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Science and the Female Brain

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The recent award of Nobel Prizes in biology and chemistry to three women dredges up Larry Summers' suggestion in 2005 that differences in the female brain may account for the dearth of top women scientists. Now President Obama's economic adviser, Summers was then speechifying as president of Harvard.

Carol Greider, who just won a Nobel for biology, recalls being astounded by the remark. "I thought he couldn't possibly say that," the Johns Hopkins biologist told me. "I looked up the transcript, and he really said that."

Summers' defenders attacked Nancy Hopkins, the MIT biologist who walked out in protest when he made the controversial statement. Writing in The Harvard Crimson, professor of government Harvey Mansfield accused Hopkins of committing a "scandalous act of obscurantist intolerance."

Whatever. Hopkins now feels a certain vindication. And she traces the Nobel Prizes for Greider and Elizabeth Blackburn, a biologist at the University of California, San Francisco, to a 1971 law that required universities to hire women onto their faculties or risk losing federal dollars.

Shortly after the regulations went into effect, Hopkins received calls from MIT and Harvard asking her to apply for a job. "I was a true affirmative action hire," she told me. In the late '60s, places like Harvard, Cal Tech and MIT had virtually no women teaching the sciences.

Today, women account for just under 15 percent of MIT's science faculty.

Another beneficiary of the new law was Mary-Lou Pardue, who now holds a chair in microbiology at MIT and has belonged to the National Academy of Sciences since 1983. She recounts the story of her hiring.

In 1971, MIT put a letter in Science magazine urging women to apply for teaching jobs. Already recognized as exceptional in her field, Pardue sent MIT her resume.

Pardue half-laughingly recalls MIT's response: "It was obviously a form, saying: 'Thank you for your letter. We've had hundreds of responses to our ad.'" Someone who later heard Pardue give a talk contacted MIT, which then called her in for an interview.

No one seriously argues that these women scientists suffered the trauma of Jim Crow racism. But the bias they faced -- and still face -- is far more subtle and often unconscious, which makes it extra hard to address.

Communications can be complicated. As Pardue puts it, "You can't go up to a man at a meeting and say, 'Let's have a drink, and I'll tell you about my science,' without getting more than you bargained for."

Greider, 48, moved up in a more gender-enlightened time. But the biologist still finds it odd when she is the only woman out of 40 speakers at a conference.

"There doesn't have to be overt exclusion or putting people down in order for there to be some small bias that does keep one group at the top," she says. "It could be very small things, such as a man feeling more comfortable introducing male students at a meeting."

Greider attributes her and Blackburn's advancement to Joseph Gall, a cell biologist now at the Carnegie Institution. Gall became legendary both for his work on telomeres (the protective caps at the end of chromosomes) and support of women researchers (Pardue also trained with him).

"There's not anything innately different in the topic of telometry that makes it attractive to women," Greider says. Rather it was a "founder effect," in which Gall's students would go out to various universities and train other women in the field.

Younger scientists like Greider more easily brush off the ignorance contained in Summers' comment. "I learned early to put blinders on and do what I do," she said.

As we can see, that's been good for science.

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Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

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