False solution on gender

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology made headlines around the world with its 1999 "study" confessing to "unintentional gender discrimination" against female faculty in the School of Science.

Nancy Hopkins, the MIT biologist who originated the complaint, has become the Anita Hill of the gender discrimination industry. The Ford Foundation just handed MIT a million dollars to fight for gender justice for women in science and to help other elite universities do the same.

Did MIT actually discriminate against its female faculty? Check out the study yourself at MIT's website (www.mit.edu). You will notice an astonishing fact: MIT's study is innocent of evidence of gender discrimination. Not an iota of data is offered to show that MIT treated its female faculty any differently from its male faculty.

No matter! The credulous and politically correct New York Times ran the story on its front page. Other newspapers picked up this tale of invisible gender discrimination without even bothering to solicit contrary opinions.

Hard as it is to believe that any respectable scientific institution would do such a thing, MIT actually put the chief complainant, Ms. Hopkins, in charge of the very committee investigating her own complaint. She reaped huge benefits - a new lab, increases in discretionary research funds, even an invitation to the Clinton White House, where she was hailed as the heroine of gender discrimination.

Now we have a new study of what is actually happening at MIT, by Patricia Hausman, a behavioral scientist, and James Steiger, a statistician at the University of British Columbia. Their report actually provides scientific data - quantitative comparisons of the scientific merit of men and women in MIT's Department of Biology, where the charges of gender discrimination arose.

Check out their study at the Independent Women's Forum, a nonprofit group that investigates claims of gender bias (www.iwf.org).

Their verdict: The senior women complaining of gender discrimination are not even in the same scientific league as the senior men. Take the 11 senior MIT professors in the Department of Biology, who earned their doctorates between 1970 and 1976. Three of the six men had published more than 100 scientific papers in the previous few years. Four of the five senior women had published fewer than 50 papers.

But this new study came up with good news for young women considering a career in science: The junior women in the Department of Biology at MIT were about the equal of the junior men.

Funny thing, these junior women did not complain they were discriminated against. They mentioned child-care problems, but not "marginalization." The equal of the men in scientific merit, they also felt equal in the way they were treated.

So what's the harm, a reasonable person might ask. So what if MIT confessed to gender discrimination it did not commit? Why not increase the visibility, resources, and prestige of women in the natural sciences?

We have set off on these treacherous seas before, and we know all too well what awaits us: The many women in science who are succeeding on their own merits will be suspected of being second-rate.

The truth is that these affirmative-action programs do not combat prejudice. They create prejudice, more insidious because it will be so carefully covered up.

Harm will be done to the many meritorious women in science. But a greater harm will be done to us all. We urgently need the best that science can offer as we search for more efficient ways of producing power without ruining the environment and methods of increasing crop yields so that people can be fed at a lower cost.

When science becomes politicized, when positions and grants are awarded on the basis of sex rather than scientific promise, we all lose.

When MIT tarnished its reputation with junk gender science, it also undermined our trust in the scientific integrity of a great American university and the other elite universities now falling into line.

Why should we trust an MIT study on any sensitive issue - missile defense, global warming - when we know those on watch are so easily corrupted by political fashion?

These are grave harms. And where is the benefit? A small group of women at elite universities get increased perks and visibility.

They should have the grace to be ashamed. So should the Ford Foundation. There are more worthy beneficiaries for their million dollars.

Judith Kleinfeld is professor of psychology at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, a member of the national advisory board of the Independent Women's Forum, and the author of the study 'MIT Tarnishes its Reputation with Junk Gender Science.'

Monitor columnist Godfrey Sperling, who usually appears on Tuesday, is on vacation.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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