Unconscious but Pervasive Bias

I was hoping to actually say something substantive about this, but time is precious these days (and it’s been all over the blogosphere anyway). The National Academy of Sciences has released a report, Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering. They seem to think that the relative paucity of women in science is not due to differences of innate aptitude, or even to an aversion to hard work and competitive environments, but to systematic biases within academia. Hmm, fancy that. Cornelia Dean in the NYT writes:

Women in science and engineering are hindered not by lack of ability but by bias and “outmoded institutional structures” in academia, an expert panel reported yesterday…

The panel dismissed the idea, notably advanced last year by Lawrence H. Summers, then the president of Harvard, that the relative dearth of women in the upper ranks of science might be the result of “innate” intellectual deficiencies, particularly in mathematics.

If there are cognitive differences, the report says, they are small and irrelevant. In any event, the much-studied gender gap in math performance has all but disappeared as more girls enroll in demanding classes. Even among very high achievers, the gap is narrowing, the panelists said…

The report also dismisses other commonly held beliefs — that women are uncompetitive or less productive, that they take too much time off for their families. Instead, it says, extensive previous research showed a pattern of unconscious but pervasive bias, “arbitrary and subjective” evaluation processes and a work environment in which “anyone lacking the work and family support traditionally provided by a `wife’ is at a serious disadvantage.”

As Bitch Ph.D. says, “I, personally, am expecting the apologies from Larry Summers’ apologists to start pouring in any day now.”

So I have a question. The reason why most of us were upset by Larry Summers is that he was wrong, in a spectacular and potentially damaging kind of way, and the new NAS study supports this (yet again). But, almost without exception, Summers’ supporters pretended that what got people upset was the very idea of raising the possibility of gender-based cognitive differences, and that these people were anti-free-inquiry and afraid of the truth. Steven Pinker was a dogged straw-man-constructor, but there were plenty of others. (See also Lawyers, Guns & Money.)

My question is: was there anyone who was actually upset at Summers for this reason? That is, was there any respectable academic who really came out against even asking whether there were gender-based cognitive differences? To make things precise, I’m looking for (1) actual professors or other academics, not crazy blog commenters and so on; (2) people who explicitly were against even asking the question or doing the research, not people who (quite reasonably) argue that bias and discrimination are much more important factors in explaining the current gender disparity; and (3) did so in response to Summers, not some time back in the 1970’s or whatever. I sincerely want to know, did anyone take that position? I’m sure it wasn’t the position of most of us, strawmen notwithstanding, but given the speed and efficiency with which the fairy tale was promulgated among Summers’ supporters, I can’t help but think that at least one person did say it. There are alot of crazy academics out there who say all sorts of nonsensical things, it shouldn’t be too hard to find someone.

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57 Responses to Unconscious but Pervasive Bias

  1. Alex R says:

    I can’t remember any such people myself. I don’t remember anyone suggesting, for example, that Steven Pinker ought to lose his job or funding at Harvard for raising such questions.

    However, I can’t give any specific examples, but at the time there were a number of people who argued — and I was and am still one of them — that given the obvious institutional and social biases against women in science, the President of Harvard University should not be “even asking the question” whether biological differences between men and women were the primary cause of the low percentage of female scientists at Harvard University.

    I’m all for freedom of speech and free scientific inquiry. I just happen to think that the “President of Harvard University” is a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week job, the holder of which needs to show some restraint in the sort of scientific questions he or she muses about in public forums set up to address issues at the university.

  2. Chris says:

    Not to be *too* irritatingly skeptical, but…

    For those of us who don’t have time to read the actual report, would someone please summarize what, exactly, the phrase “outmoded institutional structures” actually means?

  3. Anshul says:

    I am not in the Summers fanclub but at the time of the controversy I didnt pay it all much attention. I was under the impression that he said studies were required to determine if gender and intelligence had an intrinsic relationship. But you are implying otherwise.

    The reason why most of us were upset by Larry Summers is that he was wrong, in a spectacular and potentially damaging kind of way

    What exactly did he say?

  4. Chris says:

    I think I agree with what you’ve said, Alex, but the musing in question was not actually in a public forum. If I remember correctly it was a closed-door conference and it wasn’t until well into the controversy that the actual transcript of Summers’ remarks were released.

  5. Chris says:

    here’s an address for the precise transcript:


    There’s controversial, provocative, and most likely wrong things said, but I am of the opinion that it isn’t quite as inflammatory as the initial response might have suggested.

  6. Anshul says:

    Thanks Chris!

    From the transcript it appears to me that Summers is saying that there are 3 possible cuases of under-representation of women. Discrimination, genes and environment. All 3 need to be studied.

    Now that is provocative and controversial of course but why is it wrong?

    Also, the NAS study says that environmental factors and discrimination (provably?) exist and are responsible. Agreed. But, this is totally avoiding the gender and aptitude co-relation question.

