Biased science

There's less to MIT's report on sexism in the sciences than the media would have you know.

Published April 7, 1999 7:00AM (EDT)

Dear Camille,

I just read today an AP release on the New York Times Web site. It concerns an MIT report of unconscious sexism at MIT. If the report is true, then wrong has been done to the professional women concerned and those wrongs must be redressed. However, I've become wary of such reports emanating from universities in the Boston area. Should I believe the story as reported by the AP or is the true situation much more complex? What do you know of this matter?

Naive or Not?

Dear Not Naive:

You are rightly skeptical of academic pronouncements from the PC capital of Greater Boston. The New York Times gave the MIT report about discrimination against its female faculty front-page coverage on March 23 and then editorialized about the matter on March 28 under the inflammatory headline "Gender Bias on the Campus." However, the Times evidently made no effort to analyze the actual report but simply repeated the latter's claims.

Even a cursory review of the document, "A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT" (available on the MIT Web site), would show that it is heavy on verbiage and amazingly light on documentation. For all the assertions about its massive quantification made in the general press, the study contains very few and sadly elementary charts, detailing the university's proportion of male to female science students and faculty -- puzzlingly just since 1985. No data whatever is provided about the alleged gender-based discrepancies in regard to laboratory assignment, grants, teaching loads or anything else. The overwhelmingly female committee that produced the report did not even have access to information about faculty salaries.

I don't mean to minimize the obstacles that professional women have faced over the past century in the corporate, political and academic realms, but it's a bit late in the feminist game to be crying "discrimination" at every sign of gender difference. The MIT document is studded with touchy-feely locutions that should have been red flags to any scrupulous journalist. Like the 200-page report of the Special Committee on Human Sexuality of the Presbyterian Church (which I critiqued for the New Republic in 1991), it seems to have been an a priori exercise in social engineering, beginning with a stacked committee. Its conclusions were already implicit in its guiding premises.

Consider, for example, how the body of the MIT report begins: "First and foremost, it is essential to set aside the issue of whether these women were badly treated because they were simply not good enough. It must be understood that for these particular women the opposite was undeniably true." You don't have to be a master logician to spot the fallacies here: We are being asked, or rather coerced, to "set aside" the entire point that needs to be proved by hard evidence. In the absence of such evidence, words like "undeniably" are sheer propaganda.

Where is the comparative data to demonstrate that the professional accomplishments of the aggrieved MIT women were in fact equal or superior to those of their male colleagues who enjoyed preferential treatment? The fact that 40 percent of the tenured female science faculty are members of the National Academy of Sciences or the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is immaterial if we know nothing about the credentials of their male peers.

We are lectured instead with loaded generalities: "Once and for all we must recognize that the heart and soul of discrimination, the last refuge of the bigot, is to say that those who are discriminated against deserve it because they are less good." Who are these straw bigots? The invisible male MIT faculty end up as befogged Mr. Magoos whose "discrimination" is "largely unconscious" -- an impressionistic term that belongs to therapeutic psychology rather than to the hard sciences under study.

Despite its noble sentiments, the report's portrait of MIT's senior female professors is hardly flattering: Except for passing greetings in the hallway, we learn, they rarely spoke to each other until 1994, when the group gripe began. Can the patriarchal system be fairly blamed for these women's tunnel-vision professional focus and insularity? Isn't it possible that those traits led them to avoid confronting their colleagues over their professional treatment? Doesn't the study concede the women's passivity and imply that their male peers were simply more persistent, demanding and status-conscious?

I raise these questions as a corrective to media overcredulity, which has apparently triggered a feminist avalanche: In a March 31 press release from the MIT News Office, one of the instigating female professors triumphantly cites inquiries from "as far away as Australia" and proclaims about the report: "The impact may change universities in ways we never thought about." That mathematics and the hard sciences remain largely masculine domains is true. But the phenomenon requires examination far broader and more searching than that of the MIT study, with its overworked model of male oppressors/female victims.

Who gravitates toward science and why? Last weekend, I hashed this out with Robert Maddex (father of my partner, Alison) -- who as a high school student in 1959 was stunned by the publicity packet sent by MIT to prospective applicants. The MIT student magazine, called Voodoo, was illustrated with what he describes as "sexist and prurient cartoons." Despite his progressive politics and his passion for sexually audacious rock 'n' roll, Maddex recalls being "shocked" by the magazine's "salaciousness," which he later attributed to the fact that scientists are "cerebral" and their lives are "very compartmentalized."

Many of today's "computer geeks," Maddex says, "don't understand human interactions. They live in a virtual reality. Unlike humanists, they have nothing to gain from interactions with women." Alison adds (from my transcription of our animated conversation), "It was in fact the pioneers of Internet technology who pushed the sexual aspects of the Web, because they often can't relate to women in real life. People who can't function in relationships go into surreality or hyperreality. There's a male fear of the real living woman." As a defender of science in many arguments over the years with arch-feminists, Alison says, "When men complete mathematical equations, there is an 'ecstatic' element that borders on sex. It's almost like being a priest."

Musical composition is related to mathematics in terms of the involved areas of the brain. A composer and former Philadelphia colleague once asked me why, in nearly 30 years, his most promising female composition students (often more talented than the men, he felt) seemed to drop away from the field a few years after graduation. Though he and his fellow male faculty and sponsors offered them every encouragement, the women just "seemed to lose interest."

It may be, as with grandmaster chess, that relatively few women are attracted to people-free zones -- which is why women academics have risen so much more slowly in the hard sciences than in the humanities. Music composition, like mathematics and astrophysics, is a form of cold abstraction, a constant, systematic manipulation of ciphers that perhaps only specially gifted women crave.

As a feminist and career teacher, I want to create a cultural environment that fosters female achievement at the highest level in every discipline. I want to spur women to vision and ambition. But I reject self-pity, special pleading and anti-male rhetoric -- which is what the age of aggressive affirmative action has brought us. It remains to be seen whether the current controversy at MIT is a real advance for women or another collapse into reactionary political correctness.

Ivory Tower Postscript: The Clinton administration's blundering into the Yugoslav morass represents a failure of the American political class, which has clearly been very poorly educated in world history and international diplomacy. To non-Western nations, the brutal use of American air power -- in particular the bombing of Belgrade -- may in the long run make us look morally indistinguishable from the Serbian butchers.

And who's the dope who assigned James Rubin, with his arrogant Ivy League mannerisms, to be a State Department spokesman during this crisis? He is married, of course, to CNN and CBS's insufferable star correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, who is single-handedly responsible for whipping up the American intelligentsia into hysteria over Bosnia in the early 1990s. Could we have a little less collusion between media and government? And let's get back to the drawing board to structure a college curriculum that will produce politicians with cosmopolitanism, common sense and basic ethics.

By Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.  Her most recent book is "Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars." You can email her at

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