By R Ramachandran
12 March, 2005
major controversy sparked off among the members of the academic community
in the United States, particularly women scientists, by the observations
of Lawrence Summers, the President of Harvard University and former
Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, on the subject of under-representation
of women in the fields of science and engineering, is yet to die down.
Ignoring, or perhaps
ignorant of, the enormous body of social science research to the contrary
that exists, Summers posited, on January 14 at a conference of the U.S.
National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), that innate differences
in aptitudes, along with familial pressures and employer demands, rather
than socialisation and discrimination, were the reasons for fewer women
making it to the top in the sciences and engineering. Summers even compared
the low number of women to the numbers of Catholics in investment banking,
whites in the National Basketball Association, and Jews in farming.
Though Summers later
issued a carefully worded apology, saying that if he could turn the
clock back he would have spoken differently, and urged the university
to take a proactive stance in recruiting women, the damage had been
done. In fact, the National Organisation for Women (NOW) in the U.S.
called for Summers' resignation. According to NOW, the number of women
faculty recruitment at Harvard had declined over the past four years,
after Summers became Harvard President in 2001. Of the last 32 tenure
posts, only four had gone to women. "Summers' suggestion that women
are inferior to men in their ability to perform at maths and science
is more than an example of sexism," said NOW's president Kim Grandy.
"It is a clue [as] to why women have not been more fully accepted
and integrated into the Harvard faculty since he has been President,"
The renewed outcry
is understandable because the release of the transcript of his speech
on February 17 shows Summers in poorer light than what earlier media
reports, based on the recall of some of the women participants, suggested.
His actual utterances imply that he sincerely believed in the sexist
remarks that he made, ostensibly as "hypotheses" solely to
provoke further discussion and research on an issue that he, as the
chief of a top U.S. institution, was really concerned about.
The transcript reveals
Summers' claim in his speech that he had made an effort to think about
the issue of women's under-representation in science and engineering
in top universities and research institutions in a serious way. "My
best guess," he said, "of what's behind all of this is that
the largest phenomenon by far is the general clash between people's
legitimate family desires and employers' current desires for high power
and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering,
there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly variability
of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are
in fact lesser factors involving socialisation and continuing discrimination."
the transcript reluctantly and under pressure from some Harvard faculty
members, after having refused to do so earlier in the wake of the controversy
that his talk had generated. In fact, those scientists and academicians,
particularly women, who joined issue with Summers then through their
writings and arguments in the U.S. media now seem to be angrier. Everett
Mandelsohn, a Professor of History of Science at Harvard, who was one
of the faculty members who had criticised Summers at a faculty meeting,
remarked that he now understood why Summers wanted the transcript to
be kept secret.
Summers had remarked
that, since Harvard drew only from the very top, it was understandable
why there were fewer women in these fields. He cited the following reasons
in the order of relative importance: (1) Reluctance or inability of
women who have children to work the 80-hour-week that top posts demanded;
(2) Fewer girls had high scores in maths and science standardised tests
at the high school level as compared to boys, which was indicative of
an innate difference between the sexes; and, (3) Lack of evidence for
discrimination, upon applying economic principles of supply and demand.
The basis for the
second reason was that even though the median scores of girls and boys
were comparable, girls' scores tended to cluster around the mean, while
boys displayed greater variance, with a large number of high scores.
This, he said, indicated "intrinsic" (read genetic) differences
that inhibited girls from excelling in science. Indeed, Summers had
cited an anecdote about his daughter that despite his effort at gender-neutral
parenting, the girl as a child used to call her toy trucks "daddy
truck" and "baby truck", thus showing tendencies related
to family care. The basis of the third was that there was no evidence
of other institutions stepping in to grab top women who were discriminated
Referring to the
anecdote, Nancy Hopkins, a Harvard graduate and now a biology professor
at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said to The Boston
Globe: "That's the kind of insidious, destructive, un-thought-through
attitude that causes a lot of harm." In fact, Hopkins, who was
the first to speak about the Summers incident to the media, had walked
out of his speech "out of disgust". "It is one thing
for an ordinary person to shoot his mouth off like that, but quite another
for a top educational leader," she said.
and counter-arguments to the rationales offered by Summers have flowed
constantly since the day he delivered his infamous speech. Attacking
Summers' first premise, Susan Hockfield, a neuroscientist and the president
of MIT, said: "The question we must ask as a society is not `Can
women excel in math, science and engineering?' - Marie Curie exploded
that myth a century ago - but how can we encourage more women with exceptional
abilities to pursue careers in these fields?"
an electrical engineer at the University of Washington and one of the
women present at the meeting and sharply critical of Summers, wrote:
"There is evidence to the contrary. Today, myriad women are at
the top in their fields. This year's  Nobel Prize in Physiology
to Linda Buck, for example. Four of the 10 campuses at the University
of California are run by women, who are all highly respected in their
a Professor of Psychology and the leader of the Gender Equity Project
at Hunter College in the City University of New York (CUNY), on the
other hand, pointed out that there was no data showing that 80-hour
work is essential for academic excellence. "It is a folk belief
still awaiting verification. There is also a vast array of data indicating
that women who do put in 80-hour weeks do not reap the same rewards
as men. Numerous controlled studies show that women's successes are
frequently attributed to luck rather than skill and that women are more
poorly evaluated than men with precisely the same experience and credentials,"
and elsewhere, scientists do not work 80-hour weeks and are no less
productive than U.S. scientists. Among women scientists, mothers are
no less productive than women without children," wrote Vita C.
