Raise Your Hand If You're a
Woman in Science…
By Virginia Valian
Virgina Valian is a professor of psychology at Hunter College. She is author of “Why So
Slow? The Advancement of Women” and is involved in several projects in gender equity. She
is also researching two-year-olds' knowledge and use of language, the role of input in syntax
acquisition, gender differences in mathematics problem-solving, theoretical models of
language development, and the relation between competence and performance in language.
This article was published in the Washington Post, January 30, 2005. Reprinted with permission.
For the past two weeks, my e-mail in-box has
overflowed with messages from women—
and some men—about the hypotheses recently
offered by Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers
to explain the dearth of women in the academic
sciences. One woman wrote, “It is not surprising that
people are angry when they see such full-blown
contemptuous arrogance.” Others were shocked at
his apparent insensitivity: Had he no concern for the
female students and faculty in math and science at
Harvard or other academic institutions?
That’s an important question. Although we can’t
do anything about Summers’s method of calling for
more research into whether women and men have
innate differences when it comes to mathematics and
science (he told an economics conference on Jan. 14
that he was trying to be provocative), we can address
the resulting controversy. There is a wealth of data
about men and women in science, about cognitive
sex differences, about the effects of expectations on
people’s behavior, and about unintended misjudgments
of women and men.
Summers is not alone in his lack of awareness of
the compelling evidence of the power of small
differences in how we treat boys and girls, men and
women. Yet those differences, I would argue, provide
a better hypothesis than innate sex differences to
explain the gap between the numbers of men and
women in academic jobs in the sciences. Nor is
Summers alone in being unaware of the large set of
experiments showing that well-intentioned people,
intelligent people, people who believe in a meritocracy—
people, in short, just like many successful college
presidents—consistently underrate women’s abilities
and overrate men’s.
The finding that emerges
from the research, in experiment
after experiment, is
that bias is a problem not
because it is deliberate, but
because it is the outcome of
assumptions of which we are
not consciously aware. Take,
for example, a study published
last year by New York University professor Madeline
Heilman and her colleagues. The researchers asked
people to rate individual men and women who were
described as holding the position of assistant vice
president in an aircraft company.
The evaluators’ job was to rate how competent
and likable the employees were. They were given
background information about the person, the job
and the company. In half the cases, the employee was
described as about to have a performance review (his
or her competence was thus unknown); in the other
half, the person was described as having been a
When the evaluators had received no information
about how well the assistant VP was doing in the job,
they rated the man as more competent than the
woman, and rated them as equally likable. When the
background information made clear that the person
was extremely competent, evaluators rated the man
and woman as equally competent. But both men and
women rated the highly competent woman as much
less likable than her male counterpart, and considerably
Thus, in evaluating a woman in a male-dominated
field, both male and female observers see her as less
competent than a similarly described man unless
there is clear information that she is a top performer.
And in that case, they see her as less likable than a
The result of the experiment by Heilman and
colleagues is typical of other research: Both men and women give men the benefit of the competence
doubt. Why do we do this? Because we’re like
Summers: We have conceptions—what psychologists
call “gender schemas”—of what it means to be male
or female. We tend to see males as capable of
independent action, as doing things for a reason and
as getting down to the business at hand. We tend to
see females as nurturing, communal and expressive.
So which person, man or woman, seems a better fit
for the job of assistant VP in an aircraft company?
One guess. You can expect similar results in other maledominated
fields—such as the sciences.
Although an abundance of research of this sort
exists, it has not become part of our common
understanding and thus has not yet redressed the
imbalances between men and women in professional
life. With that in mind, it’s useful to look at the three
challenges that Summers presented in his speech to
men and women who think elite institutions need to
move faster to increase the number of women on
their faculties. His comments, as reported by those
who heard them, highlight some of the most common
and enduring misconceptions.
Summers claimed, echoing the neoclassical
economics view, that discrimination is too costly to
institutions to last. Over the long haul—perhaps a
very long haul—discrimination will wither away, this
line of thinking goes. Here’s the rub: Harvard has a
$20 billion endowment. Thus Harvard—and other
rich schools—can afford to neglect a lot of female
and minority talent and have shown a willingness to
do so. The problems women experience in getting
promotion and tenure are exacerbated at high-prestige
institutions, as is shown by “From Scarcity to
Visibility,” a book that examines gender differences
in the sciences. The deep pockets of elite schools
allow them to buy the services of a lot of very
talented white men. They may be paying too much
for those men, but they can afford it.
