Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Just How Different Are Men and Women?

Written by johnleemk on 9:46:07 pm May 6, 2007.

Not too long ago, Larry Summers, then the President of Harvard, made some ill-advised remarks about women. Specifically, he wondered if it were possible that the reason women are underrepresented in mathematics and the sciences is because a woman's genetic make-up may cause her brain to be wired in a way predisposing her against such fields.

Summers was subjected to a barrage of criticism for these comments, and eventually was forced to leave his position. Feminists took umbrage at his remarks, which they saw as justifying and defending a field of academia which already discriminates against women.

Now, it is possible that Summers is a chauvinist; I don't know. But I think to summarily dismiss any plausible reasons for the underrepresentation of women in the sciences, simply because these reasons are not politically correct, is an injustice to the very nature of science and the scientific method.

Of course, you might say that Summers' hypothesis was not plausible. But is it? After all, men and women are clearly very different. If a woman is more suited to mother a child, is it not possible that her brain's wiring may have subtle differences which make it harder for her to tackle certain academic subjects?

This is merely a hypothesis — whether it is right or wrong, I don't know. But why should this hypothesis be rejected out of hand? Why is it an invalid avenue of scientific inquiry?

I don't know if Summers suggested that the underrepresentation of women is solely attributable to this, assuming it turns out to be true. But that is hardly the case — I think there is still some discrimination in how academia operates, and in the gender roles we have nurtured in us from young. But still, this is not a reason to ignore other possible explanations for the gender gap.

It may be that women fear the possible consequences if it turns out women are genetically predisposed against the sciences, just as many fear the possible consequences of genetic discrimination.

But genes are not destiny. If the hypothesis Summers put forth is true, all it means is that the mean ability of women in the sciences is actually a bit lower than we thought — it does not mean that all women will lack scientific aptitude; merely that in two equally sized populations of men and women, there will be more women not suited for science than men.

In statistical terms, like almost any other human trait, our scientific aptitude follows a normal distribution. If it turns out that having two X chromosomes alters your mental make-up, making it less suited for scientific exploits, all it means is that the mean of this normal distribution for women is lower than the mean for men.

It does not mean that all (or even most) women are doomed to failure in the sciences. And it certainly does not mean that women should be discriminated against when it comes to particular academic areas.

After all, just because one particular group of people has a slightly lower probability of attaining something does not mean we should keep them from trying. The typical male has a lower life expectancy than the typical female, so should we discriminate against men when we are trying to save lives?

The hypothesis that genetics may contribute to the underrepresentation of women in the sciences and mathematics should not be overlooked. We should not ignore it, and neither should we let it be wielded as a weapon by extremists who seek to justify the status quo of gender discrimination. What we should do is approach this in a scientific manner with an open and objective mindset — as we would with any other hypothesis.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.

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