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Changing Assumptions

Londa Schiebinger

WHY AREN'T MORE WOMEN IN SCIENCE? Top Researchers Debate the Evidence. Edited by Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams. xx + 254 pp. American Psychological Association, 2007. $59.95.

MOTHERHOOD, THE ELEPHANT IN THE LABORATORY: Women Scientists Speak Out. Edited by Emily Monosson. xii + 219 pp. Cornell University Press, 2008. $25.

What is the most reliable and current knowledge about men's participation in domestic labor and child care? Should more men be doing that sort of work? Is it because they have less aptitude than women for managing the home and family that they take less responsibility in the domestic sphere, or are men simply less interested in such activities? Might innate differences in ability explain the unsettling statistics, or is culture to blame? Put another way, is society holding boys and men back? Or are they perhaps ill equipped intellectually?

It is significant that the two books under review here—Why Aren't More Women in Science? and Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory—do not ask these questions, just as national granting agencies do not fund research into male ability to perceive body temperature within a half degree by touch alone, nor do universities hire faculty who meta-analyze male cognitive abilities in caregiving. Yet we as a society do support endless studies of sex differences in spatial perception—the ability to determine whether a two-dimensional piece of paper can be folded into a three-dimensional shape, and the like. The crucial question is, Why?

In Why Aren't More Women in Science?, Cornell University psychologists Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams propose to bring together "the most reliable and current knowledge about women's participation in science," which they interpret narrowly as consisting principally of the literature on cognitive sex differences. In so doing, they miss much that is exciting and new in the field of gender and science. Research into the question of women's underrepresentation in science has at least three dimensions: the participation of women in science, gender in the cultures of science and gender in the results of science. This volume does not begin to open up this "results" dimension, best described as "gendered innovations" in science.

The consideration of gendered innovations turns away from the narrow focus on women's cognitive abilities (the science reported so prominently in the Ceci and Williams book) and instead asks new questions—for example, How has human knowledge, including knowledge of the natural world, been shaped by the exclusion of women from science and by the gender system that supports that exclusion? Several government granting agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health and the European Commission, now require that requests for funding address whether, and in what sense, sex and gender are relevant to the objectives and methodologies of a particular research proposal. This is where the action is today. We as a society will not solve the problem of how to increase the numbers of women in science until we understand the roots of their systemic exclusion. This is where we should be investing our scarce resources and the power of scientific inquiry.

Readers who, like me, have grown tired of the "Larry Summers industry"—the many analyses of former Harvard University president Lawrence H. Summers's 2005 comments on women's scientific abilities—should be forewarned that Ceci and Williams dig once again into Summers's explanations for the low numbers of women in science. In his remarks, Summers noted that the "unfortunate truth" about why so few women are aeronautical engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or chemists at the University of California, Berkeley, is that not nearly as many women as men are performing at the highest level in math and science. He added that women also shy away from "high-powered" jobs requiring an 80-hour workweek.

Several chapters in this volume focus on the issue of math performance, and how scores for both men and women follow a bell curve, with men more highly represented in the high-end tail—the top 1 percent. It is important to remember that data used in these analyses come primarily from the Scholastic Aptitude Test taken by high school students or from the Graduate Record Examination. The authors of these chapters tend to privilege the notion that brilliance in math or science careers is rooted primarily in cognitive abilities—and not in educational preparation, the availability of research funding, personal persistence, insight, creativity or serendipity.

Later in this volume, we learn that, in fact, particular groups of females outscore males in all areas of math. Japanese and Taiwanese girls perform better in math than North American boys; and Singaporean girls beat out everyone else—by a full standard deviation. In light of these findings it is indeed remarkable that the Harvard math department has had on staff not one woman full professor since its founding in 1638. If for a moment we accept Summers's argument that hiring at world-class institutions follows cognitive ability, we might expect Harvard's math department to include at least one Singaporean, Japanese or Taiwanese woman among its tenured faculty.

