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Unfair to the Fairer Sex

Recent attempts to promote undergraduate women in the sciences miss the mark

By Jason L. Lurie

The ritual of spring where certain elements complain about the paucity of women in the natural sciences at Harvard has, since the Summers Scandal, become a yearlong event. (By “natural sciences” I mean astrophysics, biochemistry, biology, chemistry, chemistry and physics, physics, mathematics, earth and planetary science, statistics and engineering.) Men and women are the same, the argument goes, and so there should be equal numbers of men and women in the sciences. If men outnumber women, it must then be because of some failing in the way Harvard teaches or promotes the natural sciences to women.

One oft-cited reason for the discrepancy is that science problem sets are overly lengthy and difficult; as Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics Howard Georgi ’67-’68 put it in a Crimson feature on women in science on June 5, 2003, “There are times when you’re doing a problem set in a course where you have to keep going even though you don’t know what you’re doing and that’s psychologically easier for men.” Proof of this statement can be found in the inevitable episode of every CBS sitcom in which the married couple is driving in the countryside and gets lost and the wife wants to stop and ask for directions but the husband wants to keep going even though he doesn’t know where he is. It’s psychologically easier for him, you see.

There is also the very popular explanation that women simply prefer small classes to large classes. This theory states that the natural sciences mostly have large, impersonal introductory courses and that women get turned off by this and flock to concentrations where every other class is a four-person tutorial. I would find this argument compelling, except that men do not like large classes either. I did a quick poll of several male friends and, with the exception of one senior who favors large classes on the grounds that they are “easier to skip,” the testosterone junkies unanimously preferred small classes.

And we mustn’t forget that the cutthroat character of scientific publishing goes against the female inclination towards doing things in groups; evidence of this proclivity is found in the observation that women always go to the restroom in groups.

The entire basis behind these ideas is fallacious. Just look at the actual gender breakdown in the concentrations. In the graduating class of ’02, men only outnumbered women in the natural sciences 61 percent to 39 percent. (2001-02 is the most recent year for which I have comprehensive data.) By way of comparison, men outnumbered women 64 percent to 36 percent in economics and government, the two largest concentrations, while women were 65 percent of psychology undergraduates, the third largest concentration.

I guess government, like the natural sciences, is a cutthroat field where the rigors of collaboration and difficult problem sets are just too much for the feeble female mind to handle. And it makes perfect sense to me that the large introductory classes in the natural sciences are too impersonal for the weaker sex while the large introductory classes in psychology are just right.

But reality doesn’t usually enter the decision making process for people with heads as sizeable as those of Harvard faculty. And so Harvard has instituted a number of programs to encourage women to concentrate in the sciences. These include mentorship programs for female undergraduates, a “Big Sister/Little Sister” program, and dinners with faculty members that a few years ago were closed to men.

I have no problem with the intent behind these programs: there honestly aren’t enough women in the sciences. (In the interest of full disclosure, I once dated a girl in the natural sciences whom I met in class.) My objection is with their implementation: they are not enticing any women to join the sciences. Harvard students are renowned for knowing what they want. It presumes a vast amount of shallowness on the part of Harvard females to think that they would choose their concentration based on whether they get a free dinner once a month instead of based on what they enjoy studying. And this ignores entirely that Harvard students are chosen by the admissions office to be “well lopsided;” that is, to be really good at one or two things. I find it unlikely, then, that any additional women tempted into physics by a faculty dinner with a physics professor are coming from the humanities instead of from chemistry or engineering. So the programs don’t solve the problem; they just shift it from one department to another.

Perhaps the worst aspect of these programs is that they take away funding that might otherwise go towards actually solving the problem. For example, one extremely talented female science concentrator I know transferred to a prestigious technical university after just one year at Harvard. Why? Because she had exhausted the science courses she wanted to take here; her new school has a larger selection of courses that interest her. To get the most talented female science concentrators—who have more options open to them, inasmuch as matriculating at or transferring to other schools than their male counterparts (women who want to study science are rare, after all, and any school would love to have the best and brightest among them)—to come to Harvard, less effort should be expended on social events and more should be spent on making our programs in the natural sciences as strong as they can be.

This dilemma is tractable if we can just have the will to get past the rhetoric and politics and focus on solutions that might really work. Does Harvard possess it? Do you?

Jason L. Lurie ’05 is a chemistry concentrator in Cabot House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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