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Women and Science

Harvard University President Lawrence Summers continues to feel the heat over controversial remarks he made at a conference last month.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    So, how big is the Pandora's Box the Harvard debate opened? What do we know about women and scientific achievement, biology and learned behavior? For that, we turn to three women who have wrestled with those questions: Virginia Valian, psychology and linguistics professor at Hunter College, at the City University of New York Graduate Center; Sandra Witelson, neuroscience professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada; and Kimberlee Shauman, sociology professor at the University of California, Davis, and co-author of "Women in Science: Career Processes and Outcomes."

    Professor Shauman, so what is true of what we have heard in this debate over the last several weeks?

  • KIMBERLEE SHAUMAN:

    What is true in Larry Summers' comments is that we do see gender disparity in the representation of young people among the highest performers on math achievement tests, standardized math achievement tests. So he was correct in reporting that research.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Let me just insert — and you were there at the time that the original comments were made so, you heard it firsthand?

  • KIMBERLEE SHAUMAN:

    Yes, I was.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And were you shocked by what he said?

  • KIMBERLEE SHAUMAN:

    I was frustrated and disappointed that he seemed to be promoting an explanation that is the explanation of innate differences that has been very thoroughly researched, and largely unsupported by a large and diverse body of research.

    But more recently I think that he should be commended for acknowledging very openly the errors and the flawed assumptions in his original statements and for making steps, taking steps especially at Harvard, which, you know, is a leading and eminent university in this country, taking steps there to address gender inequities in hiring.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Professor Witelson, what would you say — your expertise is biology. What would you say there is that we know that is true about biological underpinnings for why women may not have achieved the same in science careers as men?

  • SANDRA WITELSON:

    Well, let me start with just some very simple statements. For every individual, we are our brains. Everything we think, everything we do, everything we feel is a product of the brain. That's a given and that's accepted. The brain is a sexually differentiated organ.

    In other words, by the time a child is born, the brain is already different in males and females. There are studies which show that these differences, some genetic, some hormonal, lead to some differences in behavior. This has been shown in a series of different kinds of studies. If you put that all together, I think the value of President Summers' remarks is to say that if we're going to try to understand the disparity between the number of women and men in different professions, and this would go for positions way beyond just academia, we have to put all the factors on the table, we have to throw everything into the pot.

    And I think not to consider biological differences which are not a product of environment, but something that we are born with means that we're not putting everything into the pot; and in a way it is irresponsible not to consider the role that biology has.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Professor Valian, what else has to be in that pot, assuming it's — I don't know whether you actually agree with Professor Witelson, and you can say that first, but also is there anything else that needs to be in that pot of assessment trying to get to the bottom of the answer to this question other than simply biology?

  • VIRGINIA VALIAN:

    I certainly agree with Professor Witelson that we are all biological creatures, and that we always have to take biology into account. And indeed it would be irresponsible not to take it into account. But it would be equally irresponsible to overestimate the role that it plays.

    And that's what I think we would be doing if we didn't also take into account the many implicit negative judgments that we make about women compared to men, even when men and women have the same credentials. What's gone largely uncommented on in the discussion so far is what we do know about how males and females to the same degree tend to overrate men's achievements and under rate women's achievements. Not because –.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    For example?

  • VIRGINIA VALIAN:

    Okay, I'll give you a nice example because it's a characteristic that we would think of as objective: Namely how tall are people. In one experiment, investigators showed undergraduates photographs of other undergraduates that had been taken around campus, always next to a reference point of some sort like a doorway or a table, and the undergraduate's job was simply to say how tall is each of the persons whom they saw a picture of.

    Unbeknownst to the students who were doing the estimating, for every man of a given height there was a woman of the same height. Yet the students both males and females slightly overestimated how tall the men were and slightly underestimated how tall the women were.

    And that's something that happens with something that we could actually decide with a ruler. But most things having to do with ability are things we can't decide with a ruler, and that's where our gender schemas as social cognition calls them, our implicit views about the differences between males and females come into play. They bias how we react.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Let me ask Professor Shauman about that. If have you to find a way to weigh these different influences, how much would you say has to do with these implicit beliefs which, biases if you want to use that word, that people bring to the table when they try to assess whether they want to hire a woman scientist or a male scientist for the same job, for instance?

  • KIMBERLEE SHAUMAN:

    Well, I think that they come into play quite regularly in the evaluation of applicants for jobs and in the evaluation of the work that employees in particular positions are doing — that these implicit over evaluation of men's work and under evaluation of the work that women do comes into play quite a lot.

