The controversial speech by then Harvard President Lawrence Summers in 2005 to the US National Bureau of Economic Research, and the debate afterwards, is interesting to review. He suggested one reason there are relatively few women in top positions in science may be “issues of intrinsic aptitude.” It’s this intrinsic aptitude, which I find interesting. Summers opened his remarks by saying that he had been asked to be provocative, and he noted that women in science are not the only group whose underrepresentation contributed to a shortage of role models. (He discusses other disparities in female employment in higher education – but that’s for another blog post!) However in regard to the question of aptitude for science, Summers said:
“It does appear that on many, many different human attributes — height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability — there is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference in means — which can be debated — there is a difference in the standard deviation, and variability of a male and a female population. And that is true with respect to attributes that are and are not plausibly, culturally determined.”
According to reports and academic results, when girls and boys first hit their teens the difference in mathematical and scientific capacity is non-existent. However as estrogen floods the female brain, females start to focus intensely on their emotions and on communication – talking with friends, meeting and walking together in groups. At the same time, testosterone takes over the male brain, and boys grow less communicative and become obsessed about scoring (in many genre’s!) Typically it is at this same time teenagers begin deciding the trajectories of their career. Perhaps this is an over simplistic view but due to these hormonal changes at puberty, girls will therefore start to lose interest in pursuits which are more solidarity in favour for interaction with others; whereas boys can easily retreat to their room for hours playing computer games.
Females who choose science, technology, engineering and mathematical (STEM) roles which involve solidarity mental processing, go against our physiological make-up, shaped by hormonal effects, for communication and connection. The fact that fewer females end up in science or engineering employment has nothing to do with female brain deficiency nor a lack of aptitude as Summers proposed.
The female brain has marvellous aptitudes – the ability to defuse conflict; the ability to interpret body language, facial and tone of voice in reading emotions and states of mind; the ability to connect deeply in friendship. The structure, function and chemistry of the female brain affects her thought process, mood, energy, sexual function and well being. Rather than aptitude, it is the female brain-body-behaviour system which is accountable for entering the world of STEM or not.
What Larry Summers Said :