Gender Debate Ignores Real Issues

Article excerpt

Byline: GUEST VIEWPOINT By Geri Richmond For The Regoster-Guard

Where is Irving Berlin when we need him? As I have followed the ruckus caused by the comments of Harvard President Lawrence Summers on the aptitude of women to do science, the voice of Ethyl Merman bellowing out, `Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better," rings in my ears.

Given the vigorous discourse of the past few weeks on the innate aptitude for women and men to do science, we could use the songwriter to give us a new version, `Anything Your Genes Can Do, Mine Can Do Better.'

Who would have predicted that any discussion about the low number of women who become science professors would make front-page news across the country? Those of us who have spent our careers trying to bring this problem to the attention of the general public have clearly used the wrong strategy!

Suddenly, the media are hauling out historical studies of gender differences in SAT and math proficiency scores. They're examining results of brain studies speculating on whether the amount of gray matter matters. They're asking whether `bigger is better' when it comes to science aptitude. Surely there's a song in there somewhere.

As a professor in the field of chemical physics, I am struck by the simplicity of this discussion. The key question should be this: What does it take to be a good scientist, and particularly a successful scientist at a research university?

When I was a naive graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1970s, I thought the answer was simple: `He who solves the most equations, wins.'

Once I hit my first academic job, it was clear that the success formula had a few more variables. Not only must you be bright and creative, but you must be able to build and operate a state-of-the-art laboratory, recruit the best students and staff you can find, get great data from your experiments, raise enough money to keep the whole operation going, publish piles of papers describing your discoveries, help your students get fulfilling jobs, give fabulous talks about your research to anyone who will listen, and, (last but certainly not least) be a fantastic teacher in the classroom.

Show me a brain scan or genetic sequence that can predict the success in this diverse skills set, and I'll be the first to turn my search committee responsibilities over to the neuro- scientists. …