Differences not same as inequalities

By Leonard Pitts

So, what might a smarter man have said?

Put aside for a moment the fact that a smarter man would have backed away from the subject as though from a live grenade. If forced at gunpoint to respond, how would a smart man have analyzed the performance gap between male and female science students?

Lawrence Summers, it must be said, was not a smart man. The president of Harvard University, speaking at an academic conference in January, suggested that women lag behind because of intrinsic differences between the sexes. He has been in trouble — protests, hostile commentaries and demands for his head — ever since. He has also been apologizing ever since, though his contrition has done little to moderate the furor. Just last week, a faculty group voted no confidence in his leadership.

All of which reminds me of an argument I once had with my oldest daughter about the possibility of a woman playing center in the NBA. If you’re not a basketball fan, just know that Ben Wallace plays center for the Detroit Pistons and at 6-foot-9, 240 pounds, he is considered small. Yet my daughter would absolutely not concede the absurdity of believing women might someday play center for men’s pro teams. In the years I’ve been telling that story, other women have had similar responses.

It took me years to understand why. Namely that gender differences, like racial ones, can never be discussed in a vacuum, never be treated as matters of abstract curiosity. There is too much history of those differences being used to justify women’s segregation and subjugation.

So feminist women and men are understandably leery when talk turns to inborn disparities, especially when couched in terms of things women do less well. Their reflexive fear is that conceding we are not the same means conceding we are not equal.

The problem with that hard-line resistance is that it requires defenders of women’s rights to ignore self-evident truths, to pretend women and men are interchangeable, save for a stray body part here or chromosome there.

The absurdity of that thinking can be imputed from the tragedy of a man named Bruce Reimer. In 1966, after a botched circumcision essentially amputated his penis, his parents were convinced by a doctor to raise their 8-month-old boy as a girl.

But, as detailed in John Colapinto’s book, “As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised As a Girl,” neither surgery nor socialization ever managed to convince Reimer he was a girl — or even to urinate sitting down. Reimer, who learned the truth when he was a teenager, grew up a stranger in his own body. He killed himself last year.

The story stands as a caution to those who would have us believe there are no differences between women and men.

Deborah Tannen, a linguist who often writes about those differences, suggests in a recent piece in the L.A. Times that we are all missing the point. She says arguments over why women don’t perform as well as men in certain disciplines proceed from the assumption that the way men do a thing is the only way it can be done, the standard against which women should be measured.

Men, she wrote, tend to flourish in competitive, combative environments many women find threatening. “It’s not that they’re not fascinated by the science, don’t have the talent to come up with new ideas or are not willing to put long hours into the lab, but that they’re put off by the competitive, cutthroat culture of science.”

So maybe the key to helping girls flourish is to find ways of playing to their strengths: cooperation, conciliation, bridge-building. Point being, there is more than one way to do science, more than one way to do most things, and certainly, more than one way to be equal. If Lawrence Summers had understood that, he wouldn’t be in trouble now.

I will pass without comment the fact that it takes a woman to tell us what a smart man would have said.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: lpitts@herald.com