Sunday, February 27, 2005

Larry Summers and Political Correctness

It's old news, but the story is not yet dead. Larry Summers, who is president of Harvard, had the misfortune to suggest that women might be innately different due to genetic rather than cultural influences. The critics lashed out first. It is always fun to watch the entrenched philosophy resist new thought. Then the defenders stepped in and suggested a couple of things: first, that while his suggestion is misguided, he should be able to make it in the spirit of free speech and discourse or alternatively, he was actually being engaged in the true spirit of enquiry and thought it about time to find out why, after all the progress in the women's movement, why women were still underrepresented in the upper levels of science and engineering.

It sounds like a valid question to me. Why indeed. One of the things I haven't seen discussed are some of the logical fallacies being perpetrated in this controversy: groups such as women are not homogenous. A group is a generalization that breaks down when talking about its discrete components. A group consists of individuals sharing a particular trait, which in this case is a pair of X chromosomes. In all other traits they will distribute themselves over a statistical bell curve. For any given trait, the curve for that group will peak in a different spot. When the peak differs substantially based on gender, we articulate that by saying it is a "men thing" or a "women thing". On both sides of the gender divide, there are members of each group that will fall within one standard deviation of the other for a specific trait and could be considered in a very loose fashion as "equal". For those people, the generalization does not hold. Statistically, the differences are there. To deny that would be to stifle truth. So if we are in the truth business, we'll want to know why the difference is still there, what it means and how should it be dealt with.

Someone, somewhere, made a hypothesis that women are equal to men in capability with regard to science and engineering. The hypothesis then goes on to theorize that the differences are due to culture. Following the scientific method an experiment is proposed to change that culture in some way which increases participation by women and watch the differences vanish. When the results come in a few decades later, while the numbers of women in the fields of science and engineering has gone up, it is nowhere near equal. Is this difference due to insufficient cultural change? Is it due to one or more other variables? Why is finding out important?

Just because one can posit that women are equal to men, does not make it so. If not, what if any other variables are at play here? If the original hypothesis of equality is wrong, what damage may occur from forcing women to conform? We could be pushing people into careers where they can't succeed if we insist on making everything equal. I can't imagine anyone wanting people to fail. Isn't it funny (or sad) that so many people are trying to solve other people's problems when they can't even solve their own? Somewhere along the line we need to let people choose what they want to do rather than impose our view of the world on them. They will succeed or fail on their own merits and they will learn who they are without the harassment from people who can't read minds and who cannot see the whole picture.

The object of the law in all of this is that all people are equal before it regardless of gender, race, religion or political affiliation. The law shouldn't pick winners, or tell people what their interests should be or where they should be employed. The individuals should rise or fall on their own merits. In the world of business, the person that leads a company should be the one that can provide the most value to that company. In science and engineering, this shows up based on the contribution the individual makes and not on their gender.

In business, capitalists being what they are, try to pick those who will likely achieve success and create value. They act in their self interest. They don't care about superficial things like gender. It is true that some do, but I don't think it is the norm.

All of the above commentary deals with making it to the top science, engineering or business through the conventional path of working one's way up the career ladder. Accepting ladder climbing as the only way is self limiting. There are other paths. If you are good, create your own business and provide value to the public. When you create your own business, you automatically start at the top and there is no one to install a glass ceiling over your head. As an aside, the glass ceiling doesn't just apply to women. It applies to guys too. And the reasons members of both genders cannot rise any higher may not have anything to do with gender. The only difference is that women have been defined into a victim class and those that play the victim role can and do point to discrimination as their first resort. Guys don't get that advantage and have to make do with what they have. If moving up isn't working, complaining about it won't help. Things will have to change.

The old saw about "do what you've always done will always get you what you've always got" is true. I've seen it said in other posts in the blogosphere that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. If you want different results, you have to do something different. If you think you have what it takes to go higher, let the real world give you the message about your abilities rather than people who may not know better or who have different agendas from yours. Either what you try will work, or it won't. The people with the most fulfilling lives persist until they succeed. Persistence is not gender based. It is available to any who wish to engage in it.

Having said all that, many women have the capability to succeed in science, engineering or business and if they can find fulfillment there, they should by all means go for it. But they should do it on their own power rather than trying to fill the expectations of some counsellor or political group with a different agenda. Schools should quit telling people where they should go, and instead tell them the way the world is and how it works, what the real obstacles are, how people in the real world have solved those problems, and then let them make their own decision. People either know what is best for themselves or can figure it out on their own. Perhaps this is one of the major differences between conservatives and liberals: that conservatives trust that people can handle their own problems and liberals think they need to handle those problems on their constituent's behalf because they think their constituents can't handle it on their own. How condescending is that? Any minority should be insulted by the idea that somebody else should take care of their problems. Invariably, those caretakers get it wrong.

Back to Larry Summers, if his questions about why women are not succeeding in particular areas are answered, they can provide the knowledge necessary to eliminate barriers not affected by gender and how to successfully navigate those that are. Not finding out will not help anyone. Summers should be applauded for raising the level of discourse.

Are we having fun yet?


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