Tuesday, March 7, 2006


Mistaking trees for a forest?
By ND Batra
From The Statesman

Harvard faculty, finally, got rid of their inconvenient president, Mr Lawrence Summers, who has a wonderful habit of calling a spade more than a spade. All that Mr Summers wanted to do was to improve undergraduate education, especially in science and mathematics, so that the so-called Net Generation (N-Gen) could compete in a world where countries like China and India would have a dominant presence.
Occasionally, he publicly expressed his prickly thoughts about the research some of the most celebrated Harvard faculty members were doing. Some felt less valued and left. Others waited and gathered strength until they could strike the blow that felled a mighty man. Summers made no attempt to comfort anyone. Last year, for example, Summers said that women might be temperamentally and intellectually different when it comes to doing things. He supported his claim with anecdotal evidence of his twin daughters who, as little girls, used to call a small toy truck baby truck and the bigger one daddy truck. A boy would have made the two trucks crash headlong in a "battle scene."
At that time Mr Summers got into big trouble with his faculty, researchers, special interest groups and the media. Yet, his question has not been answered: Why can't women engage themselves profoundly with black holes and galaxies despite the affirmative action and equal opportunity and gender balancing and what not? Why does a woman feel more comfortable in the kitchen than in the lab? Is it cultural or genetic?
When I was on the faculty of Morehead State University, I asked a class, mostly of girls, what they planned to do after they graduated. Almost unanimously, the girls said they wanted to have good paying jobs, and then to find a husband who they could hopefully keep up with, and to have children. No further ambition? No, they said, keeping a family together was most important. Even those who were studying science did not want to spend their time in labs. Real life relations, associations and networking interested them more than abstract mathematical relations. Harvard and MIT girls are no different from the southern girls I had encountered, are they?
A few years ago, I was introduced to a good-looking young woman attorney working for an insurance company, who eventually became a close family friend. I used to imagine her climbing up step-by-step and one day breaking the proverbial glass ceiling. It was not only her acute analytical legal mind that impressed me but also her ability to connect with others. Nonetheless, she was a single woman desperately looking for the right man, and this made her just like any other well-educated woman trying to have a career as well as a family. And she did find one, a wonderful man whom she married and eventually had a son. But then she gave up her job, saying her little boy was more important to her than doing 80 hours of cerebral work a week. A brilliant mind baby-sitting, when she could have applied her intellect to solving tough problems!
You would say my anecdotal evidence is as fallacious as that offered by Mr Summers. Last year, Mr W Michael Cox and Mr Richard Alm of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas wrote in The New York Times that unlike musicians and athletes, "Scientists are made, not born." And they presented statistical evidence and graphics to prove that the "feminisation" of science professions has been taking place "one degree at a time." But they mistook trees for a forest. They still didn't answer Mr Summers' question: Why are there so few female Nobel winners in sciences, so few starry-eyed, mad, mad female scientists?
Imagine Mr Summers' audacity as he summed up his ideas before a conference at the National Bureau of Economic Research last year that made him most unwanted at Harvard: "So my best guess, to provoke you, of what's behind all of this is that the largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people's legitimate family desires and employers' current desire for high power and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are, in fact, lesser factors involving socialisation and continuing discrimination."
The most controversial factor that got Mr Summers into trouble was the focus on "overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability" in which the woman population, according to him, might be falling short. If you look at the Bell Curve, Mr Summers seemed to be saying, you would find fewer women on the extreme right, the genius portion of the curve. Even those few women who have an extreme high IQ don't apply their minds with intensity because scientific research requires "that the mind is always working on the problems that are in the job, even when the job is not taking place."
A woman might be bright but she would rather develop social networking and expand her relational universe than bother about what is happening at the far-out end of the universe. Heavens could wait until her children grow up. Mr Summers did not understand that in dealing with Harvard faculty, he needed a kind of corporate diplomacy that some CEOs of global corporations are learning to do today in order to handle the complexity of stakeholders.
Mr Warren Bennis, a former professor at Harvard Business School and currently chairman of the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California, writing in Business Week, made a telling comment about the campus community that surrounds a university president. He said: "While campuses aren't exactly parliamentary democracies, they do have often-strident faculties (with tenure) who have a redoubtable habit of speaking out and up. They are also often extraordinarily talented, self-absorbed "abdicrats" who don't want to lead and don't want to be led."

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