarily correlate that as more women enter these fields, their numbers that excel will also proportionately increase?

Summers dug himself deeper into a hole when he used his daughters' preference for dolls as evidence why women must have inferior innate abilities in math and science than men. Besides the obvious flaw in this reasoning, that an example is not a credible argument, he fails to take into consideration the numerous societal influences his daughters are subjected to -- and not just by him and his stereotypical views. From a very young age, girls see other girls dressed in pink with fancy pigtails carrying around dolls, and are bombarded with stereotypes on cartoons and commercials. As these girls grow up, and are told that women are not as good in math and science as men, and observe mostly men in these fields, they are going to feel much more intimidated to enter those fields.

The feminists claim that discrimination is part of the explanation for gender differences in ability. The answer is probably not so nefarious, but rather lies in society's subtle different treatment of men and women. While it may seem chivalrous to help little girls figure things out, think twice before you help them with that seemingly small problem. Your instinctive reaction to help them figure out how to find directions on map, instead of letting them train their own mind by figuring it out themselves, may make things more difficult for them in the long run.

Rachel Alexander is the editor of IntellectualConservative.com and a former Assistant Attorney General for the State of Arizona.

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  • When academic snobs attack by Frank Salvato (February 28, 2005)
    Frank Salvato hasn't an ounce of sympathy for either Harvard University president Lawrence Summers or University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill
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