  7. Sean says:

    He said that “availability of aptitude at the high end” was more important than discrimination in determining the representation of women, in contradition to many efforts to actually look at the data.

  8. Kea says:

    Thanks again, Sean. Amazing how difficult it is for people to understand something they don’t really want to know.

  9. JoAnne says:

    I just don’t get it. Here’s a scientific report with studies and data to support its conclusions. So, reading these comments (and remembering others from previous posts on this topic), just why is it so difficult for you males to comprehend that us women might just be intellectually equal to you all? Why are you so threatened by this concept?

  10. Kea says:

    They are threatened because it alters the very fabric of their murky reality.

  11. Sean says:

    JoAnne, to take an honest stab at this, I suspect that the biggest factor isn’t really that men want to feel intellectually superior to women (although there’s certainly some of that). It’s more that people generally, even if they are happy to fight against discrimination and injustice elsewhere, are extremely reluctant to admit that they themselves (or whatever group they belong to) might be behaving unfairly. Same reason why some Japanese want to believe that they were forced to invade Manchuria, or some Turks don’t think anything bad ever happened to the Armenians, or some Southerners think that blacks were treated really well in the Confederacy.

    You see some people getting annoyed when others bring up discrimination, because they are really nice guys who would never treat people differently on the basis of their sex or anything else. (I’ve done it myself, it’s a natural reflex.) Some of these guys would then turn around and say something blatantly misogynist, but not all of them. So it’s easier to think that the present temporary (and obviously changing) condition is part of an eternal natural order, especially if it gives them an opportunity to be deliciously politically incorrect. It’s much easier to deplore the sad state of the world when it’s all somewhere else.

  12. JoAnne says:

    Sean, with all respect, I think there’s a deeper problem. For some men, such as yourself, who actually believe all humankind is equal and tries to treat everyone as such, your explanation is plausible. But, some of the things I have experienced could only have arisen from a much deeper source of conflict.

  13. Sean says:

    I’m sure you’re right. I guess I was thinking particularly of those people who we really would like to think should know better.

  14. Louise says:

    Any woman in science knows what outmoded instituitonal structures are. Kea is right again.

  15. Sam Gralla says:

    It’s not just that he was *wrong* (according to you), but that he was wrong in a “potentially damagaing kind of way,” as you said. If he had been wrong in some harmless way, nobody would be so upset. That is where the violation of free-inquiry comes in. Some conclusions cause one to lose one’s job; other conclusions don’t. Is one’s inqury really “free”? This problem exists at some scale in all fields, and is, for example, the reason for the tenure system. The women in science thing is just is a spectacularly extreme example of the usual situation, and so defenders of free-inquiry call upon people to restain themselves back to normal. You may claim that the different evaluative standards for different claims are fully justified given the danger of one kind of claim (those defends would disagree), but you can’t claim that conclusions are only judged only on their truth or falsity. Again you wouldn’t be upset if he had been wrong harmlessly. Freedom of inquiry is certainly significantly violated; you just think that’s the right thing to do in this case. And that’s an okay opinion to have.

  16. Sean says:

    Sam, you’ll notice that Larry Summers has very much kept his job as a tenured member of the Harvard faculty, where he is free to inquire to his heart’s content, as he should be. Nobody thinks that “freedom of inquiry” means “freedom to keep your high-powered administrative position no matter what stupid things you say in public.” (We won’t go into the fact that his remarks on women in science were only a very tiny piece of the pressures that made him choose to resign.)

    Still waiting for an example of someone who thinks that gender-based cognitive difference is a dangerous question that should not be asked.

  17. Anshul says:

    @Sean in #7
    All right… so, thats what this is about. I agree with you guys then. That is indeed wrong and damaging. That kind of an attitude is actually dangerous. Thanks for clearing it up for me.

  18. M says:

    If “outmoded institutional structures in academia” means that you can’t do physics while caring a child, I confirm that the expert panel is right.

    But if you mean that distributions of IQ and of similar things have absolutely no gender nor race differences (or have differences much smaller than the 1sigma differences everybody sees in sports and similar things), I would consider this opinion as more crazy than the opinions of “that crazy blog commenter” that has the courage of expressing inconvenient crazy opinions.

  19. Another M says:

    I think people may ask questions regarding gender-based cognitive differences, people may ask whatever questions they like, but I don’t think scientific studies in that area should be funded. It is equivalent to studying cognitive differences between black people and white people. I am not afraid of what such studies will find, but I am afraid of how they will be used. The results are always means and distributions of certain quantities derived by studying large groups of people. They are then used to justify continued discrimination against certain groups. Let’s get this straight: no matter what such a study should find, women should be afforded the same opportunities in math and science as men are. It simply does not matter how your average or “out-on-the-tail-of-the-bell-curve” woman performs on certain tests. The point is: some women are good at science, and they ought to have the same right to a career in science as men do. And I honestly believe that discussions about cognitive differences between the genders are distracting and harmful. It is another way for departments and institutions to avoid making necessary changes to the boys’ clubs that are most physics departments.

