Virginia Valian, a psychologist at Hunter College, is one of the most cited authorities in the crusade to achieve equity for women in the sciences. Her book Why So Slow? (MIT Press, 1998) is indispensable to the movement because it offers a solution to a vexing problem: women’s seemingly free but actually self-defeating choices. Not only do fewer women than men choose to enter the physical sciences, but even those who do often give child care and family a higher priority than their male colleagues. How, in the face of women’s clear tendencies to choose other careers and more balanced lifestyles, can one reasonably attribute the scarcity of women in science and engineering to unconscious bias and sexist discrimination? Valian showed the way.
Her central claim is that our male-dominated society constructs and enforces “gender schemas.” gender schema is an accepted system of beliefs about the ways men and women differ—a system that determines what suits each gender. Writes Valian: “In white, Western middle-class society, the gender schema for men includes being capable of independent, autonomous action…[and being] assertive, instrumental, and task-oriented. Men act. The gender schema for women is different; it includes being nurturant, expressive, communal, and concerned about others.”...
To achieve a gender-fair society, Valian advocates a concerted attack on conventional gender schemas. This includes altering the way we raise our children. Consider the custom of encouraging girls to play with dolls. Such early socialization, she says, creates an association between being female and being nurturing. concludes, “Egalitarian parents can bring up their children so that both boys and girls play with dolls and trucks.... From the standpoint of equality, nothing is more important.”
But what if our daughters are not especially interested in trucks, as almost any parent can attest (including me: when my son recently gave his daughter a toy train to play with, she placed it in a baby carriage and covered it with a blanket so it could get some sleep)? a problem, says Valian.
“We don’t accept biology as destiny…. We vaccinate, we inoculate, we medicate.... propose we adopt the same attitude toward biological sex differences.” In other words, the ubiquitous female propensity to nurture should be treated as a kind of disorder or disease....
Naturally, the solution to these problems is a greater expansion of government intervention in university life:
Alice Hogan, former director of ADVANCE, explained in a 2005 interview that the MIT study had been a wake-up call for the NSF. In the past, she said, the NSF had funded programs to support the careers of individual women scientists, but the MIT report persuaded its staff that “systemic” change was imperative.
Since 2001, the NSF has given approximately $107 million to 28 institutions of higher learning to develop transformation projects. Hunter College, the site of Valian’s $3.9 million program, is one of them. The University of Michigan has received $3.9 million; the University of Puerto Rico at Humacao, $3.1 million; the of Rhode Island, $3.5 million; and Cornell, $3.3 million. What are these schools doing with the money?
Some of the funds are being used for relatively innocuous, possibly even beneficial, projects such as mentoring programs and conferences. But there are worrisome programs as well.
Michigan is experimenting with “interactive” theater as a means of raising faculty consciousness about gender bias. At special workshops, physicists and engineers watch skits where overbearing men ride roughshod over hapless but obviously intellectually superior female colleagues. The director/writer, Jeffrey Steiger of the University of Michigan theater program, explains that the project is inspired by Brazilian director Augusto Boal’s book Theatre of the Oppressed (1974). Boal writes, “I believe that all the truly revolutionary theatrical groups should transfer to the people the means of production in the theater.” To this end, the Michigan faculty members don’t just watch the plays, but are encouraged to interact with the cast and even join them on stage. Some audience members will find the experience “threatening and overwhelming,” and Steiger aims to provide them a “safe” context for expressing themselves....
More than just silliness however, are the expansion of quotas:
More mainstream schools are using their ADVANCE funds more conventionally—to initiate quota programs. At Cornell, as of 2006, 27 of 51 science and engineering departments had fewer than 20 percent women, and some had no women at all. It is using its NSF grant for a program called ACCEL (Advancing Cornell’s Commitment to Excellence and Leadership), dedicated to filling science faculty with “more than” 30 percent women in time for the university’s sesquicentennial in 2015.
Science guys, gentleman-nerds that they are, have no clue how to deal with the feminsit onslaught. The results could be ominous.
The power and glory of science and engineering is that they are, adamantly, evidence-based. But the evidence of gender bias in math and science is flimsy at best, and the evidence that women are relatively disinclined to pursue these fields at the highest levels is serious. When the bastions of science pay obsequious attention to the flimsy and turn a blind eye to the serious, it is hard to maintain the view that the science enterprise is somehow immune to the enthusiasms that have corrupted other, supposedly “softer” academic fields.
Few academic scientists know anything about the equity crusade. Most have no idea of its power, its scope, and the threats that they may soon be facing. The business community and citizens at large are completely in the dark. This is a quiet revolution. Its weapons are government reports that are rarely seen; amendments to federal bills that almost no one reads; small, unnoticed, but dramatically consequential changes in the regulations regarding government grants; and congressional hearings attended mostly by true believers.
American scientific excellence is a precious national resource. It is the foundation of our economy and of the nation’s health and safety. Norman Augustine, retired CEO of Lockheed Martin, and Burton Richter, Nobel laureate in physics, once pointed out that MIT alone—its faculty, alumni, and staff—started more than 5,000 companies in the past 50 years. Will an academic science that is quota-driven, gender-balanced, cooperative rather than competitive, and less time-consuming produce anything like these results? So far, no one in Congress has even thought to ask.