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Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers has triggered criticism by telling an economics conference Friday that the under-representation of female scientists at elite universities may stem in part from “innate" differences between men and women, although two Harvard professors who heard the speech said the remarks have been taken out of context in an ensuing national media frenzy.
MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins ’64 said she felt physically ill as a result of listening to Summers’ speech at a National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) luncheon, and she 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. “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.”
Summers spoke from a set of notes—not a prepared text—so a transcript is not available. But in an interview with The Crimson this evening, Summers said that his speech was a “purely academic exploration of hypotheses.”
Summers’ speech came against the backdrop of widespread faculty criticism this fall following reports that only four of 32 tenure offers made in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences last year went to women.
Early in his speech, Summers noted that women remain underrepresented in the upper echelons of academic and professional life—in part, he said, because many women with young children are unwilling or unable to put in the 80-hour work-weeks needed to succeed in those fields.
“I said that raised a whole set of questions about how job expectations were defined and how family responsibilities were defined,” according to Summers. “But I said it didn’t explain the differences [in the representation of females] between the sciences and mathematics and other fields.”
Goldin, who herself prepared a memo Summers cited in his speech Friday, said the president “had mountains of research” on the subject, although he spoke extemporaneously.
Summers referred repeatedly to the work of University of Michigan sociologist Yu Xie and his University of California-Davis colleague Kimberlee A. Shauman, who have found that women make up 35 percent of faculty at universities across the country, but only 20 percent of professors in science and engineering.
Their analysis of achievement test results shows a higher degree of variance in scores among men than among women. According to Ascherman Professor of Economics Richard Freeman, an organizer of the conference, the research found that “there are more men who are at the top and more men who are utter failures.”
Summers suggested that behavioral genetics could partially explain this phenomenon.
Freeman and Goldin both said that after Summers’ mentioned the “innate differences” hypothesis, he explicitly told the audience: “I’d like to be proven wrong on this one.”
By that point Hopkins, a renowned cancer researcher who last year was inducted into the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, had left the conference room. She said she was concerned that it would be “rude” to get up midway through Summers’ speech, but “it was just too upsetting” for her to stay.
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Freeman said that he invited Summers to the NBER event “to come and be provocative.”
“We didn’t invite Larry as a Harvard president per se,” Freeman said. “We invited him because he has an extremely powerful and interesting mind. And I think if we had invited him as Harvard president, he would have given us the same type of babble that university presidents give. And thank God we have a president who doesn’t say that.”
Freeman said that Hopkins’ decision to take her concerns to the press was “very bizarre in my view.” Summers said he had not expected that the comments would be published.
“If I disagree with you, I should tell you why I disagree with you and what the evidence for my point is. It shouldn’t be that I leave the room and call up a reporter and complain there,” Freeman said.
Hopkins said she mentioned the Summers speech in an e-mail exchange relating to another matter with Boston Globe reporter Marcella Bombardieri on Friday—but that she did not intend for her sentiments to spark the media circus that is already underway. Following a Globe article this morning, the story has appeared across the national media, and Hopkins said she has already received a request to appear on ABC’s “Good Morning America” as well as several other television shows.
And Hopkins dismissed the notion that Summers’ remarks were meant to be kept private among attendees at the conference. “The notion that Larry Summers’ position should be kept a secret on issues like this – that’s just wrong.”
Goldin said that Summers’ support for women in academia is well-known. “The reason Larry gave this talk is that he’s extremely interested in the way that institutions can enable individuals to perform to their maximum. And it bothers him when individuals do not perform to their maximum,” Goldin said. She added that Summers is “really dedicated to changing institutions” so that women can attain leadership roles throughout academia.
“Everyone agrees that working toward gender equity is vitally important,” Summers said this evening. He said that universities must address discrimination head-on, but that academics must also engage in “careful, honest and rigorous research” to understand the factors fueling the under-representation of females. “My speculations were intended to contribute to that process,” he said.
In the dining halls and on the campus open e-mail lists of Harvard College, Summers’ remarks have sparked a flurry of debate as students take a break from studying for final exams to weigh in on the University president’s latest foray into the national spotlight.
“I think the evidence in favor of an ‘innate abilities’ explanation of the gender gap is very weak,” said Jessica L. Jones ’06, a biological anthropology concentrator in Mather House. “The evidence in favor a ‘social forces’ explanation is very strong.”
“I don’t think ‘innate abilities’ should be our go-to hypothesis when it’s the weakest one we have now,” Jones said.
Andrew G. Barr ’05, a government concentrator in Dunster House, said that “obviously my instinct is not to buy into any theory that there’s any sort of genetic flaw in women that prevents them from being good professors.”
But, Barr said, “it’s too soon in the academic and scientific discussion of this hypothesis to be getting hysterical, and it’s too soon in the story of what President Summers does or doesn’t believe to be getting hysterical.”
—Staff writer Daniel J. Hemel can be reached at email@example.com.
—For complete coverage of the speech, please see The Crimson’s next print edition on Wednesday.
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