In 2005, I was a philosophy graduate student across the Charles River from MIT where the then president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, made his infamous remarks questioning the intellectual capabilities of women. He was giving a speech at a conference where he offered that a possible reason for the low number of women in high academic positions in science and engineering was due to an innate limitation. He said this was a more likely explanation for women’s underperformance than discrimination. I remember sinking lower in my chair as I heard the news. Summers’ remarks, though they were geared explicitly to other fields, nonetheless threw into doubt women’s capacity for deep thought in general.
In my field, I found that women were just as intelligent as the brightest men, the only difference was that there were far fewer of them. If Summers was questioning the reasons for the underrepresentation of women, then it would follow that he should suspect the same for people of other ethnicities. As Dr. Mary Waters, Chair of Sociology at Harvard said after his remarks: “Has anyone asked if he thinks this about African-Americans, because they are underrepresented at this university? Are Hispanics inferior? Are Asians superior?” Yet, this is something he didn’t publicly do, and if he had, he certainty would have enraged the public far more than he did with his comments about women’s inferiority. But I will leave that point to the side.
To be fair, in a way Summers’ claim that discrimination cannot be the cause for women’s comparatively inferior performance makes sense. We live in a society in which job discrimination is illegal and where there are quotas for hiring women. Furthermore, it is no longer socially acceptable, the way it was a generation or two ago, to discourage women from pursuing careers outside of the home. It could be argued that to all appearances, women no longer have any external barriers preventing them from success. Thus, persons such as Summers conclude that the barrier must be internal. I am sure that Summers, a person very much in the public eye, would not see himself as personally standing in the way of women’s performance. Indeed, he likely took his comments to be mere commentary on the facts of the situation—a neutral discussion of a phenomenon. Yet this is why it was so insidious.
Enter Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: How our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference (2010). In this book, Fine argues that sex difference on the level of intellectual capacity is bogus. She analyzes the studies often cited by defenders of women’s inferiority, and shows how they have subsequently been proven fallacious by other scientists or that others have drawn the wrong conclusions from them. One of the most famous experiments that still captivates many, despite having been invalidated by subsequent studies, is the case which claims that there are cognitive differences between male and female babies of only a few days old: female babies are drawn to faces whereas male babies prefer mechanisms. The truth is that the science in favor of women’s intellectual strength doesn’t get much press. But this is only part of the problem. Even if there is no innate intellectual difference, why are women underrepresented?
Fine says that despite society’s attempts to eradicate explicit sexual discrimination, there is a more subtle type of discrimination at work. Recent studies in psychology bear this out. Fine highlights studies that reveal how we are deeply affected subconsciously by the expectations that our environment puts on us. In one study, a group of women were informed prior to taking an exam in mathematics that women tend to underperform compared to men, and another group of women were not. The group that was exposed to the stereotype threat performed far worse than the other group. Fine quotes Gregory Walton and Steven Spencer, two professors at Stanford University who argue that women’s performance is affected by stereotype threats like “the time of a track star running into a stiff headwind.” The reason that women perform less well than men on intellectual tests is a consequence of a tacit signal they are receiving from those around them that they are not good enough.
Of course, men are also affected by stereotype threats. Fine discusses studies that challenge the claim that men are “more aggressive” or “less empathetic” than women. One study, for example, reveals that men who are primed before a questionnaire that scientific studies show they are very empathetic creatures answer positively towards their abilities to nurture, unlike a group of men who were not primed.
What Fine suggests is that—whether we like it or not—the expectations our society has for us affects our self-perceptions, and thus our performance. In the case of intellectual pursuits, women still underperform men because they are getting the message that they do not belong there. Thus it is not enough to simply offer women equal opportunity. It is necessary for those in positions of influence to identify and eradicate the stereotype threats that they unwittingly promote. It is only then that we can actually achieve the ideals that liberalism promised so many of us centuries ago.