Wednesday, April 30, 2008


Don't remember how but I came across this recent really disturbing article entitled Why can't a woman be more like a man? by this pseudo-feminist (or anti-feminist) named Christina Hoff Sommers.

I had heard of her before because she's the author of that classic contribution "The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men".


What's really scary is that if you didn't know anything about feminism, and read this article I linked to above, you'd think

a) feminism is crap
b) the author is a man.

Assuming you might not want to read the whole article, I want to highlight one major argument she makes and point out the flaw in it.

She cites numerous studies (well, actually doesn't cite all of them but talks vaguely about their existence) showing that girls play differently from boys, draw different pictures (people) than boys (houses). I'm well aware of these studies so it wasn't news to me.

But she keeps coming back to this point as if it explains everything. She claims that veterinary medicine is the dream job for women, since it combines both systematic thinking and empathy, and that this satisfies our (women's) inherent need to nurture.

As an aside, veterinary medicine, if she's right, is an interesting paradigm. They went from 8 percent women in the 1960s, she says, to 77 percent now, supposedly without any kind of role models or mentoring programs.

One has to wonder
a) is that true?
b) how did they do that?

But she doesn't offer any explanation, except to use it to buttress her argument that we shouldn't fund Title IX or similar equity-enhancing programs.

But let's get back to the point about little girls vs. little boys.

1. Hypothesis: What we might have played with as children could be irrelevant to our abilities and career aspirations later in life.

Experiment to test this: Hasn't anyone ever done a survey? Maybe we should. It could be as simple as asking women who are still in science vs. women who hated science vs. women who dropped out of science

whether they

a) played with dolls
b) felt that having a family was paramount
c) felt that having a family was incompatible with, or at least extremely difficult to achieve with, a career in science

Well, actually we already know the answer to c. Which leads me to my other point:

2. Culture is way more important than Hoff-Sommers allows.

She makes a point of saying that most people agree (74%) that women don't go into STEM disciplines because they choose not to.

As usual, the point that gets lost here is why women don't want to. She attributes it to our affinity for playing with dolls when we're little. I attribute it to a hostile climate both in and out of science.

If we had better childcare support (e.g. onsite facilities everywhere), science would just as attainable for women as for men.

Hoff-Sommers is probably one of these ones who buys into the idea that women should shoulder the majority of the child-rearing burden. I don't know. But I think it's a major flaw in her argument.

But pressure to raise a family aside. Let me tell you that I started out liking math, so I think it's culture and not nature that makes women choose not to go into STEM disciplines.

I liked math. I really did. Personally, I did not like dolls. But I didn't particularly like trucks, either.

I liked books. Still do. But gradually math class became less fun. Come to think of it, this started round about when we all hit puberty. Coincidence?

It wasn't until years later that I realized why I stopped enjoying it. I was certainly not aware of gender bias at the time.

Years later when I read studies about boys being called on more often in class (check) and girls losing confidence when they're in the minority (check), it started to dawn on me that this could have been a factor. Maybe the main factor.

I certainly did well enough on aptitude tests to suggest that my performance did not match my potential, but nobody at school seemed to be aware of that.

(It's ironic because the longer I stay in science, the more I notice that I'm being pushed harder to perform up to my supposed potential, which must be much higher than my male colleagues', since they seem to do less but get a lot more credit for it.)

She also quotes somebody as saying there's no objective evidence from the MIT report that women received less laboratory space (they did, measured in square feet how is that not objective??) salary (they did, but she claims the numbers were never released outside MIT, which I'm pretty sure is also not true) or other resources (which refers to what exactly?).

And one more gem, just because I get all warm and fuzzy reading it. She seems to think that equity will make everything worse and more "politicized".

"Departments of physics, math, chemis­try, engineering, and computer science have remained traditional, rigorous, competitive, relatively meritocratic, and under the control of no-nonsense professors dedicated to objec­tive standards. All that may be about to change."

Yup. After some of the comments I've seen in the past week where women were recounting the outrageously blatantly sexist treatment they've received from physics professors especially, not to mention all the sexual harassment lawsuits in computer science departments especially (which are apparently on the rise), I'd say that "relatively meritocratic" and "objective standards" are not descriptors reflecting reality. At all.

