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. Sean says:

    Dan, yeah, I’d say it’s pretty close. And I don’t agree with Banaji’s comment — although, from experience, I know how careful one should be in interpreting interview snippets bereft of context. Obviously, even if she had given detailed reasons for believing that the question had already been answered, it wouldn’t have made it into the interview. I personally don’t think we know everything there is to know about gender and cognition, and I think it’s an empirical question rather than a moral one (as the slave/master business is). But really I was looking more for someone to say we shouldn’t be asking these questions because they are politically out of bounds, not because we already know the answer.

  2. Dan says:

    Sean, no one is going to say that the question shouldn’t be asked because it’s politically out of bounds; that would be too easy a position to attack. They’re going to say (as they did and do) that the question is already settled scientifically, and that anyone who disagrees is a (insert demonizing word here).

    And speaking of the chilly climate, I’m posting these comments anonymously (which I don’t usually do here, or anywhere else). I’m afraid that what happened to David Deming (for example) could happen to me.


  3. Dan says:

    Joanne, I am personally acquainted with a number of female physicists who I am quite certain are my intellectual superiors. I have no problem at all with this. I think it’s good that there are brilliant women, smarter than me, who have chosen to do physics. I wish there were more of them.

    I do, however, think that it is *possible* that differences in male and female brain physiology *may* account for *some* of the relatively few women in the upper eschelons of physics and math.

    According to Professor Banaji, this is an “insidious” notion comparable to support of human slavery.

  4. Suz says:


    How do the following graphs fit in with the “innate differences” hypothesis to explain the paucity of women at the top in science disciplines?

    Figure 1 here:
    I guess that’s some pretty fast evolution of women’s abilities in physics…

    Women on physics faculty by country, previously re-posted on Sean’s Preposterous Universe blog

    Regarding Umno’s comment:
    ” Inded [sic], 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.”

    Check out the 1997 Nature paper by Wenneras and Wold (“Nepotism and Sexism in Peer Review”) which studied the grant reward system. It showed that women had to be 2.5 times more productive than men to be ranked the same “competence” as men. These were funds from Swedish Medical Council for biomedical research. There could be differences in different disciplines and in different countries, but if you, Umno, have actual data or a study backing your claim that any “reasonably talented” woman can land a job, you should post it or cite a specific study. It would certainly run counter to the bias that is documented by actual DATA on this topic.

  5. Sean P. says:

    Feminists in attendance at Summers’s speech had a great response. Some walked out. Some broke into tears over Summers’s oppressive suggestion. Some asked for his resignation. Could not Summers see, argued even others, that some issues are beyond the pale of discussion? Reasonable minded people see the feminist reaction to Summers’s speech as incredibly immature. But, reasonable minded people would be wrong. Can they not see that part of the oppression of women is the suggestion that women and men could be different?

    I believe that if mankind is ever to awake from its patriarchal disease, then each person must come to grips with his oppression of the fairer sex. Man must move quickly to remove any and all potential or perceived traits of sexism he still has. We must create a world where no person will look at his surroundings through a sexist lens. Man must fight to stamp out any and all suggestion of gender differences any place he sees it. Any professor who suggests that boys are more interested in sports than girls must see his tenure revoked. Any thinker who suggests that males prefer action movies and females prefer romantic films should lose his credibility. Any person who suggests that females are more naturally inclined to be nurturers and males more naturally inclined to be warriors must have his sensitivity questioned. Any social scientist who suggests that heterosexuality is normative (even if he grants homosexuals their rights) ought to have pen, typewriter, or computer confiscated. Man cannot rest until he creates a gender inclusive and gender neutral world for all mankind.

  6. Rose says:

    Comment on Scientific Bias-Womens’ vs Men: I might feel offended but the knowledge that he will soon squeeze out a kidney stone while claiming he is in the worse pain ever allows me to comment: the women in science will soon accept you and you will soon attain the status of a seasoned male, until then, you’ll just have to accept our knowledgeable “bias”.
    After you pass the kidney stone, feel free to comment on womens’ perspectives regarding scientific acheivements in a male dominated world.

  7. Jo says:

    It is interesting to review the comments in this discussion months after the report form the National Academy (“Beyond Bias and Barriers”) was released. The theme that runs throughout the Summers episode, the reactions to the report, and the press coverage of both is that people prefer to muse and postulate than to dig into research and study the data. And the press prefers to cover hot controversy and wild speculation more than it cares to cover rationale argument and scholarly dissection of a topic.

    First, no one that I heard said that Summers shouldn’t have said what he said because it was politically incorrect, but some did say he should not have spoken as he did because his speculation is blatantly wrong; a responsible leader with the visibility of Harvard’s president shouldn’t be spreading wrong information. If he had mused that someone really should take a look at whether the Earth is flat, he would seem foolish and people might argue that the comment was irresponsible (what if it were taken as seriously by the press as his comments about gender were — can’t you see the headlines: “Harvard President Suggests World if Flat” or “Columbus was wrong? asks Harvard president”). Because few people who covered or read his comments examined the facts, and thanks to the press-worthiness of the comments, the possibility that women are held back in science primarily by their lack of aptitude appeared to have the credibility of a great scholar and many responsible newspapers behind it. In fact, this absolutely cannot be the driving force for the position of women in science because, as Sean pointed out, the numbers of women in science have changed much faster than the genetics of a human population can change. We have 35 times more female engineers today than we did 25 years ago. Is that because women’s average IQ has changed so much in one generation? No, it’s because legal and social factors have reduced certain barriers dramatically. So the objection to Summers’ comment was that despite being baseless and wrong, because it was issued by the president of Harvard, it garnered quite a lot of coverage and therefore had an effect that was disproportionate to itsvalidity.

    Second, it was striking that when the NAS report was released, people complained about the very thing that so many of you have begged for: let’s have data on the subject. The report contained a long analysis of the available research on gender differences and concluded that innate ability could not explain the current situation. However, John Tierney’s editorial in the NY Times, for example, included a complaint about having to “slog through” the report, which was too full of data. What does he propose? Should we have written a report based on conjecture and opinion just like Summers’ comment? Sure. That would have had a big influence.

    Third, the press. Sigh. Why was the Summers event covered on the front page of the NY Times quite a few times and the NAS report was buried on page 17? And why were op-ed pieces offered only days after the release of the report rejected by the NY Times because it was now “old news.” The Summers furor was promoted by the press for many months.

    It’s a sad reality that most people in our society would rather not hear the facts or attempt to understand the arguments — it’s hard and it’s boring. It’s better sport to lap up the inflammatory comments that are based on nothing — it’s easy and it’s exciting.

    Sean, I have also searched for people who argued that the question shouldn’t be asked. Every time, I reach a dead end. I believe your hypothesis about the straw man is supported by the data.