Innate genetic differences and men without filters

One of the things that gets me fired up on a regular basis is when I hear the name Larry Summers.  (which incidentally happens often since he is the Director of the National Economic Council for Barak Obama)  I’ll sometimes hear his name brought up on NPR on may way to or from work and it’ll get my mind zooming through all sorts of scenarios.

Before I get too deep into why, let me fill you in on some Summer’s background.  Back in January of 2005 Summers was the president of Harvard University and speaking at a conference organized by the National Bureau of Economic Research.   The issue under discussion was underrepresentation of women at the upper levels of physical science and engineering.   Summers offered the following three explanations, in descending order of importance for why there is such an underrepresentation:

  1. Women want to have children, and as a result they don’t put in the 80-hour work week that would make them competitive with their male peers;
  2. Innate differences between men and women lead men to outperform women at the top end;
  3. Discrimination discourages women from pursuing science and engineering past their undergraduate education.

Now let me say a few words about Summers as the person, because I’ve worked with several men like him.   I have found that there are some very smart men who have impressed companies (or in this case government & academic institutions) over time with ideas and theories that were game changers. People are always impressed with someone who can predict an event, invent a product, or produce a theory that most of us, even the smart ones, didn’t see coming.  The thing is, out of 100 ideas that come out of their mouths, only 1 is anywhere near accurate.   I like to refer to them as “filterless smarties”.

The filterless smarties have realized that people will not focus on their 99 bad ideas, but continue to be amazed by their 1 good idea.  As they get older, they continue to say more and more outrageous things, because they’ve earned these reputations as “provocative, out of the box thinkers”.   Now don’t think I dislike fitlerless smarties.  I think they have a very important place in companies and academia as consultants.  The ideal is to surround these smarties with a logical, capable team of people who can help identify the 1 good idea, work out the details of implementation, and execute to it.  If you put the smartie in charge, you’ll end up following him into countless dead ends, pissing off the team working with him, and no progress will be made.  You want a filterless smartie as a consultant, not the leader in charge.

Now this is where Harvard made a mistake making Summers the president and where I believe Obama has made a mistake making him the director.  With these titles behind his name, he’s no longer free to make these outrageous statements that got him the reputation as genius and out of the box thinker.  When he says something crazy, a whole organization thrashes with the statement.  He ends up pissing off most of the country and no progress is made.

Back to his comments about why women are underrepresented in engineering…

His three reasons are certainly nothing new and original.  They have been brought up before in countless articles, research, grant proposals, etc.  The real outrage at him saying them was that he seems to believe they are truths (and he was saying them as the President of Harvard University, not as Summers- Armchair Thinker).

Let me make a few comments about each and then wrap up this post as I know I’ll be commenting much more on these three themes throughout this blog….

  1. Women want to have children, and as a result they don’t put in the 80-hour work week that would make them competitive with their male peers
    • It is true that most women want children, though not all.  Just because a woman has children does not mean she feels some overwhelming urge to relinquish all career goals and drop down to a 9-5 (or less) job.  I work with and know lots of technical women.  They have all sorts of family structures to raise their children- extended family, stay at home husbands, babysitters, nannies…  I also think it’s very short sited to believe that only women would want to cut back on working hours to raise their kids.  Society pressures make it “ok” for women to stop working and “ok” for men to miss out child rearing for more hours at work.   I know alot of men, including my father and husband, who would do just about anything to work less and see their family more.
    • One other note on this one…I think it is ridiculous to assume that only by working 80+ hour weeks can you get ahead in the world.  We all need to focus on working on the high priority, biggest impact items, and dropping all those “should do” tasks that eat up time.  Athletes and musicians, who make millions, focus all their energies on the few things they do well- and manage sleep every night.
  2. Innate differences between men and women lead men to outperform women at the top end
    • There are innate differences between every single person on earth.  It is what makes us unique.  I am genetically similar to my sisters and brother but can guarantee you we think differently.  I think it is outrageous to assume you can just group men and women into two groups and stereotype them as thinking similarly because they are genetically male or genetically female.
    • Ever look at a list of the different types of engineering and science fields?  There are dozens of them.  You can be wired to think and excel at biomedical engineering but only be marginal at nuclear physics.  What I think is a more interesting study is to look into what types of engineering and science women tend to lead.  I think that may say more about our interests and innate ability than blanketly claiming we’re not as good at any of it.
  3. Discrimination discourages women from pursuing science and engineering past their undergraduate education
      • I think this is the most interesting statement that Summers made.  Is there discrimination in the corporate and academic world discouraging women?  I think there is.
      • I believe that in the last forty years there has been alot of awareness brought to this discrimination.  As a result there are countless organizations, studies, grants, and awards pushing for change.  I believe as a result the discrimination has lessened, at least in certain pockets.
      • My goal in this blog is to share with you my journey as an engineer and the discrimination (or lack of discrimination) I encounter.  I don’t believe there is enough documentation out there about the thoughts and daily lives of real women engineers.

    Here’s to the beginning of a new decade….Happy 2010!


    2 responses to this post.

    1. Posted by Mark on January 7, 2010 at 11:59 pm

      Hi Allison, I’m enjoying your blog 🙂

      However, I’m surprised at the weakness of this particular post.

      Regarding your comments/responses to Larry Summers, I think your first response is the weakest of the three. I believe there is ample evidence to support his claim (please accept my apology for not citing evidence here). Your response does not address any evidence, just your opinions. You are appealing to personal considerations which I believe is a form of ad hominen fallacy.

      Your second response, to be more credible, could have avoided the outrage over his assumption that all men are the same and all women are the same, and investigated deeper whether or not the qualities of a person at the top of and engineering field are actually incapable of being possessed by a woman. And regarding the fields in which women lead, I’d be interested to know what are those fields. This information would make your response more credible.

      And finally, in your third response, I would have liked to see you address Larry Summer’s argument that “discrimination was economically unlikely because it would put institutions at a disadvantage compared to institutions that did not discriminate.”

      I appreciate your willingness to share your journey as an engineering gal. Please accept this input in the spirit in which it is offered 🙂


    2. Posted by Mark on January 8, 2010 at 12:01 am

      P.S. I don’t think he pissed off most of the country when he made these statements. At best, he probably pissed off only half the country 🙂


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