Here's hoping she's right that it's about to change. It's about time.

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At 10:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll contribute a data point and comment to your survey.

When I was a kid I LOVED dolls. LOVED. I used to beg my mom to let me wear my froufiest dresses to school every day. Had a fixation with Little Mermaid. Loved the idea of finding a man of my dreams someday. Told everyone I wanted to be either an actress or a scientist when I grew up.

Now I'm a successful grad student in the physical sciences. Also a butch bisexual who doesn't currently own high heels or pantyhose. Go figure.

I think people need to look beyond "dolls" vs "trucks". Yeah, I loved my dolls, but instead of mooning around their invisible boyfriends they were always heading off to stage break-outs from my bedroom and rescue each other from bears in the woods. I think I was really lucky - my family was always quite supportive, adamant that I be able to do whatever I set my mind do, and never suggested that frilly dresses and helping my dad in his woodworking shop were opposing interests (though not at the same time) and I could easily be interested in both. (come to think of it, this could explain at least one of the outcomes above...)

My other thought:
Around middle school, girls AND boys get the message that math and science are painfully dorky and uncool. My idea is this: there's a social category for dorky guys - they get picked on and beat up, band together, and play video games in the basement with their other (wonderfully) dorky friends. THERE IS NO SOCIAL CATEGORY FOR DORKY MIDDLE-SCHOOL GIRLS. At least in my middle school there wasn't. A guy could get away with not being cool, but for a girl, it was death - we were taught to be much more locked into social pressures and fitting in and *not ever being different*, so why would we voluntarily choose an interest, like science, that makes us social pariahs? (and you can't hang out with the boys - then you're dating them or sleeping with them or a weird little slut. I'm not making this up - this is what middle school kids came out with ten years ago. Who knows how bad it is today??) I'm firmly convinced that this is one of the major problem areas - this is the environment where those future women "choose" not to go into STEM.

In college, I often saw freshmen girls go into paroxysms of joy upon meeting others like them: "YOU wear T-shirts and cargo pants and read Stephen Hawking for fun TOO??" I did it myself. We finally had found others like us, and it was GREAT. I just think that not all girls can hold out through the miserable middle school years, and that's where we lose some of the future women with a deep genuine interest in science.

Wow, long - sorry about that. Love your blog - you make some really interesting points and they're always carefully thought out!

At 3:39 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


Love the handle.

You're absolutely right about the lack of dorky pre-teen girl social groups.

I had a few friends who qualified for the title of dorky so I guess we could have been a sort of a group. We just weren't very group-ish (or at least I'm not and never have been). I never felt like I could really bond with them, maybe because they were all extremely shy.

But the timing for me was a little different. I had already decided halfway through elementary school that I was not going to fit in, it would be easy enough but I didn't want to. It definitely did not make middle school fun. But at least where I grew up, middle school was mercifully short.

And I didn't find girls to bond with in college. Au contraire.

College for me was basically a rerun of elementary school, except this time it was drinking-to-extremes in place of dolls. And shopping for husbands in place of shopping for training bras. You get the idea.

I didn't really find any "You too???" friends until grad school.

And now again most of the ones I liked have quit academia. So where does that leave me? Blogging?

At 6:32 PM, Blogger Ψ*Ψ said...

As far as childhood toys, Legos rocked my world. (Now I'm a synthetic chemist. Fitting, yes?)
The only option I found as a nerdy girl in middle school was hanging around with nerdy boys. And they always seemed resistant to accept female company.

At 2:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For information purposes, I'm a woman still in science....though I left physics...I had a very bipolar childhood. My mom sent me to cheerleading camp and twirling competitions and my dad gave me my first pc when I was 7 (back in the day when 640kb was the most memory anyone could ever need) and we watched star trek together and shot guns. More or less what this led to was me not fitting in with a single other person till I went to college a few years early for a math and science program.

Of course that program was the only time I have ever encountered guys and gals that I felt completely comfortable with and there was not even the slightest inclination of gender bias....I swear at that point we didn't realize it even existed because we were all individuals who had been hiding out reading and ignoring the social world.

