The wisdom of two men
All my life I've believed that girls were smarter than boys. I'm glad I was listening to my dad, a man who had to drop out of ninth grade to work in a pencil factory--rather than the Ph.D.-packing president of Harvard. Dad would tell me I could even go to Harvard someday, if, that is, I worked hard and got a scholarship. He preached that I should study math and science and prepare for a career that would let me use my noggin, give back to the world, and support my family. Suppose I lost my husband and had to be the sole breadwinner, he would say, reminding me of his widowed mother. Life was great but tough, too.
Times are now tough for Harvard, caught up in a maelstrom over the musings of its accomplished president, Lawrence Summers. It is hard to imagine the wunderkind he must have been, becoming a full professor there at age 28. But from his rambling words on the matter of women in science released last week, his ascent was surely not for his judgment or verbal skills. He hypothesized that women were not making it in the hard sciences mainly because they didn't measure up: They lacked the fire in the belly to work 80-hour weeks because of distractions of hearth and home. What's more, he feared, women were less endowed with the "intrinsic aptitude" to survive in the rigorous quantitative fields of men. His data were based on standardized tests given to young people.
My father, rest his soul, would have happily engaged Summers, crimson robes and all. Women in his world worked their fingers to the bone in 80-hour weeks and watched the hearth, too. My dad's reverence for educational attainment was practical: Brainpower, not brawn, would be the equalizer for women in the 20th century. Sure, let's have a constructive discussion about small differences that show men score a bit higher in spatial reasoning but without forgetting that women excel with words--and in overall school performance. Evolutionary biologists tell us that's a throwback to our cave-dwelling ancestors: Man as hunter-gatherer had to find his way back home, while woman as hearth keeper was multitasking, balancing home and family. That's intriguing stuff (and cute fodder for jokes about women reading maps and men not asking for directions). But does it really tell us why girls don't grow up to be scientists?
Men as norm. Men set the standards of the marketplace, be it the rarefied earth of Harvard or the world of science, government, and industry. Even in my field of medicine, men call the shots. That's one reason women's health research was neglected for years. Men were taken as the normative standard for good or bad health, often leading to wrong answers for the so-called better half--be it cholesterol levels, chest pain, or calcium intake. Similarly, we should be careful about overinterpreting women's slightly lower scores on spatial-reasoning tests. Let's ask whether it's relevant to intellectual performance in or out of the sciences. If so, teach more spatial, just as we drum in verbal, and to the boys as well as girls who could use a spatial-score boost. Some studies suggest, however, that girls' lower scores reflect a spatial thought process with a different pattern that merely takes a few seconds longer in a time-limited exam. If these variations are not material, then vive la difference.
Whether my dad was right that girls are smarter than boys, I dare not say. But what's for sure is that women are still struggling on male turf to prove that they are just as good. As a medical student at Harvard, out of an all-female Vassar, I wondered whether I would be dazzled by male genius. What struck me was that men, who made up most of the student and faculty bodies, were pretty smart but had no special edge. However, men were the anointed normative standard as both doctors and patients, and women had little choice but to buy in. Not unlike what the suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton bemoaned in the 19th century: "To keep a foothold in society, woman must be as near like man as possible, reflect his ideas, opinions, virtues, motives, prejudices, and vices."
But it's the 21st century. We've come far as women and professors, moms and scientists, and need not make that bargain or swallow crimson folly. Again, in Dad's wisdom: If you try to be like him, who will be like you?
This story appears in the March 7, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.