  20. jb says:

    This surely violates condition (3), but if I remember, Chomsky has come out against asking these kinds of questions. (I definitely can’t remember the way in which he thinks they should be opposed. I would doubt very much that he thinks one should use institutional power structures to penalize people for studying them.) I think his reasoning is that the only possible interest in questions like ‘Are white people inherently more intelligent than black people?’ or ‘Are Jews inherently more money-grubbing than gentiles?’ or ‘Are people whose last name is Hatfield better looking than those whose last name is McCoy?’ would be for racist purposes, almost by definition. I am actually somewhat sympathetic to this point.

    One anecdotal observation I find very telling is that in the top US mathematics departments, woman graduate students tend to take certain professors as advisors much more than others, and they are more lop-sided about it than the men. To me this says some professors have a much harder time working with women students, whether or not there is anything conscious going on. On the other hand, I don’t know how you could possibly counter this. One unfortunate consequence of rewarding merit much more than social skills (in men, if you prefer) is that the successful people will tend to have much worse social skills than those in other lines of work.

  21. Anshul says:

    Another M, I share your concern but if we do not fund research into gender-based cognitive differences, someday somebody with an agenda will and that can only be bad. In fact, we should get these things done and over with and establish once for all policies that mandate that such differences may not influence the opportunity afforded to an individual. We will need a law some day that makes discrimination on these basis illegal. The sooner the better.

  22. umno says:

    You simply assert that Summers was wrong. But polemic doesn’t substitute for evidence. In fact the very report you cite confirms the difference between men and women at the tails of the distribution of abilities, which is exactly what Summers was talking about. What it claims is that (A) this difference has been decreasing with time and (B) that being on this extreme tail isn’t important for a successful career in science and engineering. Of course (A) might be true–no one denies that there has been discrimination in the past–but that doesn’t mean that there is a theorem that the distributions must become identical. (B) may be true for a typical career, but is unlikely to be true for success at the highest levels of creative research at top universities, which is again what Summers was talking about. You shouldn’t talk of straw men, as you enjoy knocking down your own straw man version of Summers with great pomp.


    No one is saying that women can’t be “equal” to men, and especially in science at the highest levels, such straightforward comparisons between people are impossible. We all know brilliant women scientists with accomplishments at the very highest level. And there has historically been discrimination against women. But in academia, and especially in physics that tends to be populated by people with liberal ideology, for at least two decades there has been a systematic effort to recruit and aid women, and this goes all the way up to the faculty level. In many cases, stronger men have been pased over in the favor of women, from grad school up to professor level. Inded, if you are a women that is reasonably talented, that is if you can land a post-doc in one of the top groups, you are more or less guaranteed a faculty job, while the same is not at all true of the men. If people don’t believe this, they can check out the research records of people who got hired say in particle theory in the last 10 years.
    Perhaps this is justified. Regardless, it certainly explodes the myth that there is a boot on the throat of women in science, when where it really really counts, there is not only no discrimnation, overt or subtle, but rather the reverse–an active helping hand.

  23. candace says:

    Oh….a helping hand…that must be why women are paid less in academia!

    “Explicable differences amounted to 77% of the overall pay gap between the sexes. That still left a substantial 23% gap in pay…”

  24. Sean says:

    umno, I do not “simply assert” it, I can point (for example) to a brand-new report by the National Academy of Sciences. Which joins the book by Xie and Shauman, the MIT faculty report, and countless smaller studies. I am not sure why, despite all the evidence and hard data that accumulates, the importance of discrimination continues to be classified as an “assertion.” There’s no need to set up a straw man version of Summers, quoting him directly is quite telling enough.

    And if the “distribution of abilities” is decreasing with time in some measurable way, then it’s presumably not reflecting something innate, is it?

  25. Eric Dennis says:

    Sorry to further disrupt the progressives’ back-patting party, but here’s an idea. Were one really interested in uncovering the fact of the matter regarding the contribution of innate (or at least intrinsic) cognitive differences to success in quantitative academe, one might do the following.

    1. Get solid data on sex-specific IQ distributions.

    2. Assuming normal distributions, and assuming perfectly IQ-determined performance and rewards, calculate the expected penetration of women into various categories of high mathematical achievement/recognition.

    3. Compare the predictions to the data.

    4. Dismount the PC hobbyhorse.

    Well, maybe you need to do 4 first. Fortunately, one brave soul has already supplied the requisite intellectual apptitude and effort for this task. See:


    A sneak preview. Predicted number of female mathematicians in the National Academy of Sciences: 7.1. Actual number: 7.