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Does Playing With Dolls Make Me a Bad Scientist?

An editorial response to comments made by Harvard University President Lawrence Summers

2/7/2005 11:02:38 AM


Peter Sheldon

The following editorial by Associate Professor of Physics Peter Sheldon appeared on the OpEd page of the Lynchburg, Virginia News & Advance, Sunday, February 6, 2005.

If a girl plays with dolls as a young child, is she showing signs of some type of innate weakness? Are women somehow unable to match the superiority of men in certain fields, such as science, just because they possess an additional “X” chromosome?

It may sound absurd, but unfortunately this type of thinking is still prevalent in our culture.

Gender does not play a role in innate intellectual ability, yet we are continuing to espouse this view in many ways, none more blatant than the recent comments by Harvard University President Lawrence Summers at a conference on women and science.

Summers was invited to speak at this scholarly meeting on diversifying the science workforce, and in his address suggested that genetic differences between the sexes may play a part in the lack of relative success of women scientists versus men.

I am a scientist at a women’s college and have taught at co-ed colleges and worked in middle and elementary school classrooms. I have studied gender roles in science, if only superficially, and do not believe there are any innate differences. Determining the extent to which gender has an effect on innate ability has been left up to many talented scientists who have studied this for years, and there is certainly no clear evidence that gender is related to innate ability.

What is clear is that women are socialized to think that they are inferior in the sciences. This is a large problem, which is only made worse by comments such as those quoted from Summers -- no matter how innocently he tries to portray them.

Summers is an economist, a social scientist, and someone who should understand how science is properly done. One of the more irrational conclusions that came out of his address was when he cited as an example one of his daughters, who as a child was given two trucks in an effort at gender-neutral upbringing. He said she named them ''daddy truck'' and ''baby truck,'' as if they were dolls. Is the behavior illustrated here supposedly innate? Is this really related to the question of scientific ability? Is that single piece of anecdotal evidence meaningful enough to relate it to any conclusion? I would volunteer an exuberant “no” to each of these questions, and add that this is just the type of simplistic statement that is so often used to perpetuate illogical and harmful stereotypes of women and young girls.

Perhaps it is the simple act of playing with dolls that makes one less of a scientist, regardless of gender?

Summers may be just one man who expressed an opinion, but he has a very public persona being the CEO of one of the world’s premier universities. If people are going to listen to an academic, aren’t they going to listen to him? He has the responsibility to his students and faculty, and perhaps to students and faculty everywhere, to not undermine what we are trying to do, which is to educate not only all of our students, but the general public and others’ students, as best we can.

Even if Summers is only one man, he is not the only one expressing these views. I am continually astonished when my students tell me that one of their parents or even a guidance counselor in high school told them girls do not do math and science. One student told me that she preferred male professors because they were better scholars. A few years back, my car insurance representative told me, referring to his daughter’s aspirations, that while girls make good elementary school teachers, they really should not be college professors. My car insurance is now with a different company.

My particular field, physics, has a disturbing lack of women in und

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