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Political Correctness Gone Mad
By Kathy Hare

          Last month, while attending a Colorado Ground Water Management Conference pertaining to recharging alluvial aquifers, I noticed a dearth of women.  For two days straight I listened to scientists, engineers, hydrogeologists, lawyers, and legislators discuss the scientific and legal obstacles that must be overcome before recharge can take place.  With the exception of the legislators, most of these experts were dressed in suits and ties, leading me to question why more women are not pursuing careers in science and engineering.

          At first, I wondered why the lack of women was bothering me, and then I had to laugh at my politically incorrect answer.  The conference was an attempt to find solutions to a state-wide water crisis.  Yet the experts trying to resolve the issues are a bunch of territorial males!  After years of working in a male-dominated field, I have noticed that females look at the larger picture when trying to solve problems, while males spend a lot of time marking their territory, and making sure their empire isn't invaded.

          Ok, so that is one sexist statement. But that doesn't make it any less true. 

          In our little corner of the water world, irrigators are fighting with metro district owners, neither of whom wants to give up one drop of water.  State officials argue with county officials over who has the right to say if there's enough water for the current pace of growth, until they both get blue in the face because their ties are cutting off circulation to their brains.  Meanwhile, a plan to recharge the basin, thus helping the entire region, may never get implemented because of endless turf battles.  Some are so concerned with protecting their own area they lose sight of what is best for the entire region.

          But if one politically incorrect statement can be true, then maybe it's time to examine another stereotype.

          Remember the old TV show, "Father Knows Best?"  I will skip the rant about the chauvinistic title and move right to the content of one particular episode. At the time the show was produced the three occupational fields open to women were nursing, teaching, and secretarial work.  Actually, women held many other jobs, but ask females who grew up in the 1950's, and most would say few other options were ever mentioned.  However in this episode, Betty the teenage daughter, aka Princess, was in a rebellious mood.  Thinking highly of herself after receiving a good grade in math, Betty decided she wanted to become an engineer.  Her all knowing father, Jim Anderson, played by Robert Young, told her that wouldn't be a good idea.  "Why father?" she asked. "I'm as smart as the boys, and I think I might like to design bridges, buildings, or something."  Her TV father smiled kindly, like only Robert Young could do, and said, "Princess, be reasonable."

            It all came down to one thing, poor Betty was a female and therefore unequipped to be an engineer. Throughout the episode she argued with her father but in the end she said, "Father, I'm sorry for being so silly, of course I can't be an engineer!"  Betty then skipped upstairs to get ready for a high school dance, crashing the dreams of girls around the nation with every step she took.

          I remember this episode so well because in the 1980's I heard my teenage sons roaring with laughter as they watched a re-run of the show.  I felt proud because their laughter meant times had changed, and affirmed how ludicrous Anderson's advice to his daughter appeared 30 years later.

          Then in January 2005 the president of Harvard, Larry Summers, made a speech at a conference called "Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce." At first glance, he appeared to reiterate the theme of the "Father Knows Best" episode when he said that an innate difference between men and women might be one of the reasons fewer women succeed in science and math careers. "Research in behavioral genetics is showing that things people previously attributed to socialization weren't due to socialization after all," Summers said.

          However his statement was not just an opinion, it was backed-up with scientific data.  Numerous tests have shown that more boys than girls tend to score in the top percentiles on high school math tests, making them more prepared for high-powered careers in science and engineering.  But the repercussions of Summers' statement, resulting in the loss of his position at Harvard, made examining gender based facts a political minefield few scientists wish to enter.

          Today, 58 percent of the students at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs are female, but only 22 percent of those enrolled in computer and engineering courses are women.  Greg Augspurger, Engineering Advisor at UCCS, was asked to explain why more women are not seeking careers in computer and engineering fields.  He hemmed and hawed, choosing his words carefully, no doubt wanting to avoid Summers' fate.  "Well, there may be many social factors, it's hard to pinpoint one main cause," he said.

          That's too bad, because those factors must first be identified and understood before any changes can be implemented.  Summers' speech was not designed to preclude women from aspiring to careers in science, but to find methods to address a factor that holds them back - the lack of a good foundation in math.   

          Neuroscientists recently studied brain scans of men and women who scored in the top 1 percent on the SAT math section.  As the participants solved math problems, the scans revealed men use the gray matter in the brain's parietal and cerebral cortices, while women rely on the corpus callosum, the white matter connecting both sides of the brain, in order to solve math equations.  Therefore, many females may benefit from a different approach to teaching math, or perhaps mathematical concepts need to be taught to girls at an earlier or later age.  But at this point, no one, especially a male, dares to examine the science and suggest solutions based on facts, for fear of being labeled sexist. 

           Linda Gottfredson, a psychologist at the University of Delaware said, "I think it's an outrage that certain questions - that real important questions- can't be raised in an academic atmosphere, the research that's well known can't be presented without some sort of hysterical response."

          So society will have to overcome the shackles of political correctness and start looking at hardcore scientific data, if we wish to truly attain equal opportunity for both sexes.  Until then, Betty's whim of becoming an engineer may be a silly idea, and plans to recharge the aquifer will probably remain nothing more than a pipe dream.  

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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