Jewish World Review Jan. 27, 2005 / 17 Shevat 5765

Clarence Page

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Men losing their pedestal status?


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Judging by the uproar over Harvard University President Lawrence Summers' ungraceful speculations about the shortage of elite female scientists and mathematicians, you might think women weren't doing so well in school. Not so. In many ways, they're beating the pants off the guys.

Women nationwide have been closing gaps or surging ahead of guys in just about every academic arena over the last three decades. Even in areas like the sciences, where they remain underrepresented, they are catching up.

The bad news is the guys. While female students have achieved academic milestones in high school and college, their male counterparts have been slipping backward in ways that spell trouble for everyone's future.

The National Organization for Women, among other enraged parties, called for Summers to resign after he suggested at a Jan. 14 conference that "innate" differences between the sexes might account for the shortage of women in the upper ranks of math and science academia and professions. According to those present at the conference in Cambridge, Mass., on diversity in the scientific workforce, he offered several explanations for the shortage of women, including upbringing, genetics and time spent on child rearing.

Summers has since apologized, pointing out that he never meant to suggest that women were incapable by nature of matching or surpassing men in math and science. He merely wanted to stimulate discussion. To say he has stimulated discussion would be like describing a forest fire as a small cookout.

But the male-female gap does need to be discussed, even if certain avenues of inquiry are painful. We should have learned that a decade ago when Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein's book "The Bell Curve" touched off a similar firestorm when it suggested that innate differences might account for test score gaps among whites, blacks and Asian-American students.

"The Bell Curve" ignited a stormy backlash, especially from sensitive black observers like me, for even bringing up that possibility. But, in breaking the ice around the taboo topic, the book also led to a wealth of scholarly studies like "The Black-White Test Score Gap," edited by Harvard social policy scholar Christopher Jencks, which discounted genes and found numerous environmental factors that explained the gap.

In the pursuit of truth, you follow all lines of inquiry, no matter how painful some of them might be. That's why I defend Summers' call for more research and discussion of the gender gap, as long as it pursues the growing problem of male underachievement too.

While women are closing the gap, we also should be asking, "What's wrong with the guys?"

For example, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the nation's report card, females have closed the gap in science scores of high school seniors from 17 points in 1973 to just 8 points in 2000.

"In every state, every income bracket, every racial and ethnic group and most industrialized Western nations, women reign, earning an average 57 percent of all [bachelor of arts degrees] and 58 percent of all master's degrees in the U.S. alone," said Business Week in a special May 26, 2003, cover story on "The New Gender Gap." That year, 133 girls were getting BAs for every 100 guys, according to the U.S. Department of Education, a number projected to grow to 142 women per 100 men by 2010 and 156 women per 100 men by 2020, if current trends continue.

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Summers did not suggest that guys, rather than girls, might be suffering from innate differences with the opposite sex, but he might as well have done so. While he correctly observed that males outnumber females in the top scores on the math section of the SAT, they also outnumber females in the bottom scores.

The boys shape up as "more genius, more idiots," quips Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist whose book "The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature" is reported to have helped inform Summers' comments.

Also, we should not put too much weight on standardized test scores. Yu Xie, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan who spoke at the conference, has found that men outnumber women 2-1 in the top scores, but not all the best scorers succeed professionally and not all men who do succeed receive top scores.

Nevertheless, women are moving up at a much faster rate in student achievement than in income and power in the workplace. Even at Harvard, the Boston Globe noted, faculty members complain that the number of tenured professorships offered to women has dropped sharply over the four years of Summers' presidency. Sounds like Summers' studies of female achievement should begin at home.

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Up

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