The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 57.0°F | Partly Cloudy and Windy

COLUMN

Overcompensating

Cassi Hunt

The devil’s advocate steps onto the podium, brushes off her finely tailored red velvet suit, and -- mirroring the behavior of her defendant -- opens her big, dumb mouth:

I think everyone needs to cut Lawrence Summers some slack. The remarks he made about the possibility of women being innately disadvantaged to men in science fields were at best too forceful and at worst poorly-timed, but that doesn’t mean he should be turned into a whipping boy for feminists and jaded professionals angry about discrimination in universities and corporations. Those who actually read the transcript of his speech know that he placed inherent science aptitude of women below the strain of family and the need for an intense work schedule, and above discrimination. I don’t know enough about human physiology to comment on this order, but I do know that I agree with some of the finer points that made him reach this conclusion.

For Summers, statistics that show lower perfomance or a lower presence of women in math and sciences suggest that there may be an inherent difference between men and women’s abilities, and my point -- get ready for this, in case you decide to write an enraged response -- is that this is a valid hypothesis, one that establishes a point from which experiments can be arranged, and hopefully, meaningful conclusions can be established.

However, I’d like to offer a counter-hypothesis. Discrimination today isn’t the blatant attitude of male superiority that plagued women of past generations, though, as Summers pointed out, there is still concern about mankind’s subconscious tendency to prefer applicants that look more like themselves. But the most debilitating source of discrimination I’ve experienced so far is unique in that it’s intentional and actually considered progressive: it’s the coddling attitude that says I’ve been unconsciously disadvantaged from birth by inbred discrimination and therefore deserve special consideration. How is this effectually different from a genetic disadvantage? In both cases, I’m treated like I am inferior because of factors beyond my control. I think I can speak for all my readers -- guys and gals -- when I say we worked our ass off to get where we are, and I for one don’t appreciate the underlying question my paranoid psyche hears in the minds of my male counterparts: would you be here if you were male?

To explain my position, here’s some sense of my perspective. I come from a suburban area of Missouri where teachers was more interested in the fact that students actually wanted to pursue such a demanding area as physics than with whether they had pink or blue on their baby blankets. The first time I felt discriminated against was at a college fair my junior year, when I tried to talk to a representative from some East Coast school, and he automatically brought up biology when I mentioned I was interested in science. When I said I was in fact leaning towards physics, he stumbled over himself for a moment, then launched into a speech on how they were, as a matter of fact, very interested in their female applicants and that their Women’s blah blah group... “Whoa!” I wanted to shout as I cupped my chest. “I gots boobs! Where the hell did these come from?!”

In fact, it wasn’t until I left the Bible Belt and came to the glorious bastion of liberalism that is Massachusetts that I’ve noticed incongruity over my choice of major. Shortly after my acceptance here, I received an email from some MIT women’s engineering club, and whenever people ask me about my interests, they almost invariably want the perspective of “a Woman in Physics.” Talking with other chicks in the physical sciences, math, and engineering, I’ve discovered that I’m not the only one irritated by this. Then when I checked my E3 card, I noticed that “diversity” had been checked off, and despite MIT’s much-lampooned proportion of Asian females (yeah, we had one of those at my school back home...), I doubt being white earned me that mark. I’ve almost become loathe to mention my course number, lest I be congratulated yet again on my determination to “break social norms” and “give women a voice” in the field. Blegh. Maybe I just want to smash particles together, huh?

Nothing has been more deterring to my aspirations than the idea that I am an aberration. Even MIT’s impressive course load hasn’t caused me to question myself as much as the notion that throughout my career, my peers will look at me like I am the rare exception. And they will look at me that way whether or not it is because of genetic differences between us, or just this pervasive social attitude.

My role models don’t have to have boobs to inspire me, just brains. I understand that in the past there weren’t as many women distinguished enough for the history books because of discrimination, barring any additional genetic defect, and I don’t mind the male visages -- as fugly as they may be -- that peer out from the first three chapters of every lay physics book under the sun. What I don’t need is chick empowerment groups barking at me about Marie Curie, Jocelyn Bell, Sophie Germain, or Rosalyn Franklin to be impressed with them. It’s demeaning that they think shouting such names from the hilltops is still what it takes to earn them a spotlight in their fields.

As long as we’re asking questions about why there aren’t as many women in science, we might as well investigate genetics as well as discrimination because the sooner we figure out what’s up, the sooner we can drop it and move on. Then maybe by the time that I hope to earn a spotlight for myself, it’ll be as an accomplished member of my field -- not as a Woman Who Made It.

Cassi Hunt is a member of the class of 2008.