Rabinowitz, a Professor of Psychology and co-director in the Gender
Equity Project at Hunter College. "By framing the issue as one
of women's ability and willingness to work hard, he insults women and
treats society's problem of caring for children as a woman's problem,"
In her perceptive
article in The Washington Post, Valian questioned Summers' other premises
as well. "Summers is not alone in his lack of awareness of the
compelling evidence of the power of small differences in how we treat
boys and girls, men and women. Yet those differences, I would argue,
provide a better hypothesis than innate sex differences to explain the
gender gap in academic jobs in science."
"Nor is Summers
alone," she continued, "in being unaware of the large set
of experiments showing that well-intentioned people, intelligent people,
people who believe in meritocracy - people, in short, just like many
successful college presidents - consistently underrate women's abilities
and overrate men's". She pointed out that the differences in math
test scores did not account for the observed gender gap in who chose
to major in science. The gender gap persists even when you take test
scores into account. "We cultivate and nurture mathematically inclined
boys. And children - like adults - have a tendency to fulfil expectations.
We expect boys to excel in math and treat them accordingly. Shouldn't
we do the same for girls?" she asked.
In a joint article
in The Boston Globe, the Presidents of the MIT, Stanford and Princeton
universities (two of them women) wrote that recent research had shown
that different teaching methods could lead to comparable performances
for males and females in high school math.
"One of the
most important and effective actions we can take is to ensure that women
have teachers who believe in them and strong, positive mentors, male
and female, at every stage of their educational journey... Low expectations
of women can be as destructive as overt discrimination and may help
to explain the disproportionate rate of attrition that occurs among
females as they proceed through the academic pipeline," they wrote.
In a statement signed
by 10 academicians, the Wisconsin-based Women in Science and Engineering
Leadership Institute (WISELI) drew attention to findings in modern genetic
research that complex interactions of genetic inheritance and environmental
conditions contribute to the expression of genetic traits. "Our
past experience with eugenics," it said, "the effort to apply
simple genetic concepts to solve and explain complex socially constructed
conditions, should warn us against such simplistic extrapolation."
third premise, WISELI argued thus: "Unfortunately, Summers posits
a model of rational decision-making that frequently does not hold in
practice and does not take into account real-world constraints that
prevent talented and exceptional women scientists from seeking positions
at other universities. Summers' reliance on neoclassical economic theory
also fails to recognise the fact that discriminatory treatment may be
widespread across academe; that there may not be a school that does
not discriminate." In this context Valian has remarked that particularly
well-endowed private universities like Harvard have considerable resources
with which to indulge their "taste for discrimination".
do seem to have had an impact on Summers. In a letter to the Harvard
faculty, he said: "My January remarks substantially understated
the impact of socialisation and discrimination, including implicit attitudes
- patterns of thought to which all of us are unconsciously subject.
The issue of gender differentiation is far more complex than comes through
in my comments and my remarks about variability went beyond what the
research had established."
has certainly revived the debate on the gender gap issue and brought
it centrestage in academic discourse once again.
Dennice Denton said:
"The good news is that the international reaction to President
Summers' statements represents a global `teachable moment'. Individuals
and organisations around the world are revisiting the issue of equal
representation of women in science and engineering."
The Board of the
American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) was quick
to issue a statement following the furore over Summers' remarks. It
said: "Recent discussions concerning women's participation in science
and engineering (S&E) lead AAAS to reaffirm its long-standing commitment
to increasing the participation of women in S&E education and careers...
. We wish to make clear that while, historically, gender has predicted
participation in S&E careers, there is no evidence - nor has there
ever been - that it predicts aptitude in science."
Summers' views also found echo in the new research work presented at
the annual AAAS meeting on February 18 by scientists at the University
of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. Under the Athena Project of the
Royal Society of London, an online survey of more than 6,500 scientists
working in 40 universities and various publicly funded institutions
found that men still occupied the lion's share of key positions in the
academic science in the U.K.
Even though women
scientists are more ambitious than their male counterparts, women lacked
the support and encouragement needed to progress in their careers, the
survey found. A significantly lower percentage of women than men surveyed
felt that their departments valued their contributions.
made an impact in the U.S. Senate as well. Senator Ron Wyden brought
up the issue of enforcing Title IX of the U.S. Education Act, which
requires that any institution receiving federal funds must make sure
that women and men are treated equally. According to Wyden, Title IX
was the appropriate instrument to tackle the issue of creating more
opportunities to advance equitable treatment of girls and women in science
and math education. "Universities do not need an equal number of
slots for men and women on the science faculty. But there absolutely
must be an equal shot at all the slots for both," he said. He pointed
out that the federal government was not doing its part to ensure that
Title IX is enforced for women and girls with the ability and desire
to work in math and science.
What about the situation
in India? While it is distinct from the situation in the West, the hurdles
that women scientists in India face in the pursuit of a scientific career,
particularly in the physical sciences, mathematics and engineering,
are very similar to what the above research (and indeed several other
surveys in the West) has found.