Meanwhile, people at institutions with heavy
teaching responsibilities, few resources and insufficient
staff have neither the time nor the money to perform
the scholarly research they were trained for and that
might win them jobs at more prestigious institutions.
Women are overrepresented at such underfunded
institutions, where they cannot reach their full
potential. So when Summers looks around, he will
mistakenly think that he isn’t missing anything:
Where, he will say, are all those super-productive
women that I’m supposedly not hiring? And he’s
right, in a way. Those potential stars are performing
beneath their abilities—just like their white male
counterparts who aren’t at elite schools. What society
is losing out on isn’t immediately apparent.
Another point often raised is that women don’t
put in the hours, and Summers followed that line,
too, when he suggested that women don’t want to
work 80-hour weeks. The implication was that
women wouldn’t wind up at, or stay at, a place like
Harvard. The first assumption is that 80-hour work weeks
are a necessary condition for intellectual
creativity and excellence, for either men or women.
That assumption has very little data going for it. The
second assumption is that women who do put in
80-hour weeks receive the same rewards as men.
That assumption has a lot of data going against it, as
we have seen.
By far the most provocative discussion inspired
by Summers’s comments is whether women may be
innately inferior to men in math. Women do score
lower, on average, than men on the standardized
math tests that are part of the SAT and GRE
(Graduate Record Examination). We already know,
from research by sociologists Yu Xie of the University
of Michigan and Kimberlee Shauman of the
University of California (who were examining the
reasons that women do—and don’t—leave science),
that the differences on math tests do not account for
the gender gap in who chooses to major in science.
The gender gap persists even when you take test scores
into account. So in a sense the question is moot.
We also know that the differences within each
sex are far larger than the average difference between
the sexes. And we know that sex differences in math
are smaller than cross-national differences. One
study, comparing the United States, Taiwan and
Japan, found that Japanese girls in grammar school
scored almost twice as high on certain tests as American
boys and almost always scored distinctly higher.
Maybe Asians are innately better at math. If so,
following Summers’s reasoning, Harvard should be
preferentially hiring Asian women over American
men. (We don’t know what’s behind the large crossnational
differences—although education is key—
and, as Americans, we’re a little reluctant to think
In the meantime, we don’t cultivate women who
are strong in math. A study of seventh and eighthgraders
in the top 1 percent of math performers
shows that the girls do not improve their scores over
a four-year period to the same extent that boys do;
nor do girls in that top pool continue in math and
science at the same rate as boys. We cultivate and
nurture mathematically inclined boys. And children—
like adults—have a tendency to fulfill expectations.
We expect boys to excel at math and treat them
accordingly. Shouldn’t we do the same for girls?
There is one cognitive ability that appears to be
linked to sex differences in hormones. It’s called
mental rotation: the ability to look at a picture of a
three-dimensional block figure and imagine it rotated
in space. Males are much better than females at this
task (although, with practice, someone of either sex
can improve), and that result appears to be related to
testosterone level. Girls who have experienced excess
androgen in utero show higher mental rotation scores
than normal girls. That’s the kind of evidence we
need to demonstrate a hormonal connection. We don’t have that evidence for math or other cognitive
differences. Does mental rotation ability matter?
Maybe for a couple of scientific fields, but on
balance, differences in math abilities seem better
accounted for by differences in what we expect of
women and how we treat them.
The National Science Foundation has recognized
that the nation loses out if colleges and universities
squander the talents of women faculty members.
And if women are going to thrive in math and
science, academia has to change. To speed that
change, the NSF has awarded ADVANCE
Institutional Transformation Awards to 19 schools,
of which Hunter College, where I teach, is one. And
there are already results from this ambitious new
program: These schools are hiring more women,
improving their promotion and tenure policies, and
doing more to ensure that women have the resources
to do their best work.
Summers now says he was wrong to have spoken
in a way that has sent an unintended signal of
discouragement to talented women. He also has
pledged $25 million to promote the hiring of women
and minorities at Harvard. That message would have
been a welcome addition to his comments at the Jan.
14 conference. The most important message,
though, is that if we raise expectations of women in
science—and give them the resources they need—
they will make it to the top.
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