In recent weeks, much has been said about the comments that Harvard president Lawrence Summers made at a conference on Jan. 14 about the possibility that women innately are less likely to succeed at math and science fields. This, of course, isn’t the first case of controversy for this former treasury secretary for the Clinton administration. Summers was also criticized in 2001 when he spoke against grade inflation at Harvard’s Department of African-American Studies. Not surprisingly, NOW and other feminist groups are calling for his resignation, but one needs to fully judge his comments before coming to a conclusion.
While neither exact transcripts nor the tape recording of Summers’ comments have been released, what is known from those who watched his lecture is that Summers cited three different factors that presumably cause the deficiency of women in science.
First, he noted that women need to take career breaks to have children during their 20s and 30s, which happen to be the most productive years of most scientists’ careers. Not surprisingly due to the lack of sufficient support provided to allow them to continue with their research, women take more time to attain tenure positions after receiving their doctoral degree.
The second reason was the controversial one: Women are ‘innately’ less able to perform in science and math fields. With neither a transcript nor the recording of the speech, his exact words are contested, but Summers does concede that he suggested the possibility. So was Summers’ suggestion or claim right or wrong?
While the biology of the brain is not fully understood, Summers is at least correct in citing that there are biological differences between men and women. As Simon Baron-Cohen, a psychology professor at Cambridge University, notes, there are subtle biological differences between the female and the male brain.
He even observed that there are some social traits, such as the female advantage in empathy, that some research seems to indicate are genetically linked, but he noted that despite this, there is no genetic evidence to support Summers’ conclusion of innate advantages in scientific ability. Further study in genetics could theoretically vindicate Summers, but it is clear that his anecdotal evidence isn’t yet backed by genetics. There is evidence that makes Summers’ comments suspect, though. If women don’t receive as many math or science degrees because they are inferior at math and science, then the gender gaps should be similar across fields, but they’re not.
As the American Institute of Physics noted in a report from 2000, a majority of all undergraduate degrees in biology go to women, and both math and chemistry are almost equal in undergraduate degrees conferred.
If there were an innate ability in men toward math and science, it doesn’t appear to explain the consistently larger gaps in more male-dominated sciences such as physics, engineering and computer science. While gender clearly isn’t purely a social construct, as the experiment with the late David Reimer has shown, any biological factors that may affect science and math performance are likely very small.
In Summers’ final point, he observed that the pool of women from which to recruit into top-level scientific posts is smaller. Sociologist Yu Xie, who also spoke at the conference, noted that on the SAT, men outnumber women in top math scores two to one, but that men also outnumber women in the bottom scores as well. As one approaches the extreme scores, this gap becomes as high as 13 to one. As Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker joked, boys turn out to be ‘more genius, more idiots.’ Since tenure track positions and research grants are highly competitive, the statistical mediocrity of women overall is a disadvantage.
Summers has claimed that he never intended to insinuate that women were less capable, but unlike Summers’ criticisms of grade inflation I think that this is a scenario in which Summers made a mistake. While Summers’ purported comments have drawn the ire of liberals, his comments don’t warrant his dismissal. As he notes, he was posing a theory that, he claims he said in his speech, he hopes can be disproved. Furthermore, without the actual recording, we are all working off of uncertainty that shouldn’t exist were he to be dismissed. Since the Harvard faculty has the right to make polemic statements without being fired, it would be a double standard of academic freedom if Summers were to be fired merely because he proposes a theory that is politically unpopular.
Shawn Augsburger is a fifth-year history major. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Filed Under: Opinion