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Questioning the Status Quo

Amal Dorai

The recent brouhaha regarding Larry Summers has brought important issues to light, and with them, their attendant misconceptions. The politically correct “line” (rampant discrimination yields low numbers of women scientists, and eliminating it will ensure a 50-50 mix, to the benefit of humanity) is wrong for several reasons, some of which I highlight below.

The first misconception is that a shortage of women in science is intrinsically bad. This is simply not true; what is bad is when any particular person is unable to achieve their goals specifically because of their gender. It is certainly a bad thing if a young girl interested in science is repeatedly discouraged by adults until she gives up and chooses another field. Yet I consider it equally bad if a child who is interested in literature is badgered into studying science or math just because a university faculty committee wants the gender ratio to be 50-50. We shouldn’t encourage the notion that more women should be in science; we should encourage the notion that all opportunities should be available to everyone. Being in science doesn’t make you smarter than your colleagues in theology.

Another problem with the current discussion of women in science is that it flattens complex individuals, with their wide range of abilities and interests, into homogenous and uninteresting groups. If there are small differences between the mean male and the mean female, they are dwarfed by the huge differences between particular individuals, such as Albert Einstein and Charles Manson. Look at this list: Martin Luther King, Marie Curie, Michael Jordan, Virginia Woolf, and Tim Berners-Lee. If you saw a 60-40 over-representation of men, you’ve got your head in the wrong place.

The homogenization of all scientific women into a single group does the most damage to the people it misguidedly aims to benefit, namely female scientists themselves. Researchers with staggering accomplishments often endure the indignity of seeing themselves referred to as “the first woman to do...” or “the only woman ever to...” Men don’t have this problem; their accomplishments are not falsely magnified by their gender, so they stand on their own. We should let the work of our distinguished female scientists do the same.

Finally, I believe that some of what is perceived as discrimination is actually part of a self-fulfilling victim complex. MIT is a harsh and critical environment, a fact which has been crucial to its history of achievement. Students often find themselves in positions where their ideas are dismissed as stupid, irrelevant, or a complete waste of a professor’s time. One eminent MIT professor famously refers to ideas which make his mind vomit.

When a white, heterosexual male approaches a professor and is told that he is a misguided idiot, he may try to improve his ideas or dismiss the professor as excessively harsh. When a member of a minority hears the same professor, and has heard that his or her group suffers discrimination in the sciences, the slander is often perceived very differently. Nobody likes to think that they are stupid, so if the professor’s comments can be blamed on discrimination, they will be. Thus, an identical, unbiased reaction from a professor can generate the perception of severe discrimination, which in turn yields low numbers of minorities in the sciences. The only solution is to give students the self-confidence to deal with criticism from an early age, instead of letting them hide behind imagined persecution.

For a real example, I know of one MIT professor who had somewhat of a reputation for being dismissive towards women. Two female friends of mine had approached him for a UROP and had confirmed this reputation. Yet a third female student saw through the harsh exterior to a professor who was dismissive of everyone, male or female, and wary of any undergraduate who had not yet earned his respect. She persevered until she was accepted as a UROP in the lab and has had great research success with the group.

Discrimination is real, and it is not a problem to be taken lightly. People are right to recognize its importance and do everything they can to combat it. Yet overanxious zealots are doing more harm than good, to the detriment of both men and women in all fields of academia.

Amal Dorai is a graduate student.