The Highbrow

Don’t Let Larry Summers Off the Hook Yet

Why the Harvard president’s tactless social science was a bad idea.

In the weeks since debate erupted over Harvard President Lawrence Summers’ suggestion that “innate differences” between men and women help explain the lack of top-level female professionals in science and engineering, a remarkably consistent narrative has emerged in the mainstream media: Summers is a martyr to political correctness. He’s the inquisitive freethinker asking the hard questions that need to be asked, while his small-minded critics are thwarting serious debate. These women, a Washington Post columnist argued, epitomize the “unwillingness of the modern academy to tolerate … freewheeling inquiry.”

But this is a facile narrative. You need not be animated by 1990s-style political correctness, or guilty of suppressing academic freedom, to suggest that both the manner and the substance of Summers’ comments at the conference convened by the National Bureau for Economic Research were counterproductive rather than usefully controversial. While Summers’ trademark bluntness is sometimes useful in prodding an institution entrenched in complacency to change its ways, in this case he was singularly ill-positioned to play galvanizing provocateur.

The issue on the table at the National Bureau for Economic Research conference was the underrepresentation of women at the upper levels of some of the physical sciences and in engineering. No one is talking about achieving 50-50 representation; women constitute approximately 20 percent of science and engineering departments nationwide and hold few senior positions. The possible explanations are either sociocultural or genetic, or both. Summers allegedly offered these three reasons as explanation: 1) Women want to have children, and as a result they don’t put in the 80-hour work week that would make them competitive with their male peers; 2) the innate differences between men and women lead men to outperform women at the top end; 3) discrimination discourages women from pursuing science and engineering past their undergraduate education. (According to Nancy Hopkins of MIT, who walked out of his presentation, he ranked these reasons in order of descending importance. Summers was traveling and couldn’t be reached for comment.)

To start with, when it comes to talking about innate biological differences between the genders, some tact and intellectual rigor is required—if only because of the long history of genetic explanations being used to justify discrimination. So how and what Summers said matters. So, too, does the position from which Summers is speaking. As a university president, Summers has a different role than a professor or researcher and a different set of public obligations. On a local level, he oversees tenure appointments and questions of policy and hiring. Any generalizations he makes about the genetic inferiority of women might easily lead individuals at his institution to question his faith in their ability and, in the best of situations, make it hard to attract talent to Harvard. And the situation at Harvard is not the best of situations. Summers has not done a good job of reassuring women he is battling discrimination at Harvard. Under his leadership, tenure appointments of women have declined every year; only four of the last 32 appointments were of women. Harvard does not have a senior female math professor; in a department of 18 chemistry professors, only one senior position is held by a woman. The chairwoman of the sociology department has told the New York Times that after a meeting with Summers about this issue many female faculty had left feeling he did not understand their concerns.

On a national level, Summers, as president of Harvard, has a stature and cachet few professors have. If he suggests in even the most nuanced way that women are innately inferior to men at top-level science and math, his words will inevitably be twisted, in a game of nationwide Telephone, into something far cruder by those whose latent sexism is in search of intellectual validation. (Where Harvard leads, others follow.) This might be a necessary price to pay if Summers’ comments actually shed light on debate over representation of women. It’s hard to see that they do. In the first place, the suggestion that genetic differences play some role in the discrepancy between gender representation in top-level science departments is hardly a revelation. Quite the contrary; as the many media responses to his comments have made clear, the terrain of innate differences is well-studied (if still poorly understood). Even Nancy Hopkins of MIT told me over the phone that she herself is thinking of switching to this “very intriguing” field. In the second place, Summers casually downplayed, and actually ended up reinforcing, the social consensus that girls are innately less good at math than boys—as well as the consensus, less widely embraced in other societies, that math and science are fields particularly shaped by innate ability rather than hard work.

