Remarks about women cause furore at Harvard

Jan 19 2005 by Brian Amble Print This Article

The president of Harvard University has provoked a storm of controversy in the United States after suggesting that biological differences might account for the relatively small number of women making it to the top in science and engineering.

Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard since 2001 and a former Treasury Secretary in the Clinton administration, was speaking last Friday at a conference on women and minorities in science and engineering, held at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Asked by the conference organisers to be provocative, Summer obliged by putting forward three possible reasons for the small numbers of women making it to the top in science and engineering.

Firstly he suggested, childcare responsibilities made it impossible for many women to work the typical 80-hour weeks that male academics will put in to climb the academic ladder.

Summers also questioned how great a role discrimination played in limiting the number of women teaching science and engineering

But most controversially, he also alluded to research that found that more males achieve the very top and very bottom scores in maths and science tests, suggesting that "research in behavioural genetics is showing that things people attributed to socialization" might have a genetic basis.

Several participants felt that Summers was therefore suggesting that women might not have the same "innate ability" in science as men, leading a number of women to walk out of the talk.

According to The Boston Globe, Massachusetts Institute of Technology biologist Nancy Hopkins said that if she hadn't left, she "would've either blacked out or thrown up."

Other participants said they could not understand what the fuss was about. Economics professor Claudia Goldin said: "What he said was extremely interesting. As academics, everyone should look under every rock they can find for the answers to difficult problems. Sometimes the rocks are large boulders and sometimes they have scary things under them."

Summers told The New York Times, "I wanted to add some provocation to what I understand to be basically a social science discussion."

In a statement released later, Summers said: "My remarks have been misconstrued as suggesting that women lack the ability to succeed at the highest levels of math and science. I did not say that, nor do I believe it."

In 2002, a government-commissioned report undertaken by a committee of female scientists in Britain found that male-dominated decision making, sexual harassment, pay inequality and an appalling attitude towards work-life balance adds up to "institutionalised sexism" in the science, engineering and technology sectors.

The committe found that women were particularly disadvantaged when they took career breaks to have children because of the need to keep up to date with the latest research and maintain the strong publication record that is essential to a successful research-based career.