Fuzzy math on women


LAST WEEK, THE PRESIDENTS of nine major universities, including Harvard, Yale, and Stanford met at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, along with provosts and professors, to discuss the situation of women in science. Their joint statement, which acknowledges that "barriers still exist" and solemnly pledges to work toward equity, is being hailed as a victory for women. But is this a triumph of gender justice or gender politics?

The new initiative is the offspring of the famous 1999 report in which MIT admitted that it had unwittingly practiced discrimination against women. That study, which made headlines nationwide, prompted the Ford Foundation to hand over $1 million for similar investigations at other schools.

The MIT study quickly became Exhibit A for those who believe that women are held down by systemic, pervasive, subtle discrimination. The evidence seemed compelling: Not only did the university admit guilt, but, as numerous commentators stressed, its conclusions were based on objective evidence such as discrepancies in pay and laboratory space—the kind of hard data you'd expect from MIT.

Unfortunately, none of this evidence is open to public scrutiny. The report had no numbers, only general assertions. MIT says that specific information on salaries, lab space, and committee assignments, not just for individuals but for men as a group and women as a group, must be kept confidential. Thus, no independent researcher may verify the results of an investigation that can hardly be called unbiased: The panel that conducted it was made up mostly of senior female professors whose charges of unequal treatment had prompted the inquiry.

"MIT has produced a political manifesto masquerading as science," wrote Judith Kleinfeld, a psychologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, in a critique released by the Independent Women's Forum in December 1999. On Monday, the Women's Forum followed up with another report that demonstrates that the senior women in MIT's biology department, however distinguished in their field, did not quite measure up to their male colleagues in the number of publications, frequency of citation, or outside grants. (Among younger professors, men's and women's achievements were much more similar.) One possible explanation is that the women weren't as productive as the men because of discrimination. But it is also possible that some of the disparities in salary and resources were based on merit, not gender.

Do critics of the MIT report have a political agenda? Yes, the Independent Women's Forum is a right-of-center group that takes a skeptical attitude toward claims of women's oppression and, in my view, overemphasizes the role of biological differences in shaping the choices and interests of men and women. But the champions of the report clearly have an agenda as well and are often unreasonably dogmatic in their assertion that in the absence of bias, men and women would be equally represented at every level in every field. And the Women's Forum, at least, provides publicly available data to support its conclusions.

The new statement from nine universities does little to clear up matters. It makes vague statements about "problems" and promises vague solutions.

After the statement was issued, I contacted about a dozen women scientists at the schools involved in the initiative. In this admittedly unscientific survey, the majority of women said they had never felt mistreated or marginalized because of their gender. A few, including Harvard biologist Joan Brugge, said that if anything, senior women in science often face inordinate demands on their time because of the pressure to include women on various high-level committees.

Some female professors who felt that there were difficulties for women in science conceded that the problems were often "fuzzy" and subjective. "Most academics seem to feel they're getting a raw deal," said California Institute of Technology astronomer Pamela Bjorkman.

Is there anything wrong with trying to make things better for women? For one, some goals of the equity initiative are, at least in the near future, quite unrealistic—for instance, a faculty that reflects the makeup of the student body. Even today, only a quarter of doctorates in the physical sciences go to women.

Some women such as Janice Jenkins, a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan, worry that well-intentioned efforts to help women can be patronizing. The implication is that women need not only preferential hiring but special sensitivity to ensure that they feel "comfortable."

For centuries, women who chose a career in science struggled not only for basic respect but for equal opportunity to pursue their vocation. To suggest that women need special privileges is an insult to their battles.