Monday, November 24, 2008

That's Shirley progress...

I recently noticed that the current President of Stony Brook University is a woman (the name is Shirley Strum Kenny and I'm assuming "Shirley" isn't a man's name nowadays). That is intriguing because the Presidents of Princeton and Harvard are also women (in a pleasing irony, the latter replaced Larry Summers who acquired notoriety and lost his job after suggesting it was time to "admit" that women are basically not good at science...).

In 1976 when I joined Stony Brook for my Ph.D., I didn't have the impression that women were considered possible candidates for being President of a major U.S. university, so the situation today represents progress for the feminist cause. (On the other hand the President of Princeton is a Shirley too, so could it merely represent progress for the cause of women called Shirley???)

Jokes apart, the situation illustrates a feature of society I have noticed over a long time. Historically certain groups (ethnic minorities, gender- or age-specified groups etc) are deemed unfit for a certain activity or position and thereby marginalised. After many years of struggle, a slight change is brought about, with the conservative faction of society reluctantly (and condescendingly) agreeing to "give them a chance", but remaining basically hostile. After this, the few people given a "chance" are put under a microscope. Any possible sign of failure is interpreted as evidence in support of the conservative view that their group was no good in the first place.

But then comes the second and more enduring transition. After years of hawk-like watching, and presumably not finding enough ammunition, the right-wingers sort of give up on this particular target. Then, and very rapidly, it becomes commonplace for people in this marginalised group to occupy the positions they were formerly denied. Statistically some of them do well and others not so well, but overall it becomes clear that there was never any reason to keep them out in the first place.

If my (admittedly simplistic) description above contains some truth, then doesn't it just mean that conservatives are the real problem?

1 comment:

Raghu said...

David Leonhardt at NYT points out that Larry Summers' comment was not about women being bad at science, but about women not likely to be great at it.

Its this subtle difference between the mean and variance that led to a lot of people misrepresenting Mr. Summers' actual view, which in itself seems reasonably questionable.