At 10:13 PM, Blogger El said...

I never had a favorite toy. I played with everything. People always bought me dolls, and I'd play with them when there were other girls around to play with, but most of the time I had to play with cars because of my brothers. I was mostly just flexible to what the kids around me wanted to play. As I got a little older, all I really wanted to do was read and play by myself. In retrospect, I think this says a lot about me, as I'm something of an 'everything to everyone' kind of person.

When I was young, I was happiest when I was observing or learning something. My grandparents took me camping and hiking a lot. That interest faded during puberty until midway through college, but I'm suppose it's how I got to where I am now.

At 8:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, slightly off-topic.
Came across this. What do u think ?

"While I don't care enough to have a particular opinion on such women-career topics, I find the obsessive conformity of the modern IT gen Y men offensive. Men who are abnormally vocal in praising women and over-do the "women are great and will be better C programmers/Presidents/WashingMachines/CEOs than men" sound byte are essentially giving a mating call. The intention of being so loud is the hope that some women would get impressed enough to go to bed with them. While women claim to hate stereotyping and generalizations, they apparently love it when men do all this to praise women. Statements like "women are more versatile" or "women make good prime ministers" are just plain nonsense. There is no statistical evidence or logical backing to this . But women love hearing this. So men say it. It has been a long time since I saw a man contradict another man, when the latter is going on and on about expressing his lifelong commitment and admiration regarding the great progress of women. Because if anybody contradicts and asks a perfectly logical question surrounding the said encomium - the questioner is looked upon as a wife-beating cave man. Thousands and thousands of MCP-category stereotypes await this man. The gay men suddenly switch focus and start taking enormous pride in condemning the logical man - as if they suddenly found a new mating call."

At 12:55 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

I haven't seen evidence of this obsessive conformity to supporting women. On the contrary, I think it's still pretty rare.

The three (ish) men I can think of whom I have heard occasionally say things in praise of women (but rarely OVER the abilities of men) are all very happily married/in long-term relationships. And their comments were made in situations where they had little (or nothing) to gain by saying them. So the "praise women --> get sex" motivation is probably not the only one (!).

I'm sure that if asked, they would say they genuinely believe it.

At least there are a few men who are secure enough to appreciate women, rather than being threatened by anyone who might dare to praise us.

At 2:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good article. I book-marked it to read in detail. As a trailing spouse who just got a tenure-track position in a research department, all I can say is it is brutal. I screwed up a lot, but also did many things right. Probably best not to provide details as it will turn-off the next generation rather than inspire.

At 12:08 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

"Probably best not to provide details as it will turn-off the next generation rather than inspire."???

That goes against the whole point of this blog.

Educate in order to avoid repeating history, get it?

Please tell us, or put a link to your blog where you talk about some of the "highlights".

At 1:16 PM, Blogger Drugmonkey said...

jessica, this "hawkeye" is an idiot, that's what I think.

but even if this were all true...
Because if anybody contradicts and asks a perfectly logical question surrounding the said encomium - the questioner is looked upon as a wife-beating cave man.

so what? so what if feminist-leaning men smack their antediluvian counterparts around for their ideas? It's just the rough and tumble of ideas, right? antediluvian men should just get over it, or deal with it. you know....kinda like they expected women to behave when their antiquated notions about what was acceptable public behavior ruled the day....

At 3:17 PM, Blogger Don't Panic said...

question: women are becoming veterinarians at much higher rates than before; what about medical doctors? the pay gap is huge between the two, so i would wonder if there were at least a correlation, and if you could tease anything out of the data you might find.

(at the same time, i hear that vet school is more competitive on the admissions end because there are fewer degree-granting institutions.)

just an idle thought.

At 11:44 AM, Blogger Alex said...

You know, it's funny, every veterinarian I've ever been to just so happens to have been male. But that aside, about the whole girls-play-with-dolls-boys-play-with-trucks thing, has anyone ever considered that maybe girls play with dolls and boys play with trucks because that's what they're given, and encouraged, to play with?


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