Monday, February 28, 2005

Gray Matter vs. White Matter... does it matter?

In January, the president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, caused quite a brouhaha by suggesting perhaps there are fewer women in math and hard science fields because of innate differences between the brains of men and women. Now some scientists are saying that Summers may be right.

Male brains...contain a greater proportion of gray matter, the part of the brain responsible for computation, while women have relatively more white matter, which specializes in making connections between brain cells.

So... men and women's brains work differently. Is this really a big surprise to anyone?

Yet, the reaction from women's rights advocates seems to border on hysterical. Apparently the religious right isn't the only group that would like to quash any science that pokes holes in its sacred cows. I fail to see the problem here. If the way men's brains work means that more men are likely to have an aptitude for hard sciences than women, so what? Equality doesn't mean equal representation, it means equal opportunity. There's nothing in this data that says all women will struggle with math and hard sciences. Surely there's enough anecdotal evidence to the contrary. I know a woman who is quite literally a rocket scientist. I can only assume she is one because she's good at math and science and did well in school or she never would have gotten her degree. But the fact that she's done well in this field doesn't mean we should push all women to try for that anymore than we should want all men to be rocket scientists. If we stop focusing on trying to make everything the same and instead let individuals, males and females alike, work in areas for which they individually excel, then we'll be much better off. Equality means my friend should have the same opportunity as her male colleagues to advance in her field, based on her qualifications and her skills, not her gender. Equality does not mean that half the people she works with must be women.

That said, I do understand where the overreaction comes from. On the other extreme, there are those on the radical right who would use data such as this to prove that women as a whole can't do as well in science and math and therefore shouldn't try. This will be seen as proof that God made men for one set of jobs and women for another and never the twain shall meet. That is, quite simply, a misuse of the data. The mere fact that findings like this can be misused doesn't mean that we should rail against the findings themselves, however. It means we have to be careful not to make it say more than it does. Men tend to have different strengths than women. Despite this, some women excel in traditionally male-dominated fields, and some men excel in traditionally female-dominated fields. We as a society will be better off when we stop worrying about fitting men and women to preconceived molds, be they "equal" molds or "different" molds, and instead focus on individual strengths. When the best person for the job gets the job--any job--regardless of gender (or race, or any other irrelevant factor), that's when we will have real equality, not when women make up 50% of any given field.


At 1:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We as a society will be better off when we stop worrying about fitting men and women to preconceived molds, be they "equal" molds or "different" molds, and instead focus on individual strengths. Right, but this needs to mean that individual students' strengths, particularly those of underrepresented groups in whatever discipline, are encouraged. For example, telling someone who received an award for being the best combined math and science student for her year that her sudden slide from A's to C's is the result "of something that just happens sometimes when you get to be 16." (Or you know, it could be depression and an undiagnosed case of ADD. Maybe a more supportive statement would have not deflated the self-confidence, or indeed pleasure, in math so much and helped around those obstacles.)*

To get back to the main point; yes, it's about equal opportunity for students to shine at what they do best. Which is another reason it's a terrible disservice to drop any part of the curriculum that brings balance, such as phys. ed, music, and art.

*I'm not sure why, but writing about it I suddenly feel bitter about that again.


At 5:23 PM, Blogger catholic_girl said...

I have read other articles pointing out that the scarcity of women in the upper echelons of academia may be less due to brain capacity and more due to the demands of the field. It leaves no room for taking time off to have kids. And many women seek to cut down on their hours (or leave the field altogether) after having children. It's hard to get tenure on 20 hours a week, and female academics' childbearing years usually coincide with the time when they would be working toward getting tenure. I'll have to see if I can find that article...

At 5:53 PM, Blogger Bad Methodist said...

I think I remember that article, something about maybe it's best for women if they do things backwards, have kids early and careers later because the career system doesn't mesh well with women's biological systems, for women who want to have kids anyway.

I think the more options there are so that individuals can plot their own courses based on their interests and their skills, the better.

And to T: yeah, we definitely need to make sure opportunities are there and that they aren't quashed over stupid reasons. Again, this would be solved by individuals treated like individuals instead of blanket "All girls..." or "All teenagers..." generalizations. :P

At 6:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We as a society will be better off when we stop worrying about fitting men and women to preconceived molds, be they "equal" molds or "different" molds, and instead focus on individual strengths. Precisely! The differences in men and women's brains, strentghs, etc. should be seen as descriptive rather than prescriptive.

It is a biological fact: Women in general have better peripheral vision than men and men have better long distance vision. It is what it is. Does that mean that if a man has fabulous peripheral vision we should tell him to wear blinders to make him "less feminine"?



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