Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Personal Reaction to Larry Summers' Comments on Women in Science

Some people are starting to pay attention to Larry Summers' comments on women in science. A few years ago he made the observation that men seemed more suited to the highest ranks in science than women were. He described men as the best of the best and also mentioned their extreme dedication. Quite a few feminists were outraged.

A few weeks ago in the Washington Post Ruth Marcus brought up the subject yet again by reporting on research that showed men more likely to be outliers in terms of mathematical intelligence. She raised the question was Summers right -- even if politically incorrect. The following week a women by the name of Singer who had been a mathematician and professor challenged Marcus by informing us of the hostility she had encountered even though she loved math and teaching it.

When this controversy first arose, I had a somewhat unusual take on things. I am exceptionally intelligent, at least as measured by standardized testing. I show this intelligence in other ways as well. Today I am a member of Mensa and the Triple Nine Society. The latter limits membership to people who have shown on standardized tests that they are in the top 1 in 1000. I've also completed one marathon -- the Marine Corps in 1996.

What caused me to wonder about the people Summers described wasn't their intelligence -- it was their work habits. Besides praising their intelligence, he also said they worked 80 hours per week. That struck me as very unwise at best, if not absolutely crazy. I thought to myself "I can't work that many hours at physics a week and make sense. What makes these people think they can?" Perhaps they are even greater outliers than I am. While my IQ is around what theirs are, in other ways I can be quite normal.

Here's my take on reasonable weeks. Sleep is important. My own experiences regarding some sleep deprivation make me very reluctant to make it a life choice. There is also research that shows humans need about 8 hours of sleep per day. Some can do with less, some need more, but people who can function well on, say, 4 hours sleep per day are extreme outliers themselves. For the sake of argument, let's go with 8 hours sleep per day. That's 56 hours per week -- out of a total of 168 hours. So, just factoring in sleep reduces time available to us humans at 112 hours per week.

Exercise is also important for people who lead sedentary occupations. I spend about 9 hours a week engaged in exercise. We're now down to 103 hours.

Everyone also needs to eat. Yes, you can get a quick bite at your desk while working. That isn't generally healthy enough as an exclusive long term habit. By the time I have prepared, eaten and cleaned up after meals, I will spend about 2 hours a day doing such. That's anothe 14 hours a week. We are now down to only 89 hours a week -- and we haven't done anything but personal maintenance. Yes, some of that time can devoted to other things as well. For instance, meal times can be used for family and social activities.

Let's factor in commuting to work. Yes, a few people work out of their homes, but that is rare in tech fields. Let's say people spend 1 hour/day commuting. That reduces our unscheduled time to 84 hours -- 82 hours for people who work seven days a week.

Let's now look at three kinds of work weeks.

The first is the old standard of 40 hours -- like my father had when he was alive and my mother had when she worked. That 40 hour work week is only 8 hours/day for 5 days. That leaves two full days for things other than work -- family, community, etc. Even on work days there are 3.5 hours of time still unscheduled for family, etc.

Today quite a few people talk about working 60 hours/week. That's six 10 hour days. There is still one full day for other things. On work days, though, there is only 1.5 hours of "free" time. That doesn't seem like enough.

Finally there is the 80 hour week cited by Larry Summers. That leaves only 2 hours/week unscheduled. Something -- probably lots of somethings -- must give. Family? Community? Or something like sleep? Or exercise? Or meals away from work? The 80 hour work week looks, at best, unhealthy for the individual, his family and his community.

What kind of people adopt this lifestyle? Summers doesn't say. I have seen my fair share of people in science and tech fields with significant personal problems. Perhaps they would be that way in any event. But it seems unwise to organize major projects around such people. An Isaac Newton can come up with some kinds of major discoveries -- but you really would not want them trying to lead an organization.

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