This matters because, whatever the influence of genetics may turn out to be, there is no doubt that the enduring social consensus that women are on average worse than men in math and science plays a major role in shaping women’s careers and their career choices. It does so in two ways: through discrimination and through socialization. Contrary to the pie-in-the-sky assumptions of many of Summers’ media defenders, studies show that discrimination against women in the academy is alarmingly widespread, if often unconscious. M.A. Paludi and W.D. Bauer conducted a study in which 180 men and 180 women were asked to grade a paper on a five-point scale. When the author was “John T. McKay” rather than “Joan T. McKay,” the men on average graded the paper a point higher—and the women scoring the test weren’t much more egalitarian. And studies have shown that men writing mathematics papers are less likely to cite women than women are (1.2 percent of the time, compared to 4.8 percent) *. Scientists and engineers may say they aren’t biased. But consider the case of classical musicians: Until blind auditions were held for national orchestras, women were radically underrepresented in field of classical music. Many argued that women had less wind power and were biologically incapable of performance at highest levels on many instruments. Since blind auditions have been held, though, the participation of women has risen precipitously—evidence that it was almost entirely discrimination that was keeping women out.

Perhaps even more important than discrimination are the socialization biases—the impact of our collective belief that men are better than women at science and math. Whatever may or may not be the case about genetic differences, there’s clearly something going on that keeps even the larger percentage of women who now major in math/science from continuing on in those fields—something that a university, eager for a bigger pool of Ph.Ds from which to pick to augment its female faculty, should care about a lot. Claude Steele’s work on gender differences in learning gives solid—rather than impressionistic—grounding to the concern that comments like Summers’ are exactly what work against the continuing advancement of women.

Steele studies the way stereotypes affect people’s performance. And he has found that when women are told that a test is going to measure cognitive differences between genders they tend to do much worse than men. But when they’re told a test is gender-blind, they tend to perform as well. The pressure of the “stereotype threat,” as Steel terms it, actually leads women to do worse, in other words. The amazing thing is, as Steele convincingly argues, stereotype threat most affects those at the high end of the spectrum in math and science, because they’re the ones who are the most identified with the field and have the most to lose as they move upward and are increasingly identified as, say, a “female engineer.” This doesn’t mean that men aren’t outperforming women at the very high end of the bell curve, as my colleague Will Saletan points out; but it makes it look as though socialization is a weighty factor in gender disparities at top levels.

This is why discussion of genetic superiority of men in math and science needs to be especially rigorous—which is not to say Summers’ critics think it oughtn’t be discussed. But talking about genetics, in the age of genome-mapping, makes it very hard to take other factors seriously; people hear “genetics” and then draw broad, ill-considered conclusions—even educated columnists like Robert Samuelson, who concluded earlier this week that “many women probably reject science and engineering for another reason: They simply don’t find the work appealing, just as they generally don’t like football.” (In fact, 43 percent of the NFL fan base is women—nevermind, though; surely scientists are about to find the male football gene.) Summers has to be aware of this problem. He also ought to know that as real as genetic differences may be, the percentage of engineering majors has risen six times since 1971, to 18 percent in 2004—which, unless you think the human genome has changed since 1971, shows that factors other than genetics play a major role in women’s career choices.

Yet Summers used poorly digested social science to propose the innate superiority of one gender—”I hope to be proven wrong,” he allegedly said—while invoking the protection of the role of the “provocative” intellectual. (There is a tape of the event, but its release has not been authorized by Summers—a fact that has not been made much of by the reporters who have named him a defendant of free inquiry.) For this he has been praised for his scientific curiosity, while those who criticize him are indicted as obstructionists. It’s a curiously unscientific conclusion.

Clarification, Jan. 31, 2005: This paragraph originally quoted a New York Times article that referred incorrectly to the category of papers being studied in the M.A. Paludi and D.W. Bauer experiment. The New York Times had misidentified the subject of the study as academic papers about mathematics; in fact, the papers being judged were about politics, education, and the psychology of women. In order not to perpetuate this mistake, this paragraph has been slightly amended so as not to quote the Times. Return to the paragraph here.