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The Times’s Weak-Willed Women

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The Times’s Weak-Willed Women

How else to explain female absence from the sciences? January 28, 2009

Women, feminists proclaim again and again, are strong, indomitable, and equal in every way to men. Except, that is, when they run up against an obstacle, thrown malevolently in their path, that is too formidable even for them, such as . . . a sitcom.

New York Times science reporter Natalie Angier recently called for renewed attention to the lack of proportional representation of women in science. (In the past, Angier has made something of a specialty of discovering proper gender role models in nature, along the lines of dominatrix polyps and sexually submissive male arachnids.) The imbalance in the sciences, Angier reported, is especially bad in physics, where just 6 percent of full professors are women. After canvassing some current theories explaining the imbalance, Angier offered her own scapegoats: “Bubble-headed television shows like ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ with its four nerdy male physics prodigies and the fetching blond girl next door.”

Imagine the devastation that such a show might wreak. A 15-year-old math whiz is happily immersed in the Lorentz transformations, the basis for the theory of special relativity. She looks up at the tube and sees a fictional group of male physics students bashfully speaking to a feisty blonde. Her confidence and enthusiasm shattered, she drops out of her AP physics course and starts hanging out at the mall with the cheerleading squad.

Gender-insensitive TV shows are just the start of the barriers blocking girls’ entry to the empyrean of pure science. There’s also the father of modern physics himself. What self-respecting girl wants to look like Albert Einstein? “As long as we’re making geek [culture] chic” under our new, science-friendly president, Angier suggests, “let’s lose the Einstein ’do and moustache.” We’re in whiplash territory here. For years, we have been told that the patriarchy brainwashes women into excessive concern with appearance. Now, however, it turns out that girls with an innate knack for science could be turned away from their calling just because the Über Role Model is frumpy. If Einstein had looked like Tom Cruise or Angelina Jolie, apparently, girls would be clamoring to participate in the Math Olympiad and earning their proportionate share of physics Ph.D.s.

Which is it? Are women “strong”? Or can they be crushed by fears of a permanent bad hair day and inspired by something as superficial as Hollywood fashion? Given the amount of time and money that most women spend on applying makeup, blow-drying their hair, shopping for clothes, and gullibly attending to preposterous wrinkle-cream ads in women’s magazines, Angier’s claim that girls could be thwarted by a TV comedy is not wholly unreasonable. It just happens to contradict the usual feminist claim that women are just as tough as men.

The evidence to date suggests that the highest-level math skills—those required for research physics—aren’t evenly distributed among men and women. Men greatly outnumber women at the very highest and lowest ends of the mathematics aptitude curve. As Christina Hoff Sommers has documented, men also show greater interest in abstract, non-empathetic careers than women. Of course, the conflicting demands of raising a family and pursuing pure science undoubtedly influence women’s career paths as well. If scientific pursuit can be made more family-friendly without in any way damaging its essential strengths, such changes should be contemplated. But the fertility clock and women’s greater involvement with their babies are not chauvinist plots; they are biological realities.

Unfortunately, Angier’s conviction that sexism lurks behind women’s rarity in the most abstract sciences isn’t confined to the New York Times or even to academia. A congressional bill, the Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering Act of 2008, would apply Title IX gender quotas to academic science. Barack Obama endorsed the bill during the presidential campaign; women’s groups are clamoring for action.

Obama has indeed presented himself as a science president. Rejecting feminist propaganda, however belatedly, regarding sexism in science would be a strong start in justifying that title. In the meantime, stay tuned for the latest twist in feminists’ contradictory—dare one say, irrational?—apologetics.

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