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COLUMN

Twenty Irrelevant Pages

Susan Buchman

Early last month, the Independent Women’s Forum presented a report by Judith S. Kleinfeld entitled “MIT Tarnishes Its Reputation with Gender Junk Science.” Kleinfeld, who is a professor at the University of Alaska, argues that the “MIT Study on the Status of Women Faculty,” the recent report on gender discrimination in the School of Science, “amounts to little more than a political manifesto.”

Speaking of political manifestos, it’s important to understand the Independent Women’s Forum’s agenda. The IWF is a right-wing organization that “promotes individual responsibility, strong families, more opportunity, and less government -- policies that help all Americans.”

The organization makes such well-researched claims as: other feminist groups used false statistics to persuade Congress to pass the Violence Against Women Act, welfare policies “reward [teenage girls] for having babies instead of finishing school,” and Title IX is “a crusade to impose unfair quotas in schools.” Kleinfeld’s report is just another version of IWF’s standard rhetoric: it’s those crazy liberals who are really hurting women. Recent speakers hosted by the IWF have lectured on such topics as “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Gender Equity -- But Were Told Not to Ask” and “Feminism is Not the Story of My Life.”

Kleinfeld, who wears her father’s Brass Rat (I’ll leave the psycho-analysis of that one to you), dismisses the MIT study as a “political tract.” She has five main gripes with the MIT report: the “interested parties” (female faculty in the school of Science) were members of the committee evaluating the charge of gender discrimination, the report presents no hard evidence, MIT is “keeping facts secret, claiming that ‘confidentiality’ is required on such matters,” gender discrimination “boils down to the subjective perceptions of senior women,” and the women faculty aren’t as outstanding as they think they are. (She had exactly one MIT source for the report, a source which she insisted must remain confidential -- exactly three paragraphs after she condemns MIT for keeping the name of its sources confidential).

Yet, instead of explaining why the above claims prove the study “falls below the most elementary standards for scientific evidence,” Kleinfeld rambles on for twenty pages about the plentiful opportunities for girls in mathematics and sciences. “From National Science Foundation programs to Hollywood movies starring female scientists, young women are being urged to enter the sciences and mathematics,” she writes. Supposedly, Denise Richards playing a nuclear physicist in a James Bond movie is more than enough encouragement for a young girl. Despite this, however, talented women are still choosing not to enter into the sciences.

How does this have any effect on the issue of gender discrimination at the university level? Her argument goes something like this: young girls are provided with more than enough support and their mathematical talents are adequately nurtured. Yet, women still perform much worse on the SAT math exam, and even those who perform well are more likely to choose non-scientific careers like law and teaching (“even in Asian families,” boys perform better on the SAT than girls. Nothing like racial stereotypes to show those MIT admins how a real scientific report should be done.) In conclusion, that mathematically talented young women are more likely to choose non-scientific fields is proof positive that the women who do choose such field are less dedicated. It’s that lack of dedication, and not discrimination, that accounts for the differences in the salaries and office sizes of women.

At this point, it should all become clear: to support the position of the MIT report is sexist, and completely discounts the choice of girls who choose to shun scientific careers and follow their biological destiny. Kleinfeld is correct to quote a qualified scholar, Nel Noddings, who writes, “it is wrong to tell a young woman that she should not consider elementary teaching for example because she’s ‘too smart for that.’” Noddings is right on the mark -- but the point is has nothing to do with the MIT report.

The main issue here is not why women choose to go into math or science, it’s how they’re treated once they make that choice. Kleinfeld’s argument fails miserably because she fails to understand the scope of the MIT report. It was not intended as wide-sweeping social commentary or as a report of academia in general. It was not intended to study why women are less likely to choose careers in the sciences. It was a report designed to deal with a specific problem in a very small environment: the MIT School of Science. Kleinfeld can spend another twenty pages arguing how the report fails to show that schools short change girls, but given that it’s not the focus of the MIT report, it’s another irrelevant twenty pages to tack onto the original.