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Essay

The Misguided Mathematics Of Equating Women and Men

By Sally Quinn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 19, 2005; Page C01

This Harvard flap just won't go away.

Larry Summers, the president of Harvard, brought up a provocative issue, one that deserves to be examined, when he speculated about whether women are as good as men at math and science. Whether he was the one to do it or whether the forum he chose was the right one -- or whether he is, in fact, the right president for Harvard -- is another matter. He is not known for his diplomacy, which is why he was secretary of the Treasury and not of state.

The presidents of Stanford, MIT and Princeton have all ganged up on Summers. He's bent over backward to apologize, and released the transcript of his remarks, but the faculty is in high dudgeon and set to meet with him next week. A lot of women are still mad at him.


Mr. Diplomacy? Remember, Harvard President Larry Summers was secretary of the Treasury, not state. (Doug Mcfadd -- Getty Images)

The problem is that some of the women who heard what Larry Summers said did exactly what they are stereotypically criticized for doing. They got hysterical. One professor at MIT who walked out was quoted as saying that if she had stayed, "I would've either blacked out or thrown up." This is pathetic.

Women need to take a good look at what is so threatening to them about this issue. "He touched the third rail of science -- the difference between the sexes," a female scientific friend said. "Naturally sparks are going to fly. It reminds me of all those feminists who insisted girl babies are just like boy babies. Until they actually had a girl baby." Summers himself used that as an example; his twin 2 1/2-year-old daughters, he said, "who were not given dolls and who were given trucks," were heard to say, "Look, daddy truck is carrying the baby truck."

Certainly there are individual women who excel in math and science and since they've only recently had a seat at the table at all, it's still a little early to see how they'll do. What we know is that there are many more male mathematicians and scientists than there are female, both in the worlds of science and academia.

The question is why. We know too that women have been discouraged from studying these subjects. Until 50 years ago most women didn't work outside the home and very few sought higher degrees. Today many professional women take time off to have babies. But all those cultural factors still don't totally explain the science gap.

I for one would like to know the truth. If it should turn out, after careful scientific study, that men are hardwired to do better in math and science, I can handle it. It would certainly ease my mind about my own shortcomings in these areas. I'm serious.

I can barely add and subtract. When I took the SAT I guessed at every single math answer. I did so well in English that I got into Smith College despite my miserable math score. I took botany as my science requirement thinking it was flower arranging.

So I'm not the one to resolve this issue. But it's time for the women who excel in these subjects to step up to the plate. Why don't female mathematicians and scientists, particularly at Harvard, get together and research this issue until they have definitive answers instead of reaching for the smelling salts? If it's proved that women are equal in math and science, then great. We'll know it once and for all. If it's proved otherwise we'll know that, too.

Such an outcome would not be the end of the world. Have you ever had a conversation with a brilliant male mathematician? These guys can be really dumb. They may understand the theory of relativity, but they don't get the joke. There are so many ways in which women are smarter than men that it isn't even fair. I figure that if men are better in these subjects -- well, they deserve to be better at something.

Lots of men are bigger and stronger than I am. So are elephants. What I want is to live in a world where we are so confident of our own abilities that we can accept the fact that men may have an edge on us in some ways -- if in fact they do, poor devils.

We all know that women have the power. So if it turns out that men are better at some things than we are, let's just give it to them, girls.


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