Scholars Study Female Careers

Economists to study alumni to see if women lag behind men in certain fields

A pair of Harvard economists are examining the career paths of thousands of Harvard alumni to study whether and why women lag behind men in a variety of fields, in a project prompted by both their own scholarly experience and long-standing support from University President Lawrence H. Summers.

Using information provided by Harvard and by an independent survey, the study will evaluate eight Harvard classes that graduated between the late 60s and early 80s to identify career fields where women are less successful than men, said Lee Professor of Economics Claudia Goldin, who is heading the effort together with Allison Professor of Economics Lawrence F. Katz.

Summers met with the two economists last summer, Goldin said, and suggested that they build on their previous research about high-achieving women.

“His interest was in, how should institutions respond and how they can enable the better use of our resources” to remedy women’s apparent under-representation in academia and other fields, Goldin said.

“I’ve felt for a long time that there’s a great deal that’s in common across the issues of under-representation in academic life, corporate life, major partnerships, and major medical institutions,” Summers said yesterday. “There’s a great deal that can be learned from Harvard alumni.”

Dean of the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study Drew Gilpin Faust, whom Summers asked last month to draft a University-wide initiative to encourage the advancement of women at Harvard, called the Goldin-Katz study “something entirely new.”

The study will examine what Goldin and Katz have called the problem of “the pipeline” that carries college graduates to successful careers.

“Thirty-five years ago, the pipeline of women to the top was empty because the spigot had never been opened,” Goldin and Katz wrote in an op-ed in The Boston Globe last month which defended Summers from the torrent of criticism his recent remarks on women in science created.

“The pipeline is now fuller at the start,” they continued. “It is the leakage along the way to the top that is the new matter for concern.”

The op-ed placed the two economists among Summers’ foremost supporters after his statement at an economics conference last month that “innate differences” between the sexes may explain women’s under-representation in the sciences.

In an interview earlier this week, Goldin said that the media misrepresented Summers’ comments.

“The press unfortunately followed one person’s lead and not Larry’s lead,” she said, referring to MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins ’64, who walked out of the conference halfway through Summers’ remarks.

—Daniel J. Hemel contributed to the reporting of this article.

—Staff writer Anton S. Troianovski can be reached at atroian@fas.harvard.edu.