Opinion: Women in science or “Why those at the top should mind what they say”

Last year, Harvard’s president controversially suggested that women are lacking in high-end science jobs due to an innate lack of ability. In the first opinion piece on Not Exactly Rocket Science, I consider new research on the negative consequences of genetic stereotyping, and why ‘scientific’ opinion in the 21st century must be made with a sense of social responsibility.

On 14 January 2005, Dr Lawrence Summers (right), president of Harvard University spoke of the reasons behind the disproportionate lack of women in top-end science and engineering jobs. Avoiding suggestions of discrimination, he offered two explanations – unwillingness to commit to the 80-hour weeks needed for top level positions and, more controversially, a lower “intrinsic aptitude” for the fields. According to Summers, research showed that genetic differences between the sexes led to a ‘”different availability of aptitude at the high end”.

Lawrence Summers, ex-president of Harvard and courter of controversy. For years, scientists have battled over the evidence for sex differences in scientific ability, using genetics, psychology and social sciences as their weapons. But often, they forget that this debate does not rage on in isolation – it is heard and processed by scores of young female scientists, trying to make their mark in the field. Now, a new study shows us just how pernicious the debate’s effects can be on this group of listeners.

Stereotypes famously reinforce themselves because people respond to them by acting our the stereotype. Black Americans perform worse in intelligence tests if their race is drawn to their attention. And in the UK, the media portrayal of our teenagers as boorish hooded thugs risks driving them further down that route.

But Ilar Dar-Nimrod and Steven Heine at the University of British Columbia reasoned that stereotypes are even more catastrophically self-fulfilling if genetics are thrown into the mix. To a large proportion of the public, genes are still inescapable agents of pre-determination, setting your life and actions down a course you have little say over.

They tested this idea by giving a group of women a comprehension test followed by a maths test. In all cases, the comprehension passage suggested a sex difference in mathematical ability and provided varying explanations.

If the groups were told that this difference was down to varying experience, or that it was actually non-existent, they performed similarly well in the maths test. But their performance fell dramatically if they were offered genetic explanations for the gender gap, or given a non-specific gender stereotype that was not particularly focused on maths.

These results are compelling. They suggest that women are unfazed by experiential accounts of the gender difference, and perform to almost their full ability. Genetic accounts are more damaging, and without specific explanations, the women seemed to assume these types of explanations by default.

Clearly, those who launch into the gender-difference debate must be very careful about their words. Invoking the spectre of genetic predetermination like Summers did can have very real and very potent consequences.

For high-ranking scientific figures, there is a deeper message that goes beyond the equality of the sexes. There is a belief among some scientific circles that debate is always justified – that consensus is a stagnancy of the mind that should be occasionally stirred up by brandished opinion. Dr Freeman himself began his controversial address by saying that he wanted to make “attempts at provocation”. Surely, this was not what he had in mind.

Scientific results, and opinions based on these, turn into live grenades when thrown into debates with little regard for social ramifications. As Dar-Nimrod and Heine’s study shows, the effect can be just as devastating.

We are living in a time of controversial emerging technologies like stem cell research and nanotechnology and global crises like climate change. Public engagement is becoming every more important and it is crucial for those who deal in science to maintain a sense of the social fabric that their work and words exist in.

Scientists, journal editors and journalists alike need to choose their words carefully. The price of misrepresented data and callous comments is an increasing lack of trust from the public at a time when we need it more than ever. Those concerned must understand the consequences of their words and to take responsibility for them. ‘Being provocative’ just isn’t going to cut it.

Dr Summers described his views as an “unfortunate truth” and he was right – just over a year later, he tendered his resignation following a vote of no-confidence.

Read the full transcript of Dr Lawrence Summer’s speech.
Dar-Nimrod & Heine. 2006. Science 314: 435.

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