Women are underrepresented in the STEM (scientific, technical, engineering, and mathematics) fields, and current policy is based on the notion that this results solely from invidious discrimination, with Teh Patriarchy suppressing Teh Wymyns out of — well, actual motives aren’t often cited, but they are assumed to be Eeeevile.

Professor Jacobson cites a Cornell University study that suggests that this might not be entirely the case. From the abstract:

“Explanations for women’s underrepresentation in math-intensive fields of science often focus on sex discrimination in grant and manuscript reviewing, interviewing, and hiring. Claims that women scientists suffer discrimination in these arenas rest on a set of studies undergirding policies and programs aimed at remediation. More recent and robust empiricism, however, fails to support assertions of discrimination in these domains.”

The good Professor and his commenters cite the experience of Larry Summers, but the focus of the Cornell study and Prof. Summers’s case are quite different. The study continues the assumption that men and women are not different in aptitude for the STEM fields, and concentrates on external factors (“…differences in resources attributable to career and family-related choices that set women back”) as the cause of the difference. Professor Summers was castigated for suggesting that there may, in fact, be innate differences between males and females that result in both the differences in performance (or representation) and the precursors cited by the Cornell researchers.

The question of what constitutes “feminine” and “masculine” traits is more open than it sometimes seems from current attitudes. Sociologists cling to the “blank slate” — the absurd notion that human beings have absolutely no innate traits, with fallback to “none that differ between male and female” — for reasons that are more political than scientific. That view is being challenged by current research, which suggests that there may, in fact, be sex-linked innate differences. Such differences might also be the cause of the lifestyle choices made in early childhood which result in large discrepancies between male and female performance in various fields as adults. If a child selects, out of personal preference, pursuits that are stereotypically “artistic”, he or she will fail to concentrate on the early stages of, e.g., mathematics, and as an adult will not have the necessary precursor learning for success as a mathematician. There is much to learn in either subject, and learning enough of either to achieve success tends to preclude investigation in the other; thus are small differences in early preference amplified by the passage of time.

If differences exist, clearly they will sometimes result in inequities which should be addressed, but policies that would be effective in that respect would look quite different from policies based on interchangeability hidden by (posited) deliberate suppression.

As I have suggested before, my personal prejudice is that the differences relate back to the set of characteristics called, in the extreme, “autism” — the STEM pursuits reward concentration and the ability to ignore disturbing influences in order to tease out details, which is a characteristic of the syndrome. Males appear to be more susceptible to, or to have from birth, autistic traits than females; it follows that the small minority of females who do, in fact, exhibit those traits suffer discrimination based on the stereotype that they do not exist. Proper redress for that discrimination would employ affirmative action as originally conceived.

“Affirmative action” is often misunderstood, and has gained opprobrium in some circles because what is actually practiced is not affirmative action but a quota system resting on the assumption that no differences exist. If all women have the same ability in, say, mathematics as all men do, any difference in their presence in math-related fields can only be laid to inappropriate discrimination, and any proper redress must result in equal presence of men and women in the field. True affirmative action rests on the contrary assumption. If the proportion of women who possess the traits necessary for success in mathematics is much smaller than the proportion of men who have those traits, a stereotype arises: the assumption is made that no women possess those traits, and therefore women can be excluded a priori. True affirmative action would constitute a proactive policy of exposing women and girls to the conditions necessary for success in mathematics, holding them to the same standards for success as men are required to meet, and rewarding the minority who pass the test with the same benefits as the men who succeed receive.

If innate differences do in fact exist, such a policy would result in a continued imbalance, with far more males in mathematics than females, and this is intolerable to the “blank slate” crowd, who continue to insist that differences in outcome are and can only be the result of invidious discrimination. The result is much more heat than light on the subject. If we are to be truly scientific, we cannot make assumptions based solely upon what we might consider to be the desirable outcome, and this is as true of the people holding the stereotypes as it is of those attempting to combat them.