Wednesday, April 13, 2005


In January, Harvard's President Lawrence Summers made a statement that landed him in a controversial cascade, when he said that genetic differences may account for the poorer performance of women in academia.
While this statement is quite unsubstantiated, and Summers is admittedly not qualified to say something like this (he is an economist, who earlier was secretary of the treasury), the issue again raises the ever simmering question about the representation of women in academia, especially in the sciences, and in various avenues in the world in general. The issue is very complex, and I have here, only a few musings and questions, mostly questions...

Let us take India. As far as I can remember, in general, girls were always better than boys in school, and in college, when it came to academics. They were simply smarter, harder, and more sincere workers. This is a fact which is reiterated, year after year, in the 10th and 12th standard merit lists. In fact, girls outnumber boys, both in number and largely in quality, even in the engineering and medicine courses, and also the humanities and science courses. If this is the case, I always ask, why don't we find a larger proportion of women on faculties in top universities in India? Why don't we find women making groundbreaking scientific discoveries in places like the India Institute of Science, for example? Why don't we find women authoring textbooks, in both the sciences and humanities? Why don't we find more women lending their expertise to Government and private committees?

I really can speak primarily for the sciences. A recent survey showed that women equalled men, and in fields like biology, even outnumbered men, until about the PhD. level, which approaches in the mid 20s. After that, there is a steady and steep decline in their number, until you find very few women in the files of researchers and teachers among the postdocs and beyond. Clearly, I think this indicates that the pressures of marriage and family do not allow them to spend as much time as is necessary on scientific research, especially a field which requires unusual devotion, time, and patience to one's interests and work.
I believe that even today, women are not truly encouraged by Indian society as a whole to pursue a career that would largely require them to work on their interests, any interests, with abandon. I don't know what is the "solution", if any to this problem, because, as parents, both of the sexes being completely engrossed in their work is definitely detrimental to the well-being of the children, as is proven by scores of cases in the Western world. Whether we like it or not, even today, we have to agree that when there comes a time to truly make a choice, it is almost always the woman who gracefully bows out and decides to shoulder the lion's share of the household responsibility. Why she does so is by itself an interesting question worth exploring. Is it again the social forces that unknowingly prod her in taking this stance, or could it be due to a fundamentally ingrained genetic mother's and caretaker's instinct? (which would put a completely different and unexpected, and in many ways an opposite, spin on Summers's argument)
What surprises me is that even in the US, the number of women who are top researchers, writers, and science administrators is comparatively small (I say this paying due respect to Linda Buck, who won last year's Nobel Prize in Medicine, and whose work forms an inspirational part of my own seminar :-). Why should it be so in a country that hardly is lacking in opportunities for anyone, irrespective of their sex? Again, I don't know the answer.

I would like to relate an observation I made. While this may sound politically incorrect, it is surely not meant to be so, simply an observation. All my life, I have met many intelligent girls and women (my mother, sister and grandmother being the foremost ones of course ;-). However, I can confidently say that I have hardly met any intellectual girls. I remember girls who used to stand first in the class all the time, but had never heard of Karl Marx, or who could not not talk about the basic tenets of Darwin's theory of Evolution (except by reciting the points in the textbook by rote, which was necessary for the final exam). Later on, I went to Ferguson, where surely some of the better students in India (at least in Pune, which in the first place is, I believe, a true educational hub in India) study. I found the same trend. Many very intelligent girls, hardly any intellectual girls. To this day, I am at a loss to explain why this is so. One paradoxical reason I can think of is that the very social forces that encourage girls to receive higher education also channel their resources and talent to meet the traditional and conservative needs of society. For example, do middle class parents encourage and groom their daughter to become well-educated, largely because they think that that's the most likely way she would get a commensurately well-educated husband? I mean, this instinct definitely plays a role; the question is, how much? To get a good husband, perhaps they also think that their daughter should not be a non-conformist when it comes to studies. Maybe that's why they make sure that their daughter focuses only on those things that are well-recognised as good and intelligent by the establishment. In such a case, a girl studying in 12th standard would do anything but not focus on 'getting good marks'.
This plausible hypothesis could also be the explanation for why this same ardor and dedication to excellence rarely continues for many girls, after they finish up with college (engineering, medicine etc.) Apparently, now they have reached the pantheon of suitability that their parents had dreamt up for them since they were born. Now, all that remains to be done is for them to get married to a successful man, get a good job that would allow them to devote enough time to their family, and have children whom they could be proud of; if it's daughters, they would continue on the instilled tradition. I understand that this is not a policy which is forced on their daughters by authoritarian parents (although in some manifest cases, it definitely is). But I wonder, and sometimes believe, if it is part of the social atmosphere of the middle class, a well-meaning gesture which nonethless has the potential to tip the balance of gender opportunites in the overall scenario. It is not so much of an issue of 'getting a good husband' as it is of conforming to the traditional woman's psyche which has been around for hundreds of years, especially in a patriarchal society like India.

