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Friday, January 21, 2005

Struck a nerve

An extra sensitive nerve was poked with my last post about my curiosity as to why so many people and news outlets focused on the biological aspect of Summer's comments, and not so much on the 80-hour work week.

I don't understand why so many people willing to jump to defend people who work 80 hours a week, but don't jump to the defense of women who want to raise their kids and work and still be successful. I doubt that the only way to be successful is to work 80 hours a week.

Perhaps some people need that much time to feel like they have accomplished something. Vera, who pointed out that she does not want to have kids said:
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.
You might get a lot of work done in the lab 80 hours a week, but that is not the only way. Smart women--smart people--with excellent time-management skills can get things done and still have time to go to the park, to build towers with blocks, and read books with their kids.

Ben added:
It's also an empirical fact that women are less inclined to work that hard. I don't think anybody, even hardline proponts of the position Summers alluded to, would say that this means women are somehow generally less worthy. But it does mean they are less apt at doing one of the big things that makes you a good academic.
This is a ridiculous statement. Women work hard! At home, at the office, women rarely ever stop working. Even in relationships where both partners work and consider each other equals, much of the domestic work gets dropped on the women. If we assume that you are just talking about working in an office or in a lab, consider that people who spend 80 hours a week in the lab are also more likely to get burned out much quicker, thus shorteing the life-span of their ability to do research.

I don't think anyone would argue that more women than men leave their careers to make children a priority (although there is a small, but growing trend of dads who choose to leave their jobs to raise their kids). But parents leave their jobs because there are not many options to stay connected to work while also raising kids. Especially if the other alternative is putting the kids in daycare full-time.

"Things don't need to be black and white," said Nicole who is currently on maternity leave from her high-tech job in Southern California and trying to pen an arrangement with her employer to work her job on part-time basis. Unfortunately, when it comes to moms and work, it is sad that they so often are.

The later comments that are coming in as a result of my post are still focusing on whether women are better at being home and raising kids or better at being at work. You are all missing the point. Women can be successful at both, but our socieity has evolved in such a a way that makes it nearly impossible to be working at raising kids without giving up on one or the other in some ways.


  1. I agree with you Suzanne and posted a long comment to that effect. Our society values more work, whether it's productive or not. It's just not healthy for anyone to work that many hours. If I felt that all those scientists slaving away in those labs were finding a cure for cancer or discovering the secrets of the universe, I'd say, fine, you're benefiting society (and some of them might be), but most of them are slaving away to get tenure. I've no doubt they're all making some contribution, but it seems to me they could make just as much of a contribution working a more reasonable schedule.

  2. Anonymous7:52 PM

    Amazing! Some of the comments to your post are so far out. 80 hour weeks are nothing to stay at home Moms, and then you have someone claiming that women work less hard!?! Only our US culture would defend an 80 hour week, where is the life in that, or have we lost the ability to have a life out side of work?

    BTW, Summer has seen fit to defend himself three times now, but I have not seen any mention of his defending the 80 hour thing!

  3. Where to start, where to start. I want to address a couple things so I apologize for any incohesiveness.

    As for 80 hour weeks. I understand that many people can be quite accomplished while working less than 80 hours per week, and that insane hours are not necessarily for a feeling of success. I have no doubt that women are just as capable and willing to work long as hours as men. (Although if some new study was done in an appropriately controlled manner showing the opposite, I wouldn't be offended...) I have nothing but respect for women who choose to make their children first priority; that is something I could never do, and it's important that other people do. None of this is the point. The point is that some people want to work 80 hour weeks doing scientific research. That's what I meant by driven in my first comment. They enjoy nothing more than putting in an extra hour and finding out something new. I've never met a successful scientist who wasn't obviously excited about his or her work and would go on animatedly until kingdom come about their research if given the chance. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with people wanting to devote their lives to that (although I'm glad not everyone in the world does - thank heavens for diversity of interests). I'm really surprised that someone would reduce this kind of passion to scientists slaving away in labs to get tenure, and call it unhealthy. Please speak to some researchers at Harvard/Princeton/MIT/Caltech/etc sometime, that is very clearly not the case, these are very happy people excited by their work, and anything that causes such enjoyment and feeling of accomplishment I would definitely not call unhealthy.

    In any case, these are the kinds of people who are successful in science and who are employed at places like Harvard. If women are less inclined, on average, to devote their entire life to their work, there will be fewer, on average, women excelling in scientific research.

    As for discrimination. First of all, if you would please refer to the countless news articles covering the speech, Summers was intentionally being provocative. He was saying that this is a violently contended area of research and deserves further scientific attention. He said that discrimination and biology are both potentially important factors. He never said that women in particular are incapable of being good scientists. He said that it's an important scientific question to investigate to what extent discrimination and biology both cause the gender divide.

