That Greenspun piece that set off so much comment around here was ostensibly addressed to the position of women in science, but didn't have much specific to say on the topic. So I thought I'd mention another article, by Peter Lawrence of Cambridge in PLoS Biology, that deals with the subject more directly.
We're heading into the territory that got Larry Summers in so much trouble at Harvard, but here goes. The first part of Lawrence's argument is that it's silly to assume that men and women are interchangeable. As it happens, I agree with him:
Some have a dream that, one fine day, there will be equal numbers of men and women in all jobs, including those in scientific research. But I think this dream is Utopian; it assumes that if all doors were opened and all discrimination ended, the different sexes would be professionally indistinguishable. The dream is sustained by a cult of political correctness that ignores the facts of life-and thrives only because the human mind likes to bury experience as it builds beliefs. Here I will argue, as others have many times before, that men and women are born different.
By this point, some people usually will have already stomped out of the room. But wait - that word "different" has to be peeled away from the words "better" and "worse". Allow me a chem-geek analogy: lithium and sodium, though similar compared to most other elements, are still clearly different from each other. Which one is better, which worse? The question makes no sense, but that's exactly where many arguments about men and women come to a fiery halt.
Lawrence's second point, drawn from the work of Simon Baron-Cohen, is that it's also silly to assume that men and women naturally all fall into their alleged types. Even if there are indeed typical male and typical female ways of approaching the world, these are still only averages that we take from a whole spectrum of behavior. That doesn't mean they aren't real, but we should appreciate that they're on a continuum, and that the two distributions of men and women take up a good amount of space, with room to overlap:
. . .Baron-Cohen presents evidence that males on average are biologically predisposed to systemise, to analyse, and to be more forgetful of others, while females on average are innately designed to empathise, to communicate, and to care for others. Males tend to think narrowly and obsess, while females think broadly, taking into account balancing arguments. Classifying individuals in general terms, he concludes that among men, about 60% have a male brain, 20% have a balanced brain, and 20% have a female brain. Women show the inverse figures, with some 60% having a female brain."
Lawrence goes on to summarize Baron-Cohen's theory that autism represents an extreme male brain, while noting that a sprinkling of mild autism-spectrum behavior probably does science (and society) some good:
It will not have escaped the notice of many scientists that some of their colleagues and maybe themselves have more than a hint of these "autistic" features. . .Indeed, we might acknowledge that a limited amount of autistic behaviour can be useful to researchers and to society-for example, a lifetime's concentration on a family of beetles with more than 100,000 species may seem weird, but we need several such people in the world for each family. And most of these specialists will be men. . .
It follows that if we search objectively for an obsessive knowledge, for a mastery of abstruse facts, or for mechanical understanding, we will select many more men than women. And if males on average are constitutionally better suited to be this kind of scientist, it seems silly to aim at strict gender parity.
However, in professions that rely on an ability to put oneself in another's place, at which women on average are far superior, we should expect and want a majority of women.
Still, he goes on to say that we would do well to find a place for each type in the other's favorite professions, since the fields are complex enough for some different sorts to be needed. In science, to pick one obvious example, people with better interpersonal skills would make better mentors for students and younger scientists. Too many potentially good careers are ruined by research advisors with no personal skills - well, no helpful ones, anyway. (I've known some who had amazing talents of enraging and antagonizing people).
And on top of all this, there's no evidence that creativity and original thinking, which are in perpetually short supply, have any male-brain female-brain bias at all. But as Lawrence points out, the techniques that we use to fill positions, in both industry and academia, are biased toward male-brain behavior: unshakeable self-confidence, quick recall of all sorts of data, self-promotion in the form of long publication lists, and so on. We would do better, he says, to give less weight to "salesmanship and pushiness".
I think he's got a good point. For example, it occurred to me fairly soon after coming to industry that most of the people who climbed the ladder in a company did so by devoting all their time to climbing the ladder. Anyone with a range of interests and activities, not all of them necessarily relevant to gaining power and position, was at a disadvantage and would generally lose out to the people who had made getting those things their life's work. Of course, in this way you end up promoting some people into supervisory positions whose main skills have nothing to do with being able to usefully supervise anyone, but that's a well-known problem, too.
Turning Lawrence's recommendation into something workable isn't going to be easy, though. Originality and creativity are famously hard to measure, or often even to recognize. Some people seem to have an eye for talent (I'm thinking of some historical examples from the arts world), but if it exists, it's a rare quality. And in many cases, we're going to be asking less creative people to evaluate more creative ones, which has been a traditional recipe for disaster.