Interesting exchange on THE EDGE.
Pinker v. Spelke
I think that Pinker gets rather the better of this, but it is a hard question.
Was playing pick-up basketball with some grad students a while back. Two of the players were female, both about 5'3" and 100 lbs. I am more than 6', and more than 240 lbs. Some of that is fat (okay, a lot), but I lift weights enough that I can remain in posession of most rebounds I can get two hands on. If you try to take the ball from me, expect to move around a little against your will.
One of the young women decided she would contest a rebound. Grabbed the ball; I didn't see who it was, and without thinking I swung my shoulders and elbows with the ball. She was lifted up in the air, lost her grip on the ball, and fell heavily.
She started shrieking at me, "You can't do that. That's too rough!" I didn't hit her with an elbow, or with anything else. I just took the ball from her. Hard, full speed.
The point? There are three.
1. She was right, in a way. We had a pretty strong norm of not treating the female players that way. That is why we usually needed two women, so they could guard each other. They were both pretty good shooters, and frankly it was a better game that way.
2. Coming down in the paint to contest a rebound with me, or any of the other widebodies, is a different thing altogether. There is a big difference between trying not to knock a woman down if she sets a pick, and just letting her take a rebound away from you.
3. Is there any reason to believe that mathematics and physics are like basketball? That is, the only way women can play basketball with men is to have special rules ("Don't be too rough; I'm a girl!"). I tend to think that is NOT true, and that women can compete straight up. But then why are there so few women in the physics and math fields? That is the most interesting part of the debate.
SPELKE: I'm glad you brought up the case of the basketball and baseball players. I think it's interesting to ask, what distinguishes these cases, where you remove the overt discrimination and within a very short period of time the differential disappears, from other cases, where you remove the overt discrimination and the covert discrimination continues? In the athletic cases where discrimination disappears quickly, there are clear, objective measures of success. Whatever people think about the capacities of a black player, if he is hitting the ball out of the park, he is going to get credit for a home run. That is not the case in science.
In science, the judgments are subjective, every step of the way. Who's really talented? Who deserves bigger lab space? Who should get the next fellowship? Who should get promoted to tenure? These decisions are not based on clear and objective criteria. These are the cases where you see discrimination persisting. You see it in academia. You see it in Claudia Goldin's studies of orchestra auditions, which also involve subtle judgments: Who's the more emotive, sensitive player? If you know that the players are male or female, you're going pick mostly men, but if the players are behind a screen, you'll start picking more women.
PINKER: But that makes the wrong prediction: the harder the science, the greater the participation of women! We find exactly the opposite: it's the most subjective fields within academia — the social sciences, the humanities, the helping professions — that have the greatest representation of women. This follows exactly from the choices that women express in what gives them satisfaction in life. But it goes in the opposite direction to the prediction you made about the role of objective criteria in bringing about gender equity. Surely it's physics, and not, say, sociology, that has the more objective criteria for success.
(Nod to JB)