Thursday, January 20, 2005

I've been thinking about the Larry Summers flap. I'm sure everyone who reads my blog has heard about this: basically, the president of Harvard suggested that the reason there are so few women elite scientists is that women are innately bad at science and math. And this made me remember a story about the smartest girl in my high school

She was a couple of years ahead of me, and I was friends with her younger sister. She was fierce, and she seemed to be good at everything. She took AP calculus, physics, Latin, English and US history, got 5s on all of them, and ended up with the second highest GPA in her class, even though my school didn’t weight grades and pretty much everyone else was taking an easier course load. She made the all-city track team twice. She worked construction in the summers, which was just not something women did where I grew up. She used to have funny stories about the guys' attempts to harass her and make her uncomfortable, and she at least seemed completely unfazed by it all. She was unusually good looking, even in a school full of really pretty girls. She was so cool that she could wear all black, listen to Skinny Puppy, and instead of people thinking of her as a freak, she just made them think that wearing all black and listening to Skinny Puppy was cool. There was no way in hell I could ever have pulled that off. She was the most intimidating woman I'd ever met, and she was 17. I was totally scared of her.

So anyway, she went off to the most elite college in the country, and naturally she signed up for the most advanced math and science classes she could find. Her first day of classes her freshman year, she showed up for a super-intensive physics class, and the professor asked her to stick around after class. And then he told her to drop the class because, and I quote, "pretty girls are distracting." She had done as well as it was possible to do in the hardest math and science classes she'd had access to until that date, but when her physics professor looked at her, he didn't see a future scientist. He saw someone who distracted the future scientists.

This story was reported to me by her younger sister, and I don't remember if she dropped the class or got the prof to reconsider. She did eventually major in physics and get a PhD, and last I heard she was a professor at a big-name research institution. So although it would be hard for anyone to deny that this was an instance of bias in the sciences, maybe the Larry Summerses of the world would point out that it didn't dissuade her from pursuing a career in elite science.

But then I thought, what if it had been me? I was not a fierce 18-year-old. I completely lacked intellectual confidence. I didn't expect to get into the college I eventually attended, and I spent my time there believing that my good grades were a fluke. I secretly spent my entire college career pretty convinced that I was about to be exposed as a moron. After I graduated, one of my professors convinced me that I was capable of going to grad school and sort of shamed me into overcoming my insecurities. Looking back on it, I was a pretty obvious candidate for an academic career, but I required encouragement to think of myself that way. And I got that encouragement because I had a professor who saw me as a potential historian, not as someone who would distract potential historians.

I'm not a scientist, and I don't really have the skills necessary to evaluate whether there are gender differences in men's and women's brains. But I do think there are some pretty big differences in how men and women are taught to view their intellectual capacities, in how much they're taught to assert themselves, and in how much encouragement they get from authority figures. And honestly, I think we should concentrate on correcting those imbalances before we start talking about innate inequality.

Your story is scarily similar to mine, except for being in different disciplines. But i guess people who don't get discriminated against for those sort of grounds don't notice, even if it's right in their face, because they don't *have* to notice. But anyway, goes to show that girls need encouragement and not to be told that they're inherently worse than boys purely on the grounds of sex.
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