Jul 1 2005

Stand by Your Man

Mostly male pundits defend male-dominated science

[Note: this piece is a sidebar to Opinion Omission]

When Harvard president Laurence Summers suggested that “intrinsic aptitude” might be holding women back in math and the sciences, the opinions sparked at major media outlets demonstrated the predictability of a punditocracy that itself lacks gender balance and diversity.

In the initial stir toward the end of January, not a single piece that could be deemed a feminist response to Summers’ remarks appeared among the seven Summers-related columns published in the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Most of these were strong defenses of Summers, taking one of two themes: Summers’ critics were violating his academic freedom, or he was correct that biological difference likely contributes to the dearth of female professors in science and math.

The Post left its pontificating to its regulars, who all sided with Summers. Post columnist Robert Samuelson (1/26/05) focused on the free-speech angle, arguing that Summers got “slammed by the sledgehammer of political correctness” and describing “sanctioned silences” in academia around suggesting a difference between the genders. (Another writer might have noted that an absence of women in science and math fields is another kind of “sanctioned silence.”) Editorial-page staffer Ruth Marcus (1/22/05) noted discrimination as a factor but stressed that “biology may not be destiny, but its effects also can’t be discounted,” and summed up the flap as being about intolerance in academia for “freewheeling inquiry.”

The Post’s George Will (1/27/05) wielded the epithet used to denigrate and dismiss women for centuries: “hysterical.” It’s derived from the Greek word for “uterus,” which is presumably why Will used a form of the word no fewer than six times to patronize MIT biology professor Nancy Hopkins for telling the Boston Globe (1/17/05) that Summers’ comments made her want to throw up. “Is this the fruit of feminism?” he sarcastically wondered, before broadening his hysteria smear to every person offended by Summers’ musings: “Only hysterics denounce interest in those possible [gender] differences—or, in Hopkins’s case, the mere mention of them—as ‘bias.’”

The New York Times ran two adjoining op-eds addressing the issue (1/23/05)—one by Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve, a book (favorably reviewed by the Times—see Extra! Update, 12/94) that argues that the same sort of intrinsic aptitude differences explain African-American poverty.

Murray’s predictable anti-affirmative-action conclusion, that ignoring sex differences “can lead us to pursue policies that try to make society conform to expectations that conflict with what human beings really are,” was hardly offset by female evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson, who pointed out that sex differences are “ferociously complex” but ultimately shored up the simplistic conclusion that the sexes are indeed different—an obvious point that did nothing to address the substance of the complaints against Summers.

Michael Kinsley’s L.A. Times op-ed page published two pieces, both by men, in the initial round of Summers coverage. Leonard Sax (1/23/05) criticized Summers but reiterated that there are biological differences and advocated sex-segregated schooling. Andy Borowitz, a humor columnist (1/28/05), wrote a soft satirical column on Summers’ plan “to create a home economics department for women since they can’t do the harder kind.”

Round two

In February, after a transcript of Summers’ remarks was released (and after the Estrich/Kinsley fight over the scarcity of female columnists—see page 17), a few more dissenting voices, and women, were heard; perhaps editors realized they had been too dismissive of women’s version of Summers’ speech or their opinions regarding it.

The L.A. Times ran three guest op-eds in February on the Summers flap, two written by women (and opposing Summers), and both the Post and the New York Times finally ran op-eds critical of Summers: The Post chose one by a father and his two adult daughters, all math and science academics (2/21/05); the New York Times picked a piece (2/28/05) written by two men.

The only regular columnists at the three papers to condemn Summers and support his critics were women and a man of color: Margaret Carlson at the L.A. Times (2/22/05), Eugene Robinson at the Post (2/22/05) and, somewhat surprisingly, the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd (2/20/05), known more for her attacks on feminism than her defense of it. In newsmagazines, the two women who wrote about Summers (Bernadine Healy, U.S. News, 3/7/05; Emily Yellin, Time, 2/28/05) were critical of him, while the men who weighed in were either ambivalent (Mortimer Zuckerman, U.S. News, 3/28/05) or came strongly to Summers’ defense (John Leo, U.S. News, 2/14/05).

Dowd argued that social roles, not genetic difference, are the probable cause of gender inequity in academia: “It’s not female aptitude that’s the problem, it’s male attitude. [Summers] confuses the roles society assigns to women with what women might really want. The ‘different socialization’ Dr. Summers talks about may be getting worse, thanks to goofballs like him.”

Healy, a doctor who usually writes on health issues, echoed Dowd: “Men set the standards of the marketplace, be it the rarefied earth of Harvard or the world of science, government and industry.” Yellin criticized the definition of “success” that forces women to choose between career and family. “Are 80-hour workweeks the only model of success? Isn’t there a better way that doesn’t leave women who want children—and men who want to see their children—with all-or-nothing propositions?”

Pundit panels

On Sunday shows, the feminist response to Summers was virtually absent. The Chris Matthews Show (2/20/05) paired two women with two men, but the panel tilted strongly to the right. Columnist Kathleen Parker called the flap “nonsense” and said she was “willing to share speculation” that women are “slower on the draw when it comes to math.” Conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan dominated the discussion, decrying Harvard as a “Stalinist, PC, left-wing university,” while centrist Gloria Borger parroted most of his points. Liberal African-American writer Clarence Page provided the lone critical voice.

On ABC’s This Week (1/23/05), the typical pundit panel format—opinionated male columnists joined by one female reporter—left little room for debate. Conservative George Will described Harvard as devoid of “free intellectual inquiry” and centrist Fareed Zakaria chimed in to lament that Summers now had to give “Soviet-style apologies . . . as though he’s some kind of prisoner in a 1930s Stalinist trial.” Contrast this with ABC correspondent Claire Shipman, when she was finally dragged into the debate: “I’m not sure I can comment. Well, I have to say, I agree with George to some extent. . . . I think perhaps [Summers] could have said the same thing with a little bit more tact.”