Aptitude or Acculturation?

Aptitude or Acculturation?

By Julianne Malveaux

What was Larry Summers thinking? The Harvard president, as well known for his brilliance as for his tactlessness, must enjoy the taste of shoe leather, given the frequency he puts his foot in his mouth. Some “off the record” remarks he made at a research meeting of the National Bureau of Economic Research got him excoriated in the electronic and print media. Summers’ notion that the scarcity of female scientists at elite institutions might stem from some “innate” difference between the sexes is simply amazing.

The data just doesn’t correlate. The number of women earning doctorates in engineering and science has risen significantly since 1966. According to a trio of college presidents — Drs. John Hennessey of Stanford, Susan Hockfield of MIT and Shirley Tilghman of Princeton, women went from getting nearly no engineering degrees in 1966 to 16.9 percent in 2001. In a letter to the Boston Globe, the three point out that “In the biological and agricultural sciences, the number of doctorates earned by women rose from 12 percent to 43.5 percent between 1966 and 2001.”

If women have so little science and engineering aptitude, why the increase in their representation among scientists? Could it be that women have been acculturated to avoid math and science as potentially hostile fields? Summers threw mounds of other “stuff” in the game, rambling about 80-hour weeks and family time. He might have made quite another kind of splash if, instead of posing the aptitude question he’d pondered the development of family-friendly workplaces. What would it take to keep brilliant women in science, even as these women bear and raise children? Is an 80-hour week the only path to productivity?

Summers’ statements were controversial partly because it took him a while to apologize, and even longer to release his actual remarks. Naturally, these days, his defenders rallied both on free speech grounds and the notion that at least some of Summers’ remarks bore consideration. 

Others simply licked their chops at this latest embarrassment. After all, this is the man who sent Cornel West off to Princeton with a scolding; who opined that environmentally unsound industries ought to locate in developing countries; and who hectored Harvard faculty about grade inflation. But the glee at Summers’ public embarrassment (he may yet receive a vote of “no confidence” from Harvard faculty) is compounded by the fact that since his presidency women are doing worse in earning tenured positions. Women were offered just four of the 32 most recent available slots.

Is the gender gap due to culture or to ability? I’d say culture. Just 40 years ago, women rarely bothered to apply to graduate programs in engineering, math and science. Now, their numbers are growing. There are clearly a set of core issues that need to be addressed, as well as a set of questions about the culture of science and women’s participation. Five years ago, a MIT study showed discrimination in pay, promotions, conference and research support, and other areas among tenured faculty. It is easy to imagine these same kinds of issues exist at other elite institutions.

The Summers flap has implications for African Americans in higher education. The same dichotomy between aptitude and acculturation is often raised in regard to our participation in certain fields or ability to pass so-called aptitude tests. A UCLA law professor, Richard H. Sander, has produced a new study arguing there would be more Black lawyers without affirmative action. His assertion, grounded in the econometric manipulation of several data sets, gives truth the adage that statistics can lie.

Sander asserts that racial gaps between undergraduate grades and LSAT scores cause a gap in law school grades and bar passage rates. He says that Black law students attend law schools that are too difficult, and to pass the bar in greater numbers should enter lesser law schools under race-blind admissions. Because his assertions are bolstered by “science” many will accept them as fact, though significant flaws in the data and its manipulation temper the study’s conclusions.

I’d ask Sander — just like I would Summers — to show a different distribution of ability between males and females, or between Blacks and Whites. Without that, differences in enrollment, in participation or even in successful passage of a test like a bar exam suggest systemic biases. It seems to me both Sander and Summers would do us all a service by unearthing the sources of systemic bias and advocating a restructuring of biased systems. Instead, beginning with the premise of inequality, they confuse ability with acculturation.

I’m a little tougher than Nancy Hopkins, the MIT biologist who fled the NBER conference because Larry Summers offended her. I’d rather fight tooth and nail about the assertions regarding aptitude, first by questioning the measurement of aptitude, then by questioning the bias that yields disparate options. But I’d also like to ask Larry Summers and Richard Sander if they have bothered to study the roots of bias. Absent that, their remarks about aptitude speak volumes about their own acculturation.

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