The last time University President Lawrence H. Summers spoke on women and science at a conference, he ignited a controversy that would engulf the campus.
But last night, addressing the same topic, he was met with a much warmer reception.
The president delivered opening remarks at the National Symposium for the Advancement of Women in Science, which was sponsored by Women in Science at Harvard-Radcliffe (WISHR).
The crowd of around 40 students and faculty members, most of whom were female, laughed when Summers joked, “I’ve certainly done my part over the last several months to increase interest in these topics,” and they nodded when he said that universities were regrettably “designed by men for men.”
Dressed in a blue suit and green tie, the president declared his interest in eliminating gender inequality in scientific fields, expressing the sentiment in the characteristic tone of an economist.
“It is a truism that if you fish in a larger pond, you will fish more successfully,” he said.
Summers’s remarks last night are his latest attempt at making amends following his controversial comments to the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) in January. The president had said that the shortage of women in scientific fields was more the result of variances in “intrinsic aptitude” than of social factors. He later apologized for his remarks.
WISHR Vice President and the symposium’s Assistant Director Connie Zong ’06 expressed confidence in the president.
“I’m sure he didn’t think the things people were saying he thought,” she said. She added that Summers had met with the board of directors of WISHR to discuss the symposium, and the board had unanimously chosen the president to kick off the event.
But organizers said that, in practice, equality in the sciences was a long way off.
Asked whether she felt Summers planned to make good on his promise to conduct a “focused, intense, sustained effort” at promoting women in science, WISHR president Mariangela Lisanti ’05 said, “We’ll see.”
She said a top priority for the administration needs to be getting female undergraduates “not to have to change concentrations because they feel uncomfortable in scientific fields.”
In a show of support for WISHR’s goals, the administration has provided an impressive amount of money for the conference.
According to Elina Onitskansky ’06, the director of WISHR’s business division, the administration was the symposium’s chief benefactor.
The Harvard University Provost’s office gave $10,000 in matching funds to the organization, and the Deans of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Harvard College together gave $6,000. The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies and the Ann Radcliffe Trust—traditional sources of funding for women’s groups—contributed $2,000 and $3,000, respectively,
On the whole, the group raised $28,500 to conduct the symposium, which it expects to cover the costs of transporting, housing and feeding 20 out-of-town speakers.