Harvard president Larry Summers misrepresented, or at best ignored, the results of a sociological study in his talk earlier this week in which he claimed the possibility of innate differences in mathematical and scientific ability between men and women. Garance Franke-Ruta at The American Prospect's blog TAPPED highlights an article in the Harvard Crimson from Wednesday that says this:
Two sociologists whose research University President Lawrence H. Summers cited at an economics conference Friday said yesterday their findings do not support Summers’ suggestion that “innate differences” may account for the under-representation of women in the sciences.
University of California-Davis sociologist Kimberlee A. Shauman said that Summers’ remarks were “uninformed.” The other researcher, University of Michigan sociologist Yu Xie, said he accepted Summers’ comments as “scholarly propositions,” although he said his own analysis “goes against Larry’s suggestion that math ability is something innate.”
Xie and Shauman presented their findings at the National Bureau of Economic Research Friday afternoon, shortly after Summers’ remarks.
In an interview with The Crimson last night, Summers stressed that he only cited Xie and Shauman’s research as evidence that females are underrepresnted among the top 5 percent of test-takers on standardized assessments. Summers said the evidence for his speculative hypothesis that biological differences may partially account for this gender gap comes instead from scholars cited in Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker’s bestselling 2002 book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.
So Summers' defense is that he didn't misrepresent Xie and Shauman's work, he just ignored it in favor of Steven Pinker's book. As for that book, Franke-Ruta writes:
I haven't read this book, but if you look at the amazon.com readers' comments, it appears that some female readers found its discussions of rape and the maternal instinct highly offensive and sexist. One newspaper reviewer described Pinker's book, in 2002, as "breathtaking, rabid stuff.... likely to reduce most university common-rooms to states of gibbering apoplexy." (Mission accomplished, clearly.) If Summers based his remarks in part on a reading of Pinker's book, the response he generated was something that was not only predictable but predicted.
Meanwhile, Summers is trying to smooth things over, at least with his colleagues at Harvard:
Continuing efforts to soothe professors angry about his remarks on women, the president of Harvard University, Lawrence H. Summers, met last night with faculty members who wrote to him this week that his comments would hurt Harvard's ability to recruit top female scholars.
Summers repeated the apology he has made at least twice in writing, according to spokeswoman Lucie McNeil.
"It was a good meeting," she said. "He apologized, and they moved on to a discussion of a variety of steps the university can take to address the issues, and they agreed to continue to address them in the coming days."
Between a half-dozen and a dozen professors, members of Harvard's official Standing Committee on Women, attended yesterday evening's hourlong meeting at the Barker Center for the Humanities.
The participants were reluctant to discuss details of the meeting for fear of jeopardizing their ongoing discussions with Summers.
"It was a constructive discussion on very difficult issues of importance to the university," said Caroline Hoxby, a professor of economics. "The discussion is ongoing, and we believe there will be some resolution on important issues next week."
Finally, the National Organization for Women, along with a certain female member of my household, yesterday called for Summers' resignation:
The National Organization for Women calls for the resignation of Harvard University President Lawrence Summers, who has failed to lead the prominent (and previously all-male) university toward true inclusion of women. His recent comments generated a firestorm of response from Harvard/Radcliffe women who were outraged that he would embarrass Harvard with such a public demonstration of sexism and ignorance.
"Summers' suggestion that women are inferior to men in their ability to excel at math and science is more than an example of personal sexism, it is a clue to why women have not been more fully accepted and integrated into the tenured faculty at Harvard since he has been president," said NOW President Kim Gandy. According to reports, the number of female faculty receiving tenure has declined over the past four years — down to just four of the last 32 tenure offers in the school's Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
"Harvard University holds itself out as the pinnacle of higher education in this country," said Gandy. "Such an esteemed institution should set a standard for other colleges and universities — a standard that Lawrence Summers appears unable to maintain."
Certainly, as UCLA professor Mark Kleiman's recent comments illustrate, Summers' attitude of male superiority is far from unique in the academic world—and not even the worst example. So Summers' resignation as Harvard president alone will not solve anything. But his resignation is a necessary step for the fair treatment of women in acadmics, precisely because of the prevalence of this attitude.