Hierarchy 101: Summers, Women and Math

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Charlotte and Harriet Childress

(WOMENSENEWS)–We ask celibate priests about birth control and we ask heterosexuals about the validity of gay and lesbian relationships.

So it’s not surprising that we ask men about the contribution of women to math and science.

As members of hierarchies, we are all trained to look to the people at the top of our hierarchies–however inappropriate they actually might be–for our direction, decisions, permission and approval.

And so, we all listen when Larry Summers–top man at one of the top universities in the country–tells us something.

With his inflammatory comments about women’s possibly “innate” difficulties in “high end science careers,” Harvard’s President Summers spotlighted that people at the top of our gender, class and race hierarchies are succeeding in math and science fields. And then, in incendiary fashion, he suggested that there are “innate” reasons for this, at least when it comes to gender.

It’s not surprising to find this top-of-a-hierarchy cluelessness. In fact, it’s typical. People at the top of hierarchies have limited information because they listen to people at their same level and above, but rarely seek the perspectives of people below.

Identical Twins in Science and Engineering

We are identical twins who began our careers in science and engineering 35 years ago. Collectively, we have been teachers, researchers, and administrators in colleges and universities and worked in industry and government.

Over the last 13 years, we’ve been researching various hierarchies throughout the United States because we learned about the value of listening to groups who are lower in hierarchies. Charlotte led the Connections Across Cultures–a research project started in 1994 and funded with nearly $1 million from the National Science Foundation–which compiled the perspectives on math and science of several hundred women, African Americans, American Indians, Latinas and Latinos.

The distribution of resources and praise shows us that math and science are on top of the academic hierarchy. We have watched music and art programs be cut while math and science programs expand. Harriet was told her children will be spending more homework time on math than all other subjects combined. The two of us are accustomed to having people assume we are smart because we majored in science and engineering.

But despite this emphasis on math and science, in the United States, we create multitudes of students who fail math classes, which is predictable because much of what students see is confined to linear exercises. Students stack up facts, pass through material linearly from one step to another by accepting then remembering the previous step as the process moves along.

Performing Based on Rules, Expectations

This narrow approach–which also pervades the teaching of science–sorts out certain people and rewards those who often perform by rules and expectations. It selects those who can succeed in hierarchies.

Many females and people of color told the Connections project that to be successful in math and science, they must reject their own perspectives, learning and communication styles and life views. They said they must mold themselves into expected roles in order to complete school. They said they viewed math and science as competitive environments where they are expected to follow the voice of authority imparting knowledge.

These are all the impressions that are to be expected from subjects that have been molded to fit a hierarchical world view.

So how do we expand math and science beyond this perspective?

Listening to Outsiders

Connections Across Cultures collected ideas from people in groups underrepresented in math and science. (In other words, it looked toward the middle and base of the hierarchy, instead of craning its head to look up to the top.)

In doing so, it heard from members of a small historically black college that graduated the second-highest number of African American students in the United States (mostly female) who later entered and completed medical school. Teachers there placed more value on understanding the essence of organic chemistry than a student’s willingness to memorize hundreds of “rigorous” equations.

It also heard from an American Indian high-school biology teacher who said that he was reluctant to speak among Ph.D.’s at a rain forest conference. Later, though, he concluded that he might not know as many discrete details, but that he knew as much as they did because he had lived in and observed the forest all his life.

An educational director of an organization that successfully taught women technical skills reported that it was important that students told stories as part of the learning process. As the teacher would present a concept, students, one by one, would assess their understanding of it by relating it to something in their own lives to see if they made the right assumption and connection.

When we remove ourselves from our hierarchical conditioning, we uncover fresh ideas and approaches that enrich our knowledge and wisdom in the fields of math, science, engineering, and technology.

When we don’t, our hierarchies reassert themselves; making it appear normal to have separate “higher” groups of people successful in math, and larger “lower” groups who are not.

That’s all very sad and wasteful. Math and science have the potential to contain every aspect of our natural world–the fun, vibrancy, playfulness, personality and chaos–along with the order and regimen.

Harriet and Charlotte Childress are authors of “Clueless at the Top: While the Rest of Us Look Elsewhere for Life, Liberty, and Happiness,” published in 2005 by Cypress House Press.

For more information:

Clueless at the Top:

Connections Across Cultures:

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