Summers Draws Fire For Remarks on Women

Private talk at economics conference spirals into national debacle

Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers triggered a national media frenzy when he suggested at an economics conference last Friday that the scarcity of female scientists at elite universities may stem from “innate” differences between the sexes, although two Harvard professors who heard the speech said his remarks have been taken out of context.

MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins ’64 said she felt physically ill while listening to Summers’ speech at a National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) luncheon on Friday, and left the conference room half-way through the president’s remarks.

“For him to say that ‘aptitude’ is the second most important reason that women don’t get to the top when he leads an institution that is 50 percent women students—that’s profoundly disturbing to me,” Hopkins said in an interview Monday. “He shouldn’t admit women to Harvard if he’s going to announce when they come that, hey, we don’t feel that you can make it to the top.”

But Lee Professor of Economics Claudia Goldin, whose own research has examined the progress of women in academia and professional life, said she “was pretty flummoxed” by the negative response to Summers’ speech, which—in her view—displayed “utter brilliance.”

“Somehow Larry knew exactly where he wanted to go, and every word was just very well chosen,” Goldin said in an interview Monday. “He gave a talk that from beginning to end was a beautifully linear set of thoughts.”

Goldin and Ascherman Professor of Economics Richard Freeman both said that after Summers speculated that “innate differences” might explain the underrepresentation of females on elite faculties, he explicitly told the audience: “I’d like to be proven wrong on this one.”

Summers spoke from a set of notes—not a prepared text—so a transcript is unavailable. Summers said in an interview on Monday that his speech was a “purely academic exploration of hypotheses.”

His speech comes against the backdrop of widespread faculty criticism following reports that women received only four of the 32 tenure offers from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) last year.

The FAS Standing Committee on Women responded yesterday with a letter to the president charging that his remarks “send at best mixed signals to our high-achieving women students.”

“[T]hey serve to reinforce the institutional culture at Harvard that erects numerous barriers to improving the representation of women on the faculty, and to impede our efforts to recruit top women scholars,” reads the letter from the 19-member panel chaired by Kenan Professor of English Marjorie Garber.

Summers wrote back to the committee within hours, admitting that “I misjudged the impact of my role as a conference participant.”

“I had hoped to stimulate research on many interrelated factors that bear on women’s careers in science,” Summers wrote yesterday. He also reiterated his pledge to push hard for increased recruitment of female faculty members.

THE HYPOTHESIS

Early in his talk Friday, Summers noted that many women with young children are unwilling or unable to put in the 80-hour workweek needed to attain tenure status on elite faculties.

“I said that raised a whole set of questions about how job expectations were defined and how family responsibilities were defined,” recalled Summers in an interview Monday. “But I said it didn’t explain the differences [in the representation of females] between the sciences and mathematics and other fields.”