Biology as Destiny

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(HOST) Commentator Madeleine Kunin has been following a recent uproar at Harvard about why comparatively few women achieve success in math and the sciences.

(KUNIN) College Presidents don’t often issue public apologies. Larry Summers, President of Harvard, recently stated in an off-the-record conference that the reason there are so few women in top positions in science and math is because they may be biologically different from men.

Yes, of course there are biological differences between men and women, but the question is, do they extend to the brain, to the intellect, to curiosity and to ambition?

One woman walked out of the conference, calling his remarks “an intellectual tsunami.” Others lodged a letter of complaint, and a few defended him. The largest outcry came from Harvard women who have been trying to recruit women professors for positions in science. Why would a woman scientist choose to come to Harvard, they said, if the President thinks women are less capable than men?

Why is this debate over women’s innate abilities vs. men’s the third rail of gender politics? No doubt there is a problem, which should be discussed. There are fewer women PhD’s in science, math and technology. There are also fewer girls than boys who succeed at math, science and technology. The question is legitimate. It is the answer that presses all the hot buttons.

Ever since Eve was assumed to have been carved from Adam’s rib, women have been striving to prove they are equal to any task, regardless of their physical qualities. The assumption that this debate makes is that biology is destiny. Women have long been called “the weaker sex.” Abigail Adams, is still quoted today for her admonition to John to “remember the ladies” when writing the Constitution. But even she described women as “Domestick beings,” acknowledging the “natural tenderness and delicacy of our Constitutions.” It is this quaint view of women we thought we had left behind two centuries ago.

That’s why Summers conjecture that women are largely missing on the honor roll of scientists – because they get married and have children and don’t want to work 80 hours a week – raised such a hullabaloo. What’s wrong with this argument? Instead of blaming the woman, blame the system that puts unrealistic strains on all members of the family, mothers and fathers alike. Instead of assuming that no women want to work 80 hours a week to enter a male dominated domain, give each woman a choice. Condeleeza Rice made that choice in becoming our next Secretary of State, a demanding position which two women will have held.

What is stunning about Summers’ apology is that the debate about the role of women and men is as hot today as it was several hundred years ago. What is different today is that women express outrage, and men have to bite their tongues.

I’m Madeleine May Kunin.

Madeleine May Kunin is a former governor of Vermont.

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