A woman's place ... is not at Harvard
Robin McKie and Paul Harris in New York
Sunday March 6, 2005
Disputes involving academics are usually hammered out in obscure journals or debated over wine and cheese in an ivory tower. But the battle triggered by Harvard's president Larry Summers has met a different fate. It has threatened his job, made front-page news in America, seen the campus divided and brought out placard-waving students.
As one columnist put it, it has become The Story That Will Not Die - and all because Summers asked the question: why can't a woman be more like a man?
At a private meeting, he speculated that differences between male and female brains explain why there are few women at top universities in science and maths. A female professor leaked his comments to the press and engulfed Summers, Harvard and academia in controversy. Critics slammed Summers as sexist while others accused his opponents of trying to dictate what can or cannot be said on campuses. It has also exposed Harvard's academic record. Last year only four of 32 tenure offers there were made to women.
But Summers also reignited the most controversial of debates: the neurological divide between men and women. Are there differences between male and female brains which explain discrepancies in the achievements of the sexes?
According to the latest research, the answer is 'yes' to the first part of the question, and 'no' to the second. 'This says more about Harvard than it does of men's or women's brains,' said geneticist Professor Steve Jones, author of Y: The Descent of Men. 'The place has got its head up its ass about this.'
For Jones, the idea that differences in brain wiring account for the lack of senior female academics in science is untenable. 'There are very few Jews in farming but that doesn't mean they cannot farm. It is all to do with background, and until you can eliminate the issue, you cannot make the generalisations Summers has made.'
While there have been few changes in gender ratios among science academics in the US, in Europe there have been major rises in numbers of women gaining senior posts.
Scientists admit that recent studies have shown basic differences between male and female brains. The former are slightly larger, though the sexes perform equally well at IQ tests. Women's brains seem to have more neural connections between the hemispheres. Researchers think this is why women recover better from strokes: they can move functions to other brain regions.
'It is undoubtedly true there are key differences between male and female brains,' said the physiologist Baroness Susan Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution in London. 'You can see that in children: girls learn to read before boys, while boys are better at spatial tasks. That does not mean boys make better scientists than girls, however.'
This is backed by university statistics. Thirty years ago women accounted for only one in 10 science and engineering PhDs. Today women earn a third of all science doctorates.
Brain scanning technology does show real physiological differences. 'The brain is a sex organ,' said Dr Sandra Witelson, a leading Canadian neurosurgeon. 'It's as simple as that. Testosterone floods the male foetus and produces changes in its neural wiring.'
Thus boys and girls react to the world in different ways. Men can better separate cognitive and emotional issues. 'Men can push a painful emotional experience - an ill son or daughter, for example - to the back of their minds when they come to work,' said Witelson. 'A woman finds that more difficult.'
'As a result, their cognitive performances can be affected, giving women a disadvantage, particularly in important, stressful jobs. On the other hand, this ability to combine cognitive and emotional thinking makes women far more important to families and communities. That this leaves them disadvantaged when seeking a job like that of the president of Harvard is the evolutionary price they pay for being female.'