Sunday, July 31, 2005

Aptitude Aplenty LONG bloody post

Aptitude Aplenty:
The WAPO, in their rush to be loved, pubished an editorial -- they'd want it to be called an article -- which is embarrasing to the the point they're trying to make. The subject is Dr. Larry Summers' "hit me with a sucker punch" speech musing aloud about the relative dearth of women in the top tiers of math and science.

Let's start at the very beginning. Summers said that three point five to four standard deviations above the mean IQ, women are underrepresented. He said that women are underrepresented, not

So, WAPO publishes an article which demonstrates that there are women to perform at this level and there are girls who may someday perform at this level. This isn't news, Dr. Summers would be the first to agree.
"Aptitude Aplenty For these young women, and their mentors, science is what comes naturally
By Kathy Lally

Sunday, July 31, 2005; Page W08 of the Washington Post Magazine

The article starts describing a couple of young women who are finalists in the Intel Science Search. The girls involved aren't this issue; young women have been part of the Intel (fomerly Westinghouse) for a long time now. Even here, however, the female of the species is rarer than the male.
-- snip--

Though boys always outnumber girls in the Intel finals -- 25 to 15 this year -- Abby and Sherri didn't pay much attention to the disparity. Nor did they mind being in the minority in the program at Blair, where, according to magnet coordinator Eilenne Steinkraus, about 35 percent of the students are girls. They felt confident even in the toughest math and science classes. Eight girls and 20 boys in Abby's physics class? She didn't see that as intimidating. Five girls and 20 boys in Abby's optics class last year? "What does that matter?" Sherri asks.

They've grown up surrounded by women who are good at math and science. Half the teachers in Blair's magnet program are women, including Glenda Torrence, who has a PhD in chemistry and teaches the research class that helps students prepare Intel-worthy projects. Abby's mother went to MIT, Sherri's is an engineer. Female astronomers and neuroscientists running top-flight labs mentored them during their research projects.

Yet the girls were celebrating their Intel achievement less than two weeks after Harvard President Lawrence Summers questioned the "intrinsic aptitude" of women in science. His remarks at a conference in Boston provoked a furious reaction at his own university and across the country, particularly among established female scientists.

Dr. Summers did indeed say, "there are issues of intrinsic aptitude" which cause women to be underrepresented in the sciences and math. If WAPO has 'issues' with that statement, they need to demonstrate that Summers' assertion is wrong.


"I've never felt there's something I can't do because I'm a girl," says Sherri, who co-edits Montgomery Blair's highly regarded student newspaper. "Our generation feels empowered to do things." She's been encouraged to think that way all her life. "My parents have always told me it's what's here that counts," says Sherri, motioning to her brain. And everything in her experience confirms that that's true.
WAPO finds a way to demonstrate the fallacy of wishful thinking:
"Science is a very collaborative field," Kathy Fraeman says, "and the ability to work with others is very useful. When you have several minds working on the same problem, you'll get better results."
Fraeman -- the mother of one of the girls -- is partially right, perhaps even mostly right. However, at the upper reaches, the supergeniuses often do their breakthroughs alone: think Einstein, think Newton.

Fraeman, 49, has discussed Summers and his remarks with Abby. She was an undergraduate at MIT at the same time as Summers, when biology was being taught by Nancy Hopkins, the MIT professor who walked out in anger as the Harvard president explained why women are underrepresented on the science faculties of major universities. Besides wondering if women were innately inferior at math and science, he also cited 80-hour work weeks and the reluctance of many women with children to make that kind of sacrifice.

At least in the popular press, Dr. Hopkins has never done much more than say how upset she is.

Fraeman knows just how daunting it can be for women in science to combine work and family. After she got a master's degree from Harvard in public health and environmental science, Fraeman worked as a computer programmer, then took 10 years off to care for Abby and her older sister, Dora, 20. She enjoyed that time immensely, she says, but couldn't command the salary she felt she deserved when she returned to the workforce in 1994. That rankled her. So eight years ago, she went into business with another woman, performing statistical analyses of medical trials from home.

Now if she (Fraeman) could show that her salary was substiantially less than that of a similarly qualified man who had taken a decade off, she might have a point. She doesn't, so she doesn't.


Many of the female scientists at Carnegie and Walter Reed watched Abby and Sherri work with a mixture of pride in their abilities and hope that the obstacles that had confronted earlier generations were disappearing.

Discrimination isn't overt, but it bubbles up, says Debra Yourick, a researcher in pharmacology and neuroscience at Walter Reed. It's persuasive enough that women don't like to draw attention to themselves as women. "You almost apologize for being pregnant," says Yourick, a mother of three girls ages 4 to 14, who has watched some colleagues return to work three weeks after giving birth. She says she still struggles to balance her work with her children, racing home to get to a soccer practice by 6. "I'm out of my mind," she says.

At Walter Reed, the female scientists all make their own coffee, so they won't be put in the position of having to make it for one of the men. Marti Jett, a research chemist and chief of the department of molecular pathology, goes a step further. "I don't drink it," she says, which allows her to say: "Coffee? Oh, I never drink coffee."
This strikes me as just plain weird. I'd want some indication, demonstrable and repeatable before I'd be willing to grant the premise that a senior male scientist thinks women are only suitable for making coffee.

