Women and Science at Yale
By David Gelernter
The following article is reprinted with permission from the June 21,
1999 issue of the Weekly Standard. David Gelernter is a contributing
editor to the Weekly Standard and a professor in the Department of
Computer Sciences at Yale University.
AFFIRMATIVE ACTION seems to be
entering a new phase: As the public turns
against it, universities are growing increasingly
desperate in their support. I teach at Yale,
where the administration has made it clear that
(in particular) it wants more female professors in
technology and the hard sciences. Other universities
have the same goal; they
have longed for women scientists
for years, but their longing
seems to have entered a
new phase of grim determination.
Yale College happens to
be heavily armored in footthick
and we have survived a long
series of ideological barrages
in better shape than we are
usually given credit for. But
whatever the outcome at this
university, the Yale administration
is doing the academic
world no favor by joining the
crowd that has gathered to poke and prod this
particular hornets' nest. The approaching hornet
swarm is bad news for universities and society
Whether or not you approve of affirmative
action, it's clear that certain of its goals can be
achieved and others can't. If you are determined,
say, to increase the proportion of Hispanics in
your undergraduate population, you can probably
do it; Hispanic applicants are available. If
your goal is a large increase in female science
and engineering professors, you can't do it,
because the candidates are not available.
Wounded ideologues (whose programs have been
tried and failed) are the most dangerous kind.
We ought to prepare and plan ahead.
To do that, we need to understand why this
issue has come up in the first place. It's true that
women are scarce in hard sciences and engineering.
Why? If anti-woman bigotry were the explanation,
we could increase our female-professor
count by cutting down on the bigotry. But everyone
knows that anti-woman bigotry is not the
explanation. The very notion is an Orwellian
freedom-is-slavery inversion; pro-woman bias has
been the rule in academia for a generation. (Of
course, affirmative action proponents could
define opposition to affirmative action as evidence
of anti-woman bias in itself — but in
doing so, they would merely be declaring themselves
right by definition).
The real explanation is obvious: Women are
less drawn to science and engineering than men
are. (They're also less prone to the intense, cutthroat
aggressiveness that usually marks the successful
research scientist or engineer.) If you visit
the comfortable, typical Connecticut suburb
where I live, you can see the
big picture in microcosm.
The public schools run a
summer program for children.
Our older boy has
spent a couple of weeks during
each of the past several
summers in a Lego-and-computers
course. At the end of
each session, students show
off their accomplishments;
I’ve never encountered one
girl at any of these performances.
Scientists and engineers
are mainly grown-up
versions of Lego-and-computers
children. If you
believe the Bigotry Theory, you must also believe
that bigotry explains the scarcity of girls in our
local Lego-and-computers group. If you believe
that — that our tiny, Democratic suburb is biased
against little girls — then you’ll believe anything.
In recent years, affirmative action pushers
have been less inclined to accuse people of bigotry
– perhaps because they know the accusation
is insulting and false. Nowadays affirmative
action is mainly justified by the need for “diversity”;
we can't be a society where nearly all the
engineering and hard science professors are male,
because — we just can't. It's true that all professional
football players are male, but that's different.
Football is important; we can't force weak
players on the NFL merely for ideological reasons.
The public wouldn't stand for it. But in
low-profile, unimportant areas such as physics,
the public doesn't care much about the players,
and ideologues have a free hand.
Honorable people have put forward the“diversity” argument, but consider what this
argument implies. If women aren't being kept out
of science by force, they must be choosing not to enter, presumably because they don't want to;
presumably because (by and large) they don't like
these fields or (on average) don't tend to excel in
them, which is nearly the same thing. Yet diversity
promoters have decreed that, nonetheless,
more women shall enter engineering and science.
Their attitude is either patronizing or bullying.
Affirmative action pushers have obviously
decided that some fields (namely, the ones males
disproportionately prefer) are
just better than others (namely,
the ones women choose).
Otherwise, why monkey with
female predilections? The
result is a diversity crusade
that insults women scientists
and non-scientists. It degrades
scientists by suggesting that
they can't make it without a
little help from Big Brother;
and degrades non-scientists by
suggesting that they'd be in a
different field altogether if
they only had the guts. Of
course, modern culture
amounts to one long harangue
against female tastes; it's hardly
surprising that the same message should
underlie the latest trends in affirmative action.
To what purpose are universities willing to
inflict this damage? So what if we don't have a
lot of female engineering and science professors?
Some people claim that if we don't have more
women science professors, we have no hope of
luring more girls into science. A circular argument:
We've got to get more women into science,
because otherwise we won't be able to get
more women into science. And consider the
implications of the underlying claim, that girls
must have some sort of specially close relationship
to female scientists. If that's so, then boys
must be specially close to male scientists.
History's greatest engineers, scientists, and mathematicians
have nearly all been male. Are we
quite sure we want to make this crazy claim? In
any case, I can picture my own reaction if someone
had told me that, say, I could only learn
physics properly from a Jew. That I could only
be well and truly inspired by a Jewish professor.
That Christian students had an automatic “special
relationship” to all the Christian professors.
I would have told such a person to drop dead.
Yes, I am closer to Jews than Christians in certain
ways — and to parrot-lovers than catfanciers
in certain other ways. But none of these
facts needed to be or ought to have been reflected
in the demographics of the Yale faculty.
We opponents of affirmative action don't
claim that we are defending a system of pure
merit against a barbarian onslaught. Everyone
who holds a good academic position owes it in
some degree to luck. There is no such thing as a
university powered by pure intellectual merit.
Even if there were, we wouldn't like it, because
other kinds of merit (for example spiritual)
count too. We aren't defending a perfect system
against an idea that would destroy it. We are
defending a fairly good system (and America's
hard science and technology
is fairly good) against an
idea that is bound to fail
and, along the way, to insult
the people it’s supposed
And after it does fail?
After it becomes clear that
no large increase in numbers
of female engineers and
hard scientists is going to
materialize? The next step is
frighteningly clear. The
administrators who are hot
for affirmative action today
will be hot for restricted
admissions tomorrow. Next
step: male quotas on course
enrollments and majors. Sound impossible? Can't
believe that any college would dare tell your
son, “forget that computer science course; male
enrollment is maxed out. Can we show you
something in Film Studies?”
It's a nightmare, but we'd be foolish not to
take it seriously. This is exactly what colleges
across the country are doing today to their aspiring
male athletes. The affirmative action pushers
wanted more college women to play sports.
Women didn't feel like it. You can't force women
to play if they don't want to. So if a spurious"equality" is your goal, your only choice in the
long run is to jettison men's sports, as universities
across the country now routinely do. If universities
are willing to jettison aspiring male athletes
in the name of equality, why not aspiring
male physicists? Because physics is more important
than sports? Many people, academics and
otherwise, don't believe that. In any case, the
ditching of men's athletics proves that ideologues
can undertake a policy that any normal person
would regard as malicious and stupid and get
away with it. The public has been conditioned to
take anything the bureaucrats dish out and like
it. The future is grim unless we start worrying
about it right now.
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