I’ve been thinking about the Lawrence Summers comments (women and men have different brains, that’s why women are always going to be underrepresented in science and math, this is primarily genetic and biological, not cultural and ideological, etc., etc.), especially in the light of some pieces of the same kind of thinking which Beth came across in an otherwise interesting book (Ralph Koster’s A Theory of Fun for Game Design). Then I read another, similar comment, in a defense of Summers by a colleague on the CUNY Senate Forum listserv.
This colleague, like the others, said (I’m paraphrasing), that there may be all kinds of subtle cues, and cultural forces, pushing women out of math and science, and pushing men in, but that “if you really want to do something, no subtle cue will stop you.” And besides, he says, there’s nothing bad about women being different from men in this way (more empathic, less systematizing…less eager to try new things, more eager to model on others…less able to think abstractly, more able to think emotionally). It’s just different, and in fact women are better! Yeah, that’s it! They’re really sweet and nice. Why do they need that nasty old science and math when they’re so nurturing and soft and pretty?
The more I think about this, the more it seems that this colleague, and Koster and Summers and all the others are not just missing, but denying, a very powerful psychological fact. They don’t see just how powerful early experience (very early) is in shaping our development. It’s not that “if you really want something the cues won’t stop you,” it’s more that the very nature of what you really want is shaped by cultural/psychological/ideological forces before you even become self-aware or fully sentient.
These people don’t just want to deny any responsibility to work toward equality in society (although that’s clearly a major motivation for Summers, at least). They want to deny the influence, the impact and power, of early childhood–they want to deny, in a way, basic Freudian psychology. “It’s nothing we can do anything about–nothing to make us think about our own childhood, or our own mothers or fathers. Oh, no, not that. It’s just the structure of the brain.”
In addition, they’re not able (or not interested) to realize that “normal” and “natural” are themselves socially-constructed categories and labels. It’s an old argument, and (sadly) a thoroughly regressive and anti-intellectual one.