Another observation I made in Ferguson; when it comes to the 'real' humanities like sociology, psychology, languages etc., girls in general are definitely better than boys. For example, in Ferguson, for many years now, girls form more than 90% of the group that majors in psychology. I am sure it's similar elsewhere. Again, the same question arises. If that is the case, why aren't there more top women psychologists working as counselors, teachers, and writers?
However, I am at a loss to explain why girls never shone in the sciences, at least in the limited scenario I have witnessed. Note again that I am not talking about 'getting good marks'. That, many do. What I am talking about is engaging in serious intellectual scientific debate, and making scientific arguments that demonstrate wide knowledge and critical thinking. I am sorry to say this, but I don't remember meeting a girl quite like that. In fact, even among the very bright girls who were in my class in 12th std, I don't remember any outstanding girl who could be classified as an intellectual. Why is that so? Again and again, I made the same observation about most girls; intelligent, yes; intellectual, no.

Even in the humanities, it is very surprising to see that there are no women who have won Nobel Prizes in Economics, very few who have won prizes for Literature and Peace, and hardly anyone who have made fundamental advances in social theories, or even authored outstanding textbooks. In fact, when it comes to Nobel Prizes, there are women in the sciences, more outstanding than any male scientist I have ever come across, who have made fundamental discoveries. They managed to balance family with research, and even managed to stay happily married to the same man all their lives! That was simply extraordinary.

One thing I always contend is that I believe women are emotionally more intelligent than men, and they are much more competent at understanding, as well as resolving human emotional and organizational conflict. In spite of this, how many women are CEO's of top companies in the world, or head major administrative Government committees on public policy? Here, I think that it is because many of these women are simply not as aggressive and assertive as their male counterparts. I think they should be.

In the last few years, I have come across some very intelligent ladies, some of them through blogging :-)
They are as well-read, intelligent and intellectual as the smartest guy I know.
But I keep on wondering about the dearth of truly exceptional intellectual women in my college and university days, and in the world in general. While Summers's claim is unsubstantiated, in the long term, I think that it is absurd to see this as a battle of the sexes. If there are many outstanding women in the world, and if the sheer, unconscious, and subtle constraints of a male dominated society are holding back their talent, then not only is it a great injustice to them, but a fantastic missed out opportunity to tap the general pool of human knowledge and ability, that leads to progress. In a world that already has more than it's fair share of general problems of every kind and variety, the last thing we need is gender bias that would in any possible way predispose women towards not being effective contributors to society.
Sans the ravings of the authors of "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" etc. I think that if it's really going to uncover beneficial truths, this is a question worth exploring and conducting research into.
Is it really nature or nurture??!


Anonymous Sumedha said...

A moot point.
Acually, my definition of 'intellectual' is a little skewed in that I just include cosmopolitan people who are curious about the world around them.
Boys 'explore' and 'test' things a lot more than girls do. Also, they don't give up easily, while girls are highly susceptible to familial and social pressure and easily discouraged.
I can't take much credit for the little I know, because I owe it more to my parents than to my personality :) My sister and I never had to face a 'Scout' vs 'Aunt Alexandra' situation.
I think the issue is this: girls are programmed to walk down the beaten path, the path that their family decides for them. 'Exploring' the world at any level holds more dangers for girls than for guys, and hence in most societies they live closed, cloistered lives, in the mental, emotional and physical sense.
Sorry about the mammoth comment...

