Bartholet and Sommers Debate Innate Gender Differences


On April 19th, Dr. Christina Hoff Sommers from the American Enterprise Institute and HLS Professor Elizabeth Bartholet discussed whether innate gender differences matter in Academia. Sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the discussion was responding to President Lawrence Summers’ controversial speech.

“I actually think genetic differences between men and women may exist,” commented Bartholet. “I think they may. I think there’s, in fact, if I had to guess, I think they are probably related to women’s greater propensity to think more, care more – I’m prepared to believe that. We don’t have much way of knowing whether there are any genetic differences because there is so much going on in way of the first and third factors that Summers talked about, so much going on in shaping the work world, that given how much is going on in socializing women to be the nurturers of society and given conscious and unconscious bias, we simply have no way of knowing whether there are some genetic differences that might affect how a woman as a lawyer might be as compared to a man as a lawyer, how a woman as a scientist might be as compared to a man as a scientist.”

Responding to what she termed Larry Summers Speech 1 (January 14th) and Larry Summers Speech 2, Bartholet noted the differences between the speeches, that the second speech omitted the second factor of Summers’ original speech, that there was a genetic difference between men and women, framed the 80 hour week not in terms of choice but in terms of effects, and focused more on conscious and unconscious bias.

“We all know that Summers was under pressure,” Bartholet stated. “It could just be a political correctness product. [Although] I’m quite sure he had not done the research the first time around, I just want to say that he got it a lot closer to right the second time.”

Sommers, on the other hand, disagreed, and believed that there was a lot of truth in Summers’ original speech.

“I don’t share your admiration for Summers’ recantation,” responded Sommers. “In an Onion [story] that I just read recently, it said that ‘Larry Summers Agrees to Wear a Dress For the Next Semester.’ Stop apologizing, President Summers.”

Sommers believes that men and women are inherently different, and that this difference could be embraced instead of shunned.

“Men and women have different life passions,” asserted Sommers, in explaining that the fact that women weren’t top physicists might be more of a matter of choice. “Some fields, like family medicine, were not always open to women and women ploughed ahead there … It makes you wonder whether the bias hypothesis isn’t weak in this way. Given the history that differences between men and women were interpreted to be reflective of male superiority, it’s understandable that feminists would react with suspicion to any discussion about [these differences]. But we should not respond to bad science with more bad science. This requires clear science, clear thinking, and an understanding that Mother Nature might not play by the rules of political correctness – even at Harvard.”

The fundamental dispute between Sommers and Bartholet is whether the disproportionate lack of female top scientists is a problem that needs to be corrected or not.

“I often find among academic feminists a type of elitism [that shows] how far they are from representing the majority of what women want,” commented Sommers. “Women don’t want careers exactly like men, 1/3 of women do, 30%, but 1/3 want to be homemakers. And then most of us are intermediates, or jugglers who sort want it all, and that would mean for most of us a slightly different career than men. It’s a very serious mistake that feminists make to assume that women want careers exactly like men.”

Bartholet, on the other hand, that the lack of female top scientists indicated an “overwhelming problem.”

“I think it is unimaginable that whatever genetic difference might exist between men and women can justify the job, wealth and related power differential between men and women today,” commented Bartholet. “We have a problem that we need to address that despite the passage of Title 7 that women are overwhelmingly disadvantaged in terms of jobs, title, and money, and at the same time overwhelmingly responsible for raising children when they get so little support from the men of the world. That strikes me as an overwhelming problem.”

Bartholet believed that there are different ways to address the real causes of why women are not top scientists, and not the gender differences. To respond to unconscious bias, Bartholet advocated that legal doctrines should hold liable unconscious bias as well as intentional bias.

“As teacher of employment discrimination, the theories today are problematic,” commented Bartholet. “Disparate treatment today should get at the hands at both conscious and unconscious bias, and at the hands of the courts today, it’s very difficult to get at any kind of subtle bias. Statistics is the only legal tool to get at unconscious bias… It would be nice to revive these legal theories but that is difficult to do today with these courts, and frankly this congress and this President.”

The main problem, according to Bartholet, is the 80 hour week, Summers’ first factor.

“This is what you are faced with, this is the major problem – for women and for men,” asserted Bartholet. “For men, I think would like to be nurturers [also] at least of their own children, and 80 hour week is incompatible with that. It’s impossible for women to make it to the top unless they give up all that to some degree. If you look to the top of science, it’s an incredibly sad picture. The women who make it to the top have overwhelmingly surrendered family, having children, and the men who make it to the top have not because they have spouses who are taking care of the family.”

Her solutions to the 80 hour week, in contrast to Summers suggestions of “flextime,” which she said is “just not doing enough for women,” is to reduce the workload across the board, not just for women.

“I have never heard of another country where there is as much of the 80 hour week phenomenon as there is in the United States, so the notion that it has to be this way is unfounded,” commented Bartholet. “Reduce the workload, get rid of the 80 hour week, get rid of the rewards for the 80 hour week, limit the hours. Now, that would be quite radical in our society. So when other people suggest that extend the tenure clock to make it that women can have three babies and get tenure 10, 12 years down the line, that’s not a solution that is good for women. Instead, limit the amount of work that is required to get tenure. [Although,] the world I live in is moving in the opposite direction, it used to be that you have to publish one article, now it’s five or six.”

Sommers disagreed, and stated that limiting the 80 hour week would unfairly impinge on the freedom of this country. Citing France, where there is a limit on the amount of work that people can do, Sommers asserted that the French system was facing its own problems about the lack of autonomy.

“Getting rid of the 80 hour work week would introduce into our society a level of coercion that we don’t want,” commented Sommers. “I have worked an 80 hour week and I did it because I love it – it’s not even work, it’s flow when you are that happy with your job… We have a much more dynamic thriving economy [than the French] and that’s what we want, we want there to be choices in society.”

Bartholet’s second suggestion for how to better equalize men and women in the workforce was to shift some of the child-caring responsibilities to the men.

“We need to get the men into the house,” commented Bartholet. “It’s easy to say, but how will we accomplish that… Other countries mandate that you have to take parental leave, that you don’t have a choice. In MIT, instead of just extending the tenure clock for anyone to choose it, they said that they will extend the clock for anybody whether they ask for it or n
ot – if they are a parent.”

Sommers responded that the majority of women who choose to be caretakers don’t want men in the home.

“Do we want men to help in the home?” questioned Sommers. “If you look at the polls, the average American women doesn’t want that. There is evidence though that women want more time for mothering. If you would open day care facilities, Harvard thinks it would suddenly get a bunch of female scientists, [but] you’re losing scientists because some very talented women who would be talented scientists are pulled in a different direction. We have to be very respectful of what women want.”

Bartholet’s final solution is to introduce a system for paid homework, where that work that gets done at home is paid. While admitting that this is a difficult suggestion, considering that all other nurturing work such as teachers and social workers are historically underpaid, she stated, “They’re all hard solutions… but I don’t see any road to equality without working on those problems.”

Sommers on the other hand thought that such a system is impractical and unnecessary, considering that it is not really what women want.

“It seems so na├»ve,” asserted Sommers. “We’re a country who can’t figure out how to take care of social security without going bankrupt… Some feminists at Harvard might disapprove, but some women find a great deal of meaning in caring for their children. Over and over again, American women at 84 or 85% say that they’re happy with their lives, so why would there be such a radical measure to transform their lives when there is no evidence that they want these changes or that it will do any good. All because of this misguided idea of equality. What we want is equality of opportunity, not sameness.”

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