    But I'd also like to say that there are even though we do see some of these differences in measurements that we tend to put a lot of stock in, like standardized math achievement score. We find that high achievement on such things, and that is what Larry Summers' comments hinged upon, that high achievement there is not a good indicator of who is interested in going on to major in science and engineering in college, nor is it a good indicator of who actually goes onto attain a bachelors degree in science or engineering.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Let me ask you to follow up on that a little bit, because we just heard Julie Gerberding in Betty Ann Bowser's piece talk about how she was discouraged from the epidemiology career that she sought but she decided to do it anyway.

    Is the question here that people are saying you can't achieve, or that people aren't achieving, or is someone blocking the entrance into the club?

  • KIMBERLEE SHAUMAN:

    Well, I think that there's a lot of evidence that women are achieving. First of all, we see that women are taking, young women and young men are both taking the same number of advanced science and math courses during high school, so there's no differences in course taking patterns. The course grades that women are achieving are significantly higher, small differences but statistically significantly higher than those attained by young boys.

    The differences in the achievement on standardized tests, there are no differences in the means of these two different distributions, but there are differences in the representation in the upper tail. But we also see that women are attaining bachelors degrees in science and engineering fields at very high rates compared to just ten years ago.

    Currently, women earn over 50 percent of all degrees, bachelors degrees in science, and this is according to the National Science Foundation figures for 2001. They earn a majority of those degrees in the biological sciences, and up to 47 percent in other fields.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But then something happens.

  • KIMBERLEE SHAUMAN:

    But then something happens, and our research shows that women are less likely to go on into higher education in science and engineering and they're also less likely to enter the science and engineering labor force.

    One factor that is highly correlated with the gender differences in those transition rates is parenthood; that women who have kids are less likely, significantly less likely to go on and pursue their career in science and engineering.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Professor Witelson, do you think debates like this, do they serve at all to discourage young girls from pursuing a scientific career, especially if they're being discouraged anyway?

  • SANDRA WITELSON:

    No, I don't think this is a discouragement. I think, I think the question, I don't think the fruitful question is to ask what is the most important factor.

    President Summers, for example, you know, in not trying to give a thorough scientific scholarly talk, which was not the purpose of that conference, but he raised three main factors — you know, one was something very practical, that has been mentioned by these other ladies that we're speaking to: That the, that it's very difficult to raise a family and it's the number of hours what he called, you know, the amount of commitment you have to give to a very high profile job.

    And of course this is true whether you're going to try to be a tenured professor with a full laboratory or group of people around you or whether you want to be a CEO of a profit making organization. It requires a lot of commitment, and this is clearly an issue that has a practical effect on men and women.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    May I just ask you, because I want to ask the other women this too, which is: was that your experience?

  • SANDRA WITELSON:

    Well, I mean, here you have — no. I have been a scientist from the time I graduated high school. But, you see, what I think, what I would like to say is that things aren't cut and dry, and that it isn't an either or.

    One could have practical issues that are relevant, one could have subtle discrimination. That doesn't mean that there aren't other variables. In addition, the one factor that I think that has not been put on the table, although it's been hinted at but not directly isolated, is I would suggest that there was a fourth factor that is very important, and that is what gives self satisfaction and self-esteem to an individual when people do science or when people run for political office, or whatever one is doing.

    One is doing this not just for the work and for the betterment of society and for the fun of it or for the salary, but it's also for self-esteem. And I would suggest that there may be differences in what women and men require for self-esteem. And that this could be one of — yes.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    I'm sorry, I'm just trying to get back to Professor Valian before get out of time.

  • SANDRA WITELSON:

    I was just going to say when one is doing studies, as you've heard, what happens is women are going into the studies, into university and into post doc degrees, but what happens is they fall out of the pipeline somewhere along the way. And the question really is what are some of the factors that are leading to the dropout, because it's not so much the input but it's the dropout rate.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Professor Valian, I do want to ask you about your experience, whether you have felt at any point in your career that you might be pushed out of the pipeline, and also what you think the solution should be for this at this stage.

  • VIRGINIA VALIAN:

    Let me concentrate on the second part of that question because I think it's more illuminating than talking about any single individual's experience. What I find very optimistic at the present time is that the National Science Foundation via its advanced institutional transformation awards to 19 schools around the country, of which Hunter College is one, is funding at a substantial rate initiatives that will help change things; initiatives that will allow women to flourish and thrive in academia.

    And as one of the scientists in the earlier segment noted, it's a tremendous waste for us to educate women and not make our institutions ones that they will want to be part of. I would also like to question the assumption, for which there is very little data, that 80-hour weeks are necessary for high achievement; I'd also like to question the assumption that anybody who puts in those 80 hour weeks regardless of what their sex, race, or ethnic category is, will be successful if they have a certain amount of ability. We have a lot of evidence that that's not the case.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    All right. Well, we certainly can't get to the bottom of all those questions, but we're just beginning the debate. Professors, thank you all.

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