The Right Coast

January 17, 2005
When We Said Women Were Different, We Meant Only in Good Ways
By Gail Heriot

Uh, oh! It looks like Harvard University President Larry Summers may be in a bit of trouble. As described by the Boston Globe, Summers suggested at a gathering of scientists and mathematicians that "innate differences between the sexes could help explain why fewer women succeed in science and math careers." At least one scientist walked out on him.

It's curious. At least since Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development, "difference feminists" have held that there really are innate differences between men and women. If that wasn't considered politically incorrect (and indeed it was considered cutting edge feminism instead), it's not obvious to me why Summers's comment should be considered worthy of walking out on. He didn't say that the average woman is dimmer than the average man. He didn't even say that fewer women are in the top fraction of 1% in scientific and mathematical skill. He just said that we cannot assume that just because women are somewhat less well represented in the highest-powered science and math positions in the nation that this is due to discrimination. There may be other explanations. To illustrate he gave the example of his daughter, who apparently treated her t0y trucks as dolls, despite her parents belief that they were striking a blow for gender neutrality by giving trucks to her. The average woman may simply have somewhat different interests.

Gilligan was, if anything, a good deal more radical. She suggested, for example, that the average woman is by nature more cooperative than the average man, who tends to be more competitive. If true, one would have to expect that to have a negative effect on women's willingness to engage in the lifelong intense competition necessary to establish oneself as a player in the world of big science and math. Even if women had exactly the same level of other talents and interests necessary to succeed on that world, one would expect somewhat fewer women than men in these jobs. Are we supposed to believe that there are innate differences between men and women that cause the average woman to differ somewhat in temperament from the average man, but which do not in any career choice work to women's disadvantage? That seems unlikely to me.