Despite its focus on cognitive factors, the book by Ceci and Williams does contain a number of thoughtful chapters that analyze broad social and cultural forces keeping women from rising to the top in science and math (working at the second level of analysis mentioned above). Virginia Valian nicely summarizes work on how to evaluate what constitutes talent in science and how our mental codifications of gender skew our perceptions and evaluations of men and women. Carol Dweck documents that people who believe that mathematical talent is innate, fixed and unchanging perform worse on tests and in school than those who see it as malleable and susceptible to improvement with hard work and learning. Janet Hyde discusses how schools, parents and other sociocultural forces shape math and science abilities and career choices. Diane Halpern illustrates how biological and psychosocial influences affect each other.

Halpern's "take-home message"—that "what is needed is a society in which sex roles are more equalized so that men share in child care and other caregiving"—provides a nice segue to the second volume under review here: Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory, edited by environmental toxicologist and mother of two Emily Monosson. In these heartrending essays, women who are well-trained and well-situated in science detail the compromises they have made in order to raise children and be scientists.

That most of us have heard such stories many times does not make them any less moving. Individual observations are also backed up by data—the scientific evidence demanded by Ceci and Williams. For example, in her essay "Reflections of a Female Scientist with Outside Interests," Christine Seroogy cites research conducted by Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden at the University of California, Berkeley, as documentation for her claim that "women who have children soon after receiving their graduate degrees are much less likely to achieve tenure than their male counterparts." Further, numerous studies have now revealed the micro-inequalities (cumulative disadvantages) that squeeze active parents (mostly mothers) out of the laboratory.

Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory makes evident the institutional structures that block parents' careers, but, more important, it reveals the myriad ways in which male partners of mothers don't shoulder their fair share of the physical and psychological labor associated with child care. What's going on with these men? Some of them probably think that because they are more established in their careers or make more money than their partners, they are justified in leaving domestic drudgery to the women who were once their intellectual companions.

But, as this book also shows, a number of women are complicit in allowing men to shirk their responsibility. As one woman put it, after the birth of her son, both she and her partner "slipped into the pattern of treating his workday as more important than mine." Another woman reports that her husband's job is more stable than hers, and "as a result, we protect his job usually at the expense of mine." These are women who will find it hard to dig out and get back on track as children grow and eventually leave home. Playing second fiddle to one's partner becomes self-reinforcing—his job is more important because it is allowed to be.

The women who succeed—and there are many in this volume—are those whose partners take an equal share of the responsibility for raising a family and making the household function. One couple approaches their family the same way that they do their scientific careers: as a team. Raising children in a two-career family is not easy, and it requires that men become team players, getting to know their children well—what they are doing and what concerns they have. And it requires that men become experts in childhood disease, physical injury, laundering fine fabric and cooking nutritious meals. One assumes they have the cognitive ability to do so.

Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory would be nicely supplemented by a companion volume written by fathers. Fathers who are involved parents and companions encounter many of the same problems that mothers do (although these days one often encounters a daddy "bonus" and mommy "penalty"—colleagues are impressed by men bouncing babies on their knees but worried by women who do the same).

All in all, both of these books are highly readable. But what we need to understand is where these problems come from. Why are we a culture that presumes that women are cognitively frail when it comes to science but empathetically robust with respect to child rearing? We can trace women's structural exclusions from science back to the 18th century, when Western societies produced cultural ideals and economic imperatives such that the power and privilege of the scientific domain fell to men, whereas the home spun its sphere of intimacy around idealized and nurturing females. These divisions in power, cultural endowments and cognitive abilities pervade modern institutions and assumptions. But they are historically wrought and can be changed. We'd best get to it.

Londa Schiebinger is the John L. Hinds Professor of History of Science and the Director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. Her writings include The Mind Has No Sex? Women in the Origins of Modern Science (Harvard University Press, 1989), Has Feminism Changed Science? (Harvard University Press, 1999), Gendered Innovations in Science and Engineering (Stanford University Press, 2008), and Dual-Career Academic Couples: What Universities Need to Know (forthcoming from the Clayman Institute for Gender Research in August 2008).

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