Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard University, has apparently ignited quite a firestorm about why women are so severely underrepresented in science and engineering academic positions. Here is a brief summary of what he said, according to the New York Times:
At Friday's conference, Mr. Summers discussed possible reasons so few women were on the science and engineering faculties at research universities, and he said he would be provocative.
Among his hypotheses were that faculty positions at elite universities required more time and energy than married women with children were willing to accept, that innate sex differences might leave women less capable of succeeding at the most advanced mathematics and that discrimination may also play a role, participants said. There was no transcript of his remarks.
His remarks caused one professor to walk out and another to openly challenge them.
Summers has apparently moved into damage control mode:
At the center of the storm, Mr. Summers posted a statement late Monday night on his Web page, saying that his comments at the National Bureau of Economic Research, a nonprofit economic research organization in Cambridge had been misconstrued and pledging to continue efforts to "attract and engage outstanding women scientists."
"My aim at the conference was to underscore that the situation is likely the product of a variety of factors and that further research can help us better understand their interplay," he said. "I do not presume to have confident answers, only the conviction that the harder we work to research and understand the situation, the better the prospects for long term success."
Alas, there is no transcript available, so I don't know exactly what he said, but based on this reporting, I wonder whether Summers has ever seriously talked to female university scientists and engineers about their workplace experiences.
Maud Lavin, who graduated from Harvard in the class of 1976, was one of the first women to take a demanding theoretical math sequence, Math 11 and Math 55, and is an associate professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Ms Lavin said in an interview yesterday that she would not donate any more money to Harvard as long as Mr. Summers was president, after firing off an angry e-mail message to him.
"I am offended and furious about your remarks on women in science and mathematics," Ms. Lavin wrote. "Arguments of innate gender difference in math are hogwash and indirectly serve to feed the virulent prejudices still alas very alive and now even more so due to your ill-informed remarks."
Sadly, Summers' dismissive attitude toward gender discrimination is still extremely common among men, even those who should know better. Fortunately, his eagerness to explain away discrimination by appealing to notions of female inferiority is much rarer these days. Well, at least voicing such an opinion is rare.
But perhaps some good will come out of all this:
On and off the campus, Mr. Summers's remarks were the subject of heated debate yesterday.
Denice D. Denton, the dean of engineering at the University of Washington who confronted Mr. Summers over his remarks at the conference, said that her phone had not stopped ringing and that she had received scores of e-mail messages on the subject. She said Mr. Summers's remarks might have put new energy into a longstanding effort to improve the status of women in the sciences.
"I think they've provoked an intellectual tsunami," Dr. Denton said.
Enough of one to wake huge numbers of men up from both their patronizing attitude towards women and from their ignorance of the existence and affects of gender discrimination? I sure hope so.