8:21 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Sumedha: "Girls are programmed to walk down the beaten path" Good point!
Although sometimes I wonder whether at least in a few cases, they make themselves BELIEVE that they have to tread the beaten path.
I think when it comes to their career, girls in India should take more risks. That will lead to a general diversification and a growth in the youth talent pool of our country.
And about the mammoth comment, it's exactly such kinds that are welcome :-)

2:11 PM  
Blogger Hirak said...

The fact that boys explore more and girls don't, might also have to do with the toys that children are given to play with when they are young. Certain toys stimulate certain activity which might further bias the pre-wired structured. Using the sometimes useful'hunter-gatherer' model: men were naturally selected to being more exploratory and risky to get food and women more suited to environments that are more predictable like the cave for instance which might explain the difference.
An American colleague did not agree with the hypothesis. Quite a large component of it might be cultural. On the other hand he also agreed there has not been a women POTUS, which shows that America too is not free from cultural biases against women.

3:44 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

I have a feeling that it won't be long when America would have the political atmosphere at least, for a woman POTUS.
The evolutionary argument makes sense and I guess has been propounded by a number of social and natural scientists. However, I always doubt the actual veracity of these arguments; admittedly it's easy to state them and view them as good circumstantial evidence, but very hard to actually PROVE them by doing experiments.

8:14 AM  
Blogger The paranoid android said...

the evolution explanation did a rerun during the whole summers saga. But IMHO,its too glib to be true. there is another point here--there are no female role-models in the sciences and hardly any in politics for Indians..just Ekta Kapoor & Sania mirza..but not intellectual. And even when ppl like Sushma Swaraj and Kiran Bedi come into the picture, their sacrifices & tribulations they faced being women are over-emphasized, thus probably making normal gals feel that this path is too difficult to tread. Even if they go for higher post graduate studies, they are more likely to settle down rather than do research or a PhD even if they worked more than their male colleagues during their PG.
The "programming" bit also does not fit imho. I think it is more of a peer decision rather than families in this generation. Why else would there be 0.001% (& that's exaggerating) female quizzers in Pune?
I don't have the right answer & don't wanna offend anyone. So, this beats Sumedha's mammoth comment. From her blog, I can definitely say its not true of her, but can't say that for many people I know in real life.

9:22 AM  
Blogger The paranoid android said...

Another point, dunno if u explicitly stated it. Girls don't set their goals, their peers or family do that for them is something I have observed.. Is this true?.

9:26 AM  
Blogger Sumedha said...

Most girls do fall in with their parents' (often short-sighted) plans, including some really bright sparks...
I had to put up a bit of a fight to study BME(my idea!) here in the US of A, so I can imagine how tough things are for girls from more traditional families.
None of the guys in my class at COEP were interested in quizzing either :)
But yes, I agree with Anand on the whole.

6:53 PM  
Blogger Saket said...

Okay my two cents on this...about women being intellectual or not... in Pune atleast in most of the circles I was moving around in there was a rather blatant segregation between boys and girls. As a consequence I really havent gotten to know too many girls up close. So its hard to comment on their intellectual capabilities and I am sure Ashutosh must have experienced a similar effect. So factor 1) since the sample size is smaller, we dont find as many intellectual girls.

I've practically gotten to know about 3 girls fairly closely so far and I really wasnt too displeased with their intellectual abilities. One of my best friends in college really understood electronics well and had a passion for the subject, but she didn't have an active interest in anything else. Girls in my class, I don't know too well at all. Some of them did well, but didn't finish tops...also at the end of the day none of them went forward to do a Master's even. So that tells me something about either a lack of interest or parental pressure.

10:02 AM  

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