    My comments asserting that there were biological differences that cause women to excel, on average, less in math and science is my personal scientific opinion. It's certainly not closed to debate. It is based on what I've read about studies of children being raised in gender neutral environments, my knowledge of evolution, and my own observations. While discrimination is certainly a factor, I do not think it is the only factor, also because of those things listed above and my own experiences growing up. I'm sure women in previous generations were pressured into pursuing certain fields, and I'm sure that some girls are more suceptible to peer pressure than others, but I think that societal pressure of that sort has decreased, even reversed, enough to say that at least one generation of girls has been raised with complete freedom to choose their career. I have been a math and science lover for as long as I can remember. There was never any question that those were my strong subjects and that's what I wanted to do with my life. And yet it never even occurred to me that being a girl had anything to do with that in the least, until I was in 11th and 12th grade, attending a math and science high school, and suddenly I was the target of countless speeches to the effect of "Don't not pursue your passion because you're female, girls are just as capable as boys at being great scientists." I was extremely puzzled by this. Well duh, of course girls can be scientists. Then I noticed that in my higher level physics and math and computer science classes, I was one of only one or two girls. And it wasn't because girls felt pressured not to do math and science because it wasn't cool, or they thought they wouldn't be good at it. They just wanted to study biology and chemistry instead, fields that are observational and diagnostic instead of analytical and abstract. These girls certainly weren't pressured into not doing science, they were doing science, just not particular fields of science. And it wasn't a universal thing at all, several girls excelled in physics and math. The point is it's statistically clear that women prefer fields that require a different kind of thinking than very mathematical fields.

    Just as women more often than men prefer to raise children, women more often than men prefer to study biology and chemistry and psychology (and, outside of science, humanities - look at the gender gap in liberal arts schools, it's basically reversed from tech schools.) I also think that the same mechanism that dictates preference dictates ability (on average, of course - you can basically insert that phrase after every sentence); after all people usually like what they are good at. I perceive overwhelming evidence in support of these things. If someone wants to prove me wrong, with well-controlled scientific experiment and explanatory theory, please tell me, I'm quite interested, and I promise to be open-minded. That's what science is all about.

  4. I didn't intend to say, as you seem to have assumed, that women work less hard *in general* -- I specifically pointed out that the work involved in childbirth and childrearing is in some ways much harder than the professional (and athletic) jobs at which men (statistically) excel today. It is unfortunate if you misunderstood me. Vera has done a good and extensive job of clarifying and amplifying what I meant.

    As she points out, I did mean, and I continue to insist, that the average woman is less willing than the average man to work 80 hours a week *as a research scholar at a university*. You don't seem to disagree with this blindingly obvious point. In fact, I think the analogous issue in industry is what your blog is about, Suzanne. The biological clock makes it impossible for women who want children to work at academia unbelievably and uninterruptedly hard from age 18 to 45, when academic careers are made. This is what Larry Summers said.

    And the fact is that anyone who takes a complete or partial break during those years -- no matter how justifiable that break is -- will be passed by the ambitious racers who don't take the break. The one who rests won't make it to the finish line of a plum academic job. You can complain if you like, but it'll be like a marathoner complaining that her menstrual cramps forced her to stop at the 18th mile for half an hour, and how come marathons are so insensitive to the needs of women, anyway? Let's design a marathon with breaks for everyone to make life fairer -- after all, running 26 miles straight, like working 80 hours a week, is insane! Marathons are absurd. Down with marathons! Blah blah blah.

    I will of course grant the obvious point that the structure of modern academia (like the marathon) is the product of a patriarchal society that wasn't built around the needs of women. As I pointed out earlier, your normative statements indicating your dissatisfaction with that arrangement are interesting pieces of autobiography. Perhaps someday feminists will succeed in pushing through public policy initiatives to restructure the academic world to accord more harmoniously with women's needs.

    But I agree with Vera's clear point that the pursuit of knowledge is an unforgiving taskmaster who doesn't care about your baby or your feminine needs, to be blunt. The people who produce the best research are those who dedicate the vast majority of their lives to research and don't have any serious competing priorities; even romantic relationships suffer for many of the best. Much of it is just how many papers you can absorb, how many ideas you can try out. And whatever may be the case at the office, none of your points about people staying late to impress others apply here. Most professors do much of their work at home or behind closed doors when nobody would see them anyway. What measures how impressed people are with you is the *quality of your research output*. People who worry about other major priorities can’t spend as much of their energy producing quality research output. And women have more other priorities (babies, family) than men.

    Currently, the academic world rewards you strictly on the basis of how good your work is compared to your peers. (Marathons reward you on how fast you run.) You might succeed in getting the academic world to essentially give women free handicap points in this evaluation but it will come at the price of making science focused on the pure pursuit of knowledge. After all, any such adjustment would make it possible to get the same rewards without achieving as much in as little time, and would thus lower the overall density of science produced. The pursuit of knowledge benefits most from having those practitioners (men or women) who are willing to work at it most intensely. Exceptions for moms would make science more sensitive at the cost of making it less productive.

    Currently, the consensus in the scientific world is that we care about the fundamental aims of science more than about making sure breast-feeding is compatible with the study of quantum mechanics. My personal view is that it should stay that way.

  5. Why focus on such negative "on average" comments? Why not feel good about the fact that there ARE women out there who are faster than certain men; there ARE women out there who regularly work more hours than certan men; there are woman who ARE smarter than certain men; there ARE women out there who are better at maths and sciences than certain men. It's just bizarre to even think otherwise. Generalizing is not really a great idea.

    As for academia, I would guess there are a lot of people who would think that it is a "cushy" job, where you just sit around on your butts and don't do much of anything. But to say that academics, in general, have an easier, less stressful lives than the rest of society - well would that be fair? I mean academics, in general, don't do any manual labor; they don't, in general, manage millions of dollars; they don't, in general, manage hundreds of people. Is there a Fortune 500 of academia that I am not aware of?

    I think we need some non-academics to join the debate!

    And don't get me wrong. I LOVE academia. I have three degrees and might one day get another one. For me, the academic environment was certainly a lot more pleasant than the "real world" 9-to-5, 6-to-6, 6-to-midnight (or whatever) drudge. ;^)