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Wednesday, January 19, 2005

80-hour BS

Yes, I am outraged by Harvard University President Lawrence Summers' explanation as to why women may not be rising to top math and science jobs. But I seem to be outraged for a different reason.

There has been an overwhelming number of stories published about his comments and the bubbling aftermath. Most news stories focus on Summers' suggestion that women are not on par with men because they may not be biologically hardwired to handle math and science as well as men.

That biology crap was just one reason he gave. Yes, it is disgusting, and yes, it should be written about and attacked. And yes, I am outraged by it. But I think it is really unfortunate that the news has predominantly focused on that point in particular. But along with biological differences, he also mentioned discrimination, as well as "the reluctance or inability of women who have children to work 80-hour weeks," as reported by The Boston Globe.

Hello? Why isn't there more rage and media coverage of that comment??!! Could it be because people actually buy into that? He mentions biological differences and people get outraged and walk out of his lecture. They think the man is insane! He mentions that women and mothers do not want to work 80 hours a week because they have kids and people keep on reading, looking for the next outrage to be revealed. That reluctance to feel anything or to notice that comment for what it is--gender-bias bullshit--is another example of how much society accepts the status quo when it comes to women and work.

It is ridiculous for anyone to work 80 hours a week. And working the equivalent of two full-time jobs certainly should not be a criteria to advance in business or academia or elsewhere, for men or women, whether they have kids or not. When I was the managing producer of a top Internet site, I would cringe as I scanned the cube-farm as I headed for the bus after a nine- or ten-hour day. Men (yes, these were mostly men) tried to out-stay each other to show how important they were. Oh how important you look when you are still at the office at 7:30 pm, or 9 pm, or whenever. Really, let's be honest: when you have planned to be at work for 12 or 14 hours, there a whole lot more gabbing and coffee breaks filling the time. When you have mentally set yourself up for a grueling long day, why work hard to get out at a normal time.

It does not matter whether or not you have kids. This is not a parent issue or a women's issue. This is a sanity issue. Whether it is to get home to get to put the kids to bed, catch the latest episode of CSI, have dinner with your friends or spouse, or just sit on the couch and masturbate, everyone deserves a few hours to decompress before showing up at work again. Not wanting to work 80 hours a week does not make you a slacker or undedicated. It makes you normal.

So maybe because men are used to trying to show how important they are by staying longer than anyone else, they assume that women can't handle the requirements because they have kids. That is a cop out. I think Miriam over at the Playground Revolution summed it up nicely: "sounds like old-fashioned sexism to me."


  1. I don't know how it is in industry/business. In academia there isn't any slacking off to show how important you are. No one buys that. It's how much research you get done, how many quality papers you have published, how smart you are. People who spend 80 hours a week in the lab are going to get more research done. Smart people who spend 80 hours a week in the lab are going to get even more done. Harvard and other similar research institutions employ only the creamiest of the cream of the top, which means you have to be extremely driven, extremely hard-working, and extremely smart. If work is your second priority, you're less liking to be in that category. And more women than men make children their first priority. That's why no one who isn't set on finding sexism in every possible statement finds that explanation offensive or controversial in the least.

  2. Would you deny that women are, on average, better at multi-tasking? At communicating, particularly verbally? At raising children? Is it sexist for me to say so? Of course not. Those are empirical facts. You can call them pragmatic facts if you want but the combination of a universally observed trend that is also in agreement with theory (evolutionarily, women who were better at communication, multi-tasking, etc reproduced more and raised their children better thus passing on their genes more than others) is an empirical fact to me.

    For the same reason it's not at all sexist to say that women are, on average, not as good at thinking analytically/abstractly and not as good at running fast. This also has a simple evolutionary basis: men has to hunt, which requires physical ability and strategic thinking.

    No one is saying that all women are worse at math at all men. No one is saying all men are worse at raising children than all women. It's an average. And there's nothing sexist in the least about asserting that a statistical fact is a statistical fact.

    By the way, I'm a woman. I am a math major at one of the foremost scientific research institutions in the world. I don't want to have kids. And I most certainly am not offended that my gender does not, on average, excel at those things compared to males.

  3. Okay, Vera and Ben, where is your empirical evidence? How can you factor out the possible social factors, including outright discrimination, that might contribute to fewer women in the sciences? Isn't the brain's development affected by environment? I'm not entirely convinced that anyone is hard wired for anything and that that wiring can't change over the course of time as the result of lots of factors. I'm willing to entertain the hypothesis that women may, in fact, not be predisposed to science and math, but you cannot say that just because there are fewer women on average in the sciences that therefore they must not be predisposed to doing or be flat-out not good at it from day one.

    As for working 80 hours a week, I'm offended that anyone would suggest that women cannot work those hours. I work 80 hours all the time, but I only get paid for 40 of them. Being a mother (or father) is a 24/7 job and it is often physically and emotionally demanding. There are no sick days, no vacation time, no business trips in nice hotel rooms, no conferences at exotic locations where your ego can be stroked by people who admire your work.

    To me, the whole issue surrounding Summers' comments is not whether women are biologically disposed to do one thing or another or unwilling to work 80 hours a week or whatever else he trotted out as reasons for the lack of women in the sciences, but the fact that women's work, if it's not in a typically male field like the sciences, is valued less. Motherhood is not considered work. Teaching elementary school (a predominantly female field) is considered less difficult than teaching college. Until our culture can appreciate and value the work that everyone does, we will get nowhere. The underlying message in Summers' comments: "We don't value women in our profession; go home and raise the kids and don't bother me until they graduate from college."