January 18, 2005
Harvard Chief Defends His Talk on Women
By SAM DILLON
he president of Harvard University, Lawrence H. Summers, who offended some women at an academic conference last week by suggesting that innate differences in sex may explain why fewer women succeed in science and math careers, stood by his comments yesterday but said he regretted if they were misunderstood.
"I'm sorry for any misunderstanding but believe that raising questions, discussing multiple factors that may explain a difficult problem, and seeking to understand how they interrelate is vitally important," Dr. Summers said in an interview.
Several women who participated in the conference said yesterday that they had been surprised or outraged by Dr. Summers's comments, and Denice D. Denton, the chancellor designate of the University of California, Santa Cruz, questioned Dr. Summers sharply during the conference, saying she needed to "speak truth to power."
Nancy Hopkins, a professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who once led an investigation of sex discrimination there that led to changes in hiring and promotion, walked out midway through Dr. Summers's remarks.
"When he started talking about innate differences in aptitude between men and women, I just couldn't breathe because this kind of bias makes me physically ill," Dr. Hopkins said. "Let's not forget that people used to say that women couldn't drive an automobile."
The Boston Globe first reported yesterday about Dr. Summers's remarks and the stir they created.
Not all reactions were negative. Some female academics and the organizer of the two-day conference that Dr. Summers addressed on Friday at the National Bureau of Economic Research, a nonprofit economic research organization in Cambridge, defended the remarks as a well-intentioned effort to speak candidly about the persistent underrepresentation of women in university departments of mathematics, engineering and physical sciences.
"A lot of people who absolutely disagreed with him were not irritated, and he said again and again, 'I'm here to provoke you,' " said Richard Freeman, an economics professor at Harvard who directs the bureau's labor studies program and invited Dr. Summers to speak. "He's very good at stimulating debate, but he cares deeply about increasing diversity in the science and engineering workforces, especially since we have many more women getting Ph.D.'s in science and engineering than ever before."
About 50 academics from across the nation, many of them economists, participated in the conference, "Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce: Women, Underrepresented Minorities, and their S. & E. Careers." Dr. Summers arrived after a morning session and addressed a working lunch, speaking without notes. No transcript was made because the conference was designed to be off-the-record so that participants could speak candidly without fear of public misunderstanding or disclosure later.
In his presentation, Dr. Summers addressed the question of why so few women were on math and engineering faculties at top research universities.
"I began by saying that the whole issue of gender equality was profoundly important and that we are taking major steps at Harvard to combat passive discrimination," he recalled in yesterday's interview. "Then I wanted to add some provocation to what I understand to be basically a social science discussion."
He discussed several factors that could help explain the underrepresentation of women. The first factor, he said, according to several participants, was that top positions on university math and engineering faculties require extraordinary commitments of time and energy, with many professors working 80-hour weeks in the same punishing schedules pursued by top lawyers, bankers and business executives. Few married women with children are willing to accept such sacrifices, he said.
Dr. Hopkins said, "I didn't disagree, but didn't like the way he presented that point because I like to work 80 hours a week, and I know a lot of women who work that hard."
In citing a second factor, Dr. Summers cited research showing that more high school boys than girls tend to score at very high and very low levels on standardized math tests, and that it was important to consider the possibility that such differences may stem from biological differences between the sexes.
Dr. Freeman said, "Men are taller than women, that comes from the biology, and Larry's view was that perhaps the dispersion in test scores could also come from the biology."
Dr. Summers said, "I was trying to provoke discussion, and I certainly believe that there's been some move in the research away from believing that all these things are shaped only by socialization."
It was at this point in his presentation that Dr. Hopkins walked out, and shortly thereafter, Dr. Denton told the Harvard president that she believed his assertions had been contradicted by research materials presented at the conference. Dr. Summers said he responded that "I didn't think for a moment that I had proven anything, but only that these are things that need to be studied."
A late phone call yesterday to Dr. Denton at the University of Washington, where she is the dean of engineering, was not returned.
Paula E. Stephan, a professor of economics at Georgia State University, said Dr. Summers's remarks offended some participants, but not her. "I think if you come to participate in a research conference," Dr. Stephan said, "you should expect speakers to present hypotheses that you may not agree with and then discuss them on the basis of research findings."
Catherine Didion, a director of the International Network of Women Engineers and Scientists, said she was "surprised by the provocation in tone and manner" of Dr. Summers's remarks.
"Initially all of the questions were from women, and I think there was definitely a gender component to how people interpreted his remarks," Dr. Didion said. "Male colleagues didn't say much afterwards and later said they felt his comments were being blown out of context. Female colleagues were on the whole surprised by his comments."