Given that this is the women in business issue of U.S. 1 newspaper, and given the recent flap over Harvard president Lawrence Summers’ remarks over the relative success of women vs. men in math and science, this would seem to be the perfect opportunity to stick our oar into those roiling waters.
Summers already has. The 50-year-old Harvard president (and former secretary of the treasury in the Clinton administration) provoked the controversy at a recent conference at the National Bureau of Economic Research when he offered several explanations for the relatively small number of women in high-level positions in science and engineering. One was the difficulty of women with children working 80-hour weeks. Another was that girls test lower than boys on science and math tests in late high school years — a fact that might reveal some “innate” differences between men and women.
That got people started. You needed to go no further than Nassau Hall in Princeton to find ammo for the other side. The media quickly dug up statements from Princeton president Shirley Tilghman (who had been a professor of molecular biology before becoming Princeton’s first woman president). If women did lag behind men in terms of scientific achievement the culprit was likely to be circumstances more than genes. Among Tilghman’s observations (as quoted by Ms. Magazine’s daily “blog” on women and culture):
“We cannot ignore the fact that while women faculty, women scientists, and women engineers are having small children, they are going to be less productive; during that period, they are working two jobs. The only way that institutions can compensate for this is recognizing quality, not quantity. In the end, what pushes science forward is not the 22 papers in Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications (BBRC).” Rather it’s “seminal papers, the extraordinarily creative, imaginative, groundbreaking piece of work. If we as a field reward quality and not quantity, women at all stages of their careers will compete extremely effectively.”
At this point we could dip the oar in, but we won’t. What do we know about science and math? For us at our office, and for most of you at yours, our days are consumed by mostly stupid stuff — gathering information, trying to figure out if it’s accurate, making coffee, converting computer files from one format to another, finding staplers, and — in the end, always in the end — trying to clear trash from our desk.
But even in our lives, we have occasional moments when we wonder if the Harvard president has a point: Is it possible that there are innate differences between men and women? We can think of some possibilities and maybe you can add your own:
Business presentation. Around here we can count on women to look professional, or at least business casual. The men are the last to grasp the difference between pressed slacks and grungy jeans.
Communication skills. At our office at least women are better organizers of meetings, and better at running them. They think of including people at meetings that the men in the office didn’t realize were working here. But the men seem better at organizing one-time only operations. For about a year women led our effort to convert all our desktop publishing operations from paper to digital. At the end of that period they had had numerous meetings, and several color-coded folders with single spaced pages of procedures. But then some guys took over. They dumped the software on which the previous work was based, brought in a new program, and finished the conversion in a month or so — with no meetings.
Women often weigh the emotional consequences of their words before they speak. When I was a young reporter I was struggling to finish an article right on the deadline. The city editor came to my desk and announced the story was needed now. “But I’m not done yet,” I protested. “Yes you are,” he retorted, pulling the paper from the typewriter. A woman editor, achieving the same result, would have had some more clever repartee.
Making coffee and other important office duties. Yes, the women in our office are all capable of making coffee; only two men know the secret. But women seem incapable of knowing when a trash can has reached the point of overflowing; they continue to pile more on. Men don’t have this problem. They just leave the trash on their desks.
Juggling work and home. I used to think that women were innately superior at this, and marveled at single mothers who maintained careers while simultaneously dealing with teenagers. Now I’m doing it myself — sorry, men, you are equal to this task and expect no special treatment.
Dealing with mechanical devices. You would think men would win hands-down in this category but at our office, at least, the men are all thumbs compared to women. I myself have yet to successfully change the ribbon in the postal meter or the credit card machine.
At the end of the day, in a small office where we are not scientists or mathematicians or biotech consultants, we are grateful for whatever help we can get, gender notwithstanding.