Monday, March 7, 2005

Catching Up: On Larry Summers

Lawrence Summers is a former Clinton administration official, and the current President of Harvard University, a private school. Summers has come under fire for suggesting at a recent conference that physiological differences between men and women may somehow cause women to be less successful in maths and sciences. Summers has apologized time and time again to the politically correct police, seemingly to no avail.

My view on his comments is that, at worst, they are a waste of time. Summers' suggestion has likely been disproved or minimized by research.

There can be no doubt about actual physiological differences between men and women: just drop the pants or lift the skirt for evidence! However, as someone who had to struggle with the difficult coming out process which requires you to readdress accepted gender roles, it is also obvious to me that men and women are subtly (and not so subtly) expected to fill certain roles from childhood by their parents, friends, and every other human on earth.

The human mind excels at categorization. Cultures around the world have found benefits in efficiencies created by allowing assumptions about the roles of strangers and friends alike. For some reason, Western culture has generally found an efficiency in something as analytically arbitrary as men wearing pants and women wearing skirts, or driving on the right side of the road. As with any rule, these assumptions will have any number of exceptions, may be counterproductive, or even proven wrong.

The subtle nature and constant reinforcement of cultural roles can make them feel as if they are actually laws of nature, rather than nurture. Though physiological differences between the brains and bodies of men and women do exist, culture cannot and should not be discounted. Women should be encouraged to excel in traditionally male enterprises, and men should be encouraged to excel in traditionally female enterprise. We've got plenty of work to go around.

This is not to argue that any cultural norm should be arbitrarily discounted or discarded just because it is widely or narrowly held, or even truly useless. The social contract we enter into in order to make sense of our world requires that we maintain mores, taboos, laws, and even presumptions about our relationships with the people around us. But on matters of whether men or women can apply themselves to various areas of endeavor, we should expect only the best.

Larry Summers should not be fired for simply wasting time.

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