Cherish the differences (if any)

Ahmed Shafee
Published : 7 March 2011, 04:34 PM
Updated : 7 March 2011, 04:34 PM

What would men be without women?Scarce, sir, mighty scarce .-Mark Twain

It is not clear exactly at what stage Mother Nature got tired of seeing single sex living beings reproducing themselves in a boringly slow cloning sequence, with variation coming in only from occasional random mutations. Multiply one by itself an infinite number of times and it is still one, whereas with two, the number of variations explodes exponentially, and variations are essential to adapt and survive. Simple arithmetic advantage led to the genesis of the Y-chromosome, and in a world full of Eves, at last an Adam was born, first at simple multicellular levels, then eventually for apes, including the human one.The new arrival was not meant to be superior, but only complementary in the reproductive sense. Somebody looking at an electron micrograph of the deformed Y-chromosome might find it somewhat comical beside the more sedate X variety, and it looks, well, kind of incomplete by itself.

The males of all species had to perform pleasing acts to attract female attention. Male birds developed beautiful colourful ornamental plumes, while female birds remained plain fastidious judges. The lion got its mane, not the lioness. But human male did not become more handsome or nicer than women, they grew bigger and stronger, and brute force became the criterion of selection. The patriarchal society came into being and continues, albeit with diminishing identity. So, 'she' and 'woman' are longer words, because they are less frequent in usage than the male counterparts, as are 'female', 'heiress', 'baroness' or 'choudhurani'. On the other hand, there is a longer "widower" for the rarer male surviving for long without the female partner. Women remain the more self-sufficient, naturally.

To the older generation of this country the first fantasy story they came across when growing up was Begum Rokeya's "Sultana's Dream". This sprightly tale of imagination depicting a land dominated by women everywhere was a great work of literature as well as the record of wistful yearning of a highly intelligent lady who wanted to break out of the shackles of the unreasonable restrictions of a male dominated society.

But even after Begum Rokeya's heroic efforts, progress in women's education was very slow in East Bengal. The number of female students at Dhaka University remained insignificant for decades, though there were occasional cases of outstanding talent. Fazilatunnessa, coming from Bethune College of Calcutta, was the first Muslim woman to get a masters degree from Dhaka, that too in mathematics, and went to England with a scholarship for higher studies. "The Begum", edited by Nurjahan Begum, for many years continued to be the only forum of women's literary self-expression, because male editors were perceived to be unsympathetic to feminine efforts. Some women later took active part in politics and even in the language movement, though officially they could not even talk to male students without the proctor's permission. Even as late as 1969 women students did not enter classrooms until after the teacher had entered, though occasionally they topped the list in the examinations.

Since Liberation we have seen a brisk change for a freer society, in educational institutions and elsewhere. It is now almost impossible to identify a literary work as that by a woman, unless the writer's name happens to be Taslima Nasreen. Women might soon outnumber men in many coeducational institutions. They probably already do so in some university departments. The university admission tests are gender blind. The number of female students and faculty members in the biological and social sciences is satisfactory, in the physical sciences less so. Some women activists of this country have demanded that female students be given a minimal reserved quota in departments such as computer science where women are seen less. Is a reserved quota a good idea?

Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult. –Charlotte Whitton

In 1999 some women professors at MIT, one of the world's leaders in the physical sciences, published a complaint regarding unequal distribution of resources between men and women faculty in terms of laboratory space, salary supplements, start-up packages, university funding, and even prize nominations. This created quite an uproar, not only in the USA. The MIT administration hastily admitted inequity, and took measures giving women faculty members a better share. However, later in December that year an organisation calling itself the Independent Women's Forum published a report by Judith Kleinfeld, Professor of Psychology of the University of Alaska, criticising the MIT report as "junk science." This report claimed that the MIT professors' claim of discrimination was not justified by data. It also effectively said that since less women took up physical science as major, the number of quality faculty members from that sex was statistically less likely on the average.

On January 14, 2005, economist Lawrence Summers, who was then Harvard's president, delivered a speech at a conference of the National Bureau of Economic Research about why elite institutions such as Harvard have few women scientists on their tenured faculty list. Summers relied on anecdotes and unproven beliefs to explain the scarcity of women scientists: (1) women are unwilling or unable to work an 80-hour week required for success in science at top academic institutions; (2) innate biological factors probably account for sex differences in mathematical aptitude, and also for later choices of fields of academic study and occupation. Summers claimed that discrimination does not exist in academia, because market forces eliminate it when less elite institutions hire highly qualified women and minorities, gaining an advantage. His remarks led to a national debate about women in science. Summers was soon replaced by the first woman president of Harvard. Today, of the eight prestigious Ivy League colleges, four have women as presidents.

However, it is true that one does not see many female faces in the list of Nobel winners in Physics or Chemistry, or of top mathematicians. So far only two women (including Madam Curie) have won the prize in Physics, and four (including Madam Curie again and her daughter Irene) in Chemistry. The count for Biology and Medicine is more impressive at ten. In the USA, men and women crowd the biological science departments more or less equally now, but the ratio is half in the physical sciences. The pattern is very similar almost all over the world. This difference is unlikely to be inborn. It has been argued that little girls are usually given dolls to play with, while boys get cars, and hence interests diverge at an early stage.

Does affirmative action always work? It is relevant when an initial push is helpful. In physics people talk about two types of friction – static and kinetic. It takes more force to begin to move a static object than to accelerate an already moving one. Optimisation requires plenty of calculations, because extra force can end up as skidding and other problems. At one time the British Tory party had an interesting slogan – ''Equal opportunity to become unequal". At early stages boys and girls deserve similar treatment, so that each may discover his/her strongest side — whatever.

If slight gender based differences do emerge in specific areas, then should we always try frantically to efface that? If we insist on men and women to be represented in equal numbers in every field at every stage, and adopt artificial means to force equalities where complementarity with equal dignity may be more in order, it may turn out to be society's loss, with everybody unhappy. The man who was recently offloaded for refusing to travel on a plane piloted by a lady was a boor, but who can blame somebody for being happy that the number of female criminals is considerably less?

I love women. They're the best thing ever created. If they want to be like men and come down to our level, that's fine.–Mel Gibson

Dr Ahmed Shafee is a Professor of Physics at the University of Dhaka.