By: Doron Levine  | 

A Response to Josh Tranen: Gender Inequality? A Couple of Facts and a Call for Diversity

In The Commentator’s most recent editorial, entitled “Gender Inequality at YU: Men, It’s Our Problem Too”, Joshua Tranen brings new accusations against YU and the larger Orthodox world. His assertions are bold. His proposals are vague, but have a ring of revolution to them. He urges us to dethrone Orthodoxy’s “hegemony of male leadership”, to “shift the way we think about women”, and to “profoundly change the Orthodox experience for women today.” He denounces “‘traditional’ gender divides”.  I would like to respond to Josh Tranen’s arguments. One of Tranen’s central claims is that Yeshiva University academically discriminates against women. He deplores the disparity between the courses offered at Yeshiva College (YC) and those offered at Stern College: Stern College offers many courses in Art, English, Women’s Studies, and human sexuality that simply do not exist at Yeshiva College. But when it comes to STEM education—particularly in math and computer science—Stern students are not privy to the same rigor and intensity in their education that their male counterparts enjoy.

Is this claim true? Stern College does indeed offer more courses in art, English, women’s studies, and human sexuality than YC does. However, the claim about STEM education in Yeshiva University is inaccurate. Both Yeshiva College and Stern College offer courses in many STEM areas, and a comparison between their respective course listings exposes the accusation of discrimination as a misleading generalization. The list of mathematics courses offered in Stern College is almost identical to the list of mathematics courses offered in YC, even though YC currently has sixty-one declared mathematics majors and Stern has only twenty-one. Chemistry courses at Stern College parallel YC’s almost exactly, and Stern’s biology department offers more courses than YC’s biology department does. Stern actually offers two science majors that YC does not offer, namely physical sciences and biochemistry. As for the credentials of Stern’s STEM professors, Stern faculty members in STEM fields currently have millions of dollars in grant support for their research from government agencies (NIH, NSF, DOE) as well as from private foundations. In the world of science, this represents powerful validation of their quality as scientists.

But let us take a look at a specific field of STEM study where YC surpasses Stern. Stern College’s computer science department offers fewer courses than YC’s and does not even offer a major. Why is this true? Granted that this qualifies as gender inequality, but what is its cause? Is YU’s leadership conspiring to exclude women from the field of computer science? Our intuition suggests that this is unlikely, and a bit of research confirms our hunch. Acknowledging the paucity of Stern College’s computer science offerings, Dean Karen Bacon of Stern College explained that, on the whole, Stern students have exhibited little interest in a career in computer science. Therefore, the department is quite small, and does not currently offer a major, only a minor.  “We address weaknesses in areas where there is substantial demand,” she explained. In general, Stern offers richer course selection in areas of high student interest, and, at the moment, computer science is not one of those areas.

Lest we be tempted to assume that this trend is unique to the Modern Orthodox world, a study published by the United States Census Bureau confirms that female underrepresentation in STEM fields is a national phenomenon. According to the study, “Although women make up nearly half of the working population, they remain underrepresented in STEM occupations. In 2011, 26 percent of STEM workers were women and 74 percent were men.” This reality has persisted for many years, and is well documented.

As to the origins of female underrepresentation in STEM, a study published in Psychological Bulletin in 2009 entitled “Men and Things, Women and People: A Meta-Analysis of Sex Differences in Interests,” found “substantial sex differences in vocational interests.” Specifically, “men generally showed more realistic and investigative interests as well as stronger interests in the STEM areas; in comparison, women tend to have more Artistic, Social, and Conventional interests and to express less interest in the STEM fields.” These interests often push women towards the liberal arts instead of mathematics and science. If this theory is correct, or even if it is only locally true in Stern College, then, naturally, Stern should pour more resources into its liberal arts program than into its STEM departments. If we concede the legitimacy of separate higher education for men and women, then it seems perfectly reasonable that a women’s college should focus more on studies that women prefer, and a men’s college should focus more on studies that men prefer. Surely we should not fault a university for accommodating the wishes of its student body.

Divergence in academic interest also easily explains Stern’s superiority in the field of women’s studies. To put it simply, Stern College for Women offers more courses in women’s studies because women are more interested in women’s studies. This academic asymmetry has nothing to do with chauvinism; YC’s men are not less interested in women’s studies because they dislike or disparage women. People just naturally prefer to study groups to which they belong. Jews probably prefer Jewish Studies over other ethnic studies, humans prefer anthropology to herpetology, and, in general, groups tend to gravitate towards the study of themselves. If we are willing to acknowledge a significant enough gender divide such that we can study men and women separately, then we should not complain when student interest in these areas of study exhibits gender divides.

In this controversy, I detect the curious modern proclivity for trivializing gender disparities. Let us lay bare the premises that underlie this inveterate bias. Tranen claims that Stern College’s discriminatory approach curbs its students’ ambitions: Yeshiva University needs to take action to end gender inequalities because the implicit message it’s sending young Jewish women is this: It’s fine, get a degree, but know that intellectually and religiously, your place is different because you’re a woman. Or, to quote the Nigerian novelist Chimamamanda Ngozi Adichie, “You can have ambition—but not too much.”

I would like to zero in on the transition from the “implicit message” to Adichie’s warning to women to not have too much ambition. It seems that the word “or” here expresses a false comparison. If women occupy a different intellectual and religious place than men, it does not follow that women must chain their ambitions. In fact, what does follow is that a comparison between male ambition and female ambition is misguided. After all, in order for a person to be ambitious, he must reach towards a specific ideal. He must have a goal in mind, a definite vision of success, on which he sets his sights and struggles to achieve.

If a woman inhabits a distinct intellectual and religious place, then she must have her own particular ideal. Rather than tempering her ambitions relative to men, she should channel her ambitions towards that ideal. As she travels along the road to religious and intellectual fulfillment, she need not scramble to keep pace with or to outstrip the men. She need not anxiously look over her shoulder, because the men are on a different route. We can only measure her progress vis-à-vis her journey’s end; her ambition depends on her destination. If men and women are chasing different goals, then to say that men are necessarily more ambitious than women is frivolous. It is like claiming that weightlifters are stronger than runners are fast.

Consider an example from the editorial itself. Stern College’s emphasis on literature and art says nothing about ambition. A woman with a degree from Stern’s strong English department might be the next Poet Laureate or a future Pulitzer Prize winner. The word “inequality” is bandied about incessantly, but it is rarely defined. If it merely means that two unequal things are not the same thing, then it says nothing about their comparative values. Inequality does not imply inferiority.

Why, therefore, are we so eager to say that men and women are the same? What do we gain by playing down our differences? I say, if women tend to have different academic interests than men, then let them. Feminism comes in many different flavors, but the brand of feminism that demands that men and women be identical is truly oppressive. Why can’t we celebrate our differences instead of denying them? Tranen thinks the “Jewish future of tomorrow”, under equality of the sexes, would be “a brighter, bolder, more vibrant reality than the one we live in today.” But why would a future where people are more similar be bolder and brighter? Homogeneity is boring; uniformity is bland. Variety is the spice of life. We can retain human heterogeneity only if we recognize the differences between people. If everyone is the same, there is no diversity.