We now meet a woman scientist who is performing at the super-academic level:

At Carnegie, Abby worked in the same building as Vera Rubin, a revered astronomer in the department of terrestrial magnetism who also happened to be one of the 12 Intel judges. The offices adjoining Abby's were filled with women with postdoctoral appointments, and to work among them would be to assume that being a female astronomer is completely unremarkable. That was not Vera Rubin's experience.

Rubin, 77, remembers being a lonely and uncomfortable girl in science class 60 years ago. "I certainly didn't like my high school physics class," she says. "My teacher didn't know how to treat a young woman." Rubin wanted to take mechanical drawing, but she didn't have the nerve to enter that male domain until she persuaded another girl to take the class with her.

Vassar rescued her. It was a women's college at that time, and Rubin found an atmosphere that encouraged women to pursue what interested them. She went on to a brilliant career. Rubin, who has been at Carnegie for 40 years, confirmed the existence of dark matter in the universe, was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and received the National Medal of Science. She also married and had four children, including a daughter who is an astronomer.

When she was working on her PhD, Rubin says, she and her husband would put their children to bed, and she would work from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m., getting up with the children in the morning. She has one tip in particular for aspiring woman scientists: Marry the right man, one who understands the importance of your career.

Let's stick to the subject: the author's trying to show that Summers was wrong when he said when he asserted that women occur less often at the 3.5-4.0 STDEV above the IQ mean. The author found an exception. Summers didn't say women were unrepresented, he said they were underrepresented. His assertion still stands.

By the time she started judging the Intel competition, and saw girls like Abby and Sherri coming along, she thought the path had been cleared, and girls could go wherever they wanted in the world of science and math. Then came Summers, whose remarks dismayed and infuriated her.

"I think I've really been wrong on this," she says. "I really thought things were getting better. The fact that my generation could do it -- we thought it would change for others."

Though more and more women are getting doctorates, The number of women getting Doctorates in the hard sciences and math is substantially lower than the number of men. Question: Does this number reflect the IQ data? If no, then perhaps Dr. Rubin has a point; if yes, Dr. Rubin needs to show why this isn't significant.she says, they are not getting the academic jobs they deserve. "It's still possible to get a PhD never having studied under a woman," Rubin says. "Women don't have role models." In 2001, according to the National Science Foundation, 6,867 women received doctorates in science and engineering, compared with 9,395 men. That same year, there were only 9,490 women who were full professors in college science and engineering departments, compared with 60,470 men.

These are the numbers that Saavik Ford, one of Abby's mentors, fears. The blatant discrimination of 30 years ago has disappeared, says Ford, who is 27, and her own postdoctoral appointment at Carnegie testifies to this.

Ford is pursuing an academic research career along a path that Abby might one day tread as well. First there's the PhD, then a series of short-term, postdoctoral appointments of two or three years. "Typically, you spend five to 10 years leading a nomadic life, moving from short-term appointment to short-term appointment," Ford says, building toward a tenure-track job. But there aren't enough tenure-track science jobs out there, so two out of three of today's postdocs will have to go elsewhere, she says. "They won't end up sleeping on the street in a cardboard box," she says, but taking jobs in industry, government or policymaking. Others will teach high school.

Even when women reach the point of being considered for a tenure-track job, Ford says, it's difficult to break through that final barrier. Most hiring is done by white male faculty members, who got there first and are still running things. "They're interviewing six to eight people, deciding if they want to spend 30 years with one of these people," she says. "You feel comfortable around the people who are like you. You choose a man."

And if a woman in academia marries a man in academia, as Ford has, she's really asking for trouble. Trying to get post-doctoral appointments and tenure-track jobs in the same cities can be nearly impossible. More often than not, it's the woman who ends up leaving the field. Which is just what Ford is doing. Her astronomer husband, better positioned for a tenure-track opportunity because he is a little farther along in the pipeline than she is, has an offer in North Carolina. They're packing up and moving on. Ford is giving up her dreams of becoming a tenured professor. Perhaps, she says, she can get into science writing.

Some teachers in Blair's science and math magnet say that girls and boys behave differently in class. Adolescent boys call out answers, not caring whether they're right or wrong. Though Abby says she feels no reluctance to raise her hand in class, many of her female classmates are quieter, her teachers say, waiting until they're sure they're right. More girls wait to ask questions after class. But when it comes time for a test, the girls at Blair score as well as the boys.

Speaking up -- Elizabeth Mann still wrestles with that. She graduated from the Blair magnet program in 1993. Like Abby and Sherri, she was a finalist in what was then called the Westinghouse science contest. She went to Harvard, got her doctorate at Oxford and now is at MIT, about to begin the final year of a three-year post-doctoral appointment. She's teaching multi-variable calculus and a version of theoretical calculus, not bad for someone who never liked to speak up.

Her teachers at Blair remember Mann as a brilliant student. She remembers herself as hesitant. She used to think her reticence didn't matter. It didn't keep her from soaring right to the top on tests. Now, as a teacher herself, she sees it differently.

All of which demonstrates, dare I say it?, an intrinsic difference, no?

OK, I'm done. You can read the WAPO article here and Dr. Larry Summers' remarks here.

I really don't think reports believe significance is significant.

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