Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Another problem at Harvard?

The Independent on Harvard's Lawrence H. Summers:

His [Summer's] contention that boys outperform girls in science and maths because of genetic differences - he backed up his argument by saying his daughter treated two toy trucks as dolls, calling them mummy truck and daddy truck - is just not supported by the evidence, according to Britain's august scientific academy, the Royal Society.

Current A-level figures show that more girls are taking chemistry and biology than boys, according to the Royal Society spokesman Tim Watson. And while fewer girls take maths and physics at A-level, they do at least as well as boys, if not better. "It's a nonsense to say girls are incapable of doing these subjects," he said.

But he conceded that women were under-represented in the sciences at the top, professorial levels. Yet here, he said, it was social attitudes, not inherent brainpower, that was behind the difference.

"At least at the professor level there is an under-representation," he said. "Something like 9 to 10 per cent of professors in the sciences across the board are women. But then if we look at other academic subjects, it's similar. The fact that women are not being retained at senior levels is a general trend in the workplace. It's the culture of the workplace - the lack of career flexibility. If women want to take a career break to have children, there are barriers to them getting back in. But this is not just a problem with science - there's no difference to most other areas."

It is a source of some embarrassment to the Royal Society that while the most sought-after scientific distinction in Britain is one of its own fellowships, the proportion of fellows who are women is very low indeed. Of the 1,259 scientists who are entitled to add the cherished letters FRS after their names, only 58 - or 4.6 per cent - are women. (And although the society was founded in 1660, the first female fellows, Kathleen Lonsdale and Marjory Stephenson, were only elected in 1945.)

But the society would not remotely agree that this is an indicator of genetic distinction. Openly accepting that the figure is "disappointingly low", it says it "reflects the under-representation of women at senior levels of science in higher education and industry". The Royal Society communications manager, Bob Ward, says this is partly because the average age of fellows on election is about 55. Their election is usually on the basis of work undertaken 15 or 20 years previously, since it can take that long to build up a sufficient body of scientific work to justify election and to know whether the scientific work is indeed seminal. So current elections reflect the position in science at post-doctoral level in the 1970s, and at professorial level now, where women are under-represented. Mr Ward added: "The proportion of women within the fellowship is increasing slowly." For example, of the 254 fellows who had been elected in the past six years, 27, or 11 per cent, were women.

And of course the Harvard Law Review says the PTO grants 97% of patent applications, and there was Laurence Tribe's plagiarism. Is it the water?


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