The Larry Summers debate

Welcome to the newly redesigned Science Careers Forum. Please bookmark this site now for future reference. If you've previously posted to the forum, your current username and password will remain the same in the new system. If you've never posted or are new to the forum, you will need to create a new account.

The new forum is designed with some features to improve the user experience. Upgrades include:
- easy-to-read, threaded discussions
- ability to follow discussions and receive notifications of updates
- private messaging to other SC Forum members
- fully searchable database of posts
- ability to quote in your response
- basic HTML formatting available

Moderator: Dave Jensen
Advisors:   Ana, PG, Rich Lemert, Dick Woodward, Dave Walker
Meet the Moderator/Advisors

The Larry Summers debate

Postby Emil Chuck » Fri Feb 18, 2005 8:02 am

Lawrence Summers is the president at Harvard who recently has caught a lot of flack about his remarks at an NSF/NBER meeting about increasing diversity in science and engineering. He has apologized for his remarks and has taken some steps to investigate the status of women at Harvard.

The Harvard Office of the President has released the text of his letter to the faculty and a transcript of his portion of the meeting. The web address to access this is .
Emil Chuck
Posts: 2981
Joined: Tue Jan 10, 2012 11:28 pm

The Larry Summers debate

Postby Don » Fri Feb 18, 2005 8:33 am

I think it is kind of crazy that our universities have gradually become places where one cant ask certain questions because the act of asking places one's job at risk.

Attacking Dr. Summers for simply asking the question is really the hight of academic cowardice. If you dont agree with him, do some work and prove him wrong. I thought that was what was great about our academic system.

The truth of the matter is that there ARE certain physiologic differences between the sexes, and the races. Heart attacks often present differently in women. Certain drugs for hypertension work well in African Americans and not as well in Caucasians. Women generally live longer than men. These things are physiologic facts.

Now, I dont personally believe that men are physilogically better at math than women. But if we are going to really investigate the obvious disparities between the sexes in faculty appointments, shouldn't we make it a real investigation? Dont we cheapen the pursuit understanding when we say that some ideas are simply too culturally abhorent to even test them? Dont we damage the foundation of science when ideas - no matter how distastefull - become forbidden?


The Larry Summers debate

Postby Lora » Fri Feb 18, 2005 5:12 pm

This subject, I believe, should qualify as a subheading of Godwin's Law.

The Larry Summers debate

Postby Emil Chuck » Mon Feb 21, 2005 2:39 pm

Obviously LS doesn't run away from controversy. The CHE has a timeline of a few things he's done while President of Harvard.

At any rate, a lot of the outrage is that there are data out there that clearly show there is some filter against women rising to higher-ranking academic positions. Sure I'm optimistic to believe it's just a matter of time, but the findings from the NSF report suggest that there still exists a pattern where women are dropping out of the pipeline.

The one thing that is apparent to me is the reiteration of the "80-hour work week" for academics. The expectations that are placed upon people to do certain jobs is indicative of the culture we have that turns off a number of people (men and women, undergrads to faculty) from pursuing academic research careers. Certainly to say that women are somehow not up to the task is stereotyping and reduces the importance of creating environments that support a diverse pool of faculty and adminstration.

Recently a BBC News brief that reports a similar survey of scientists in the UK: suggests that mentoring women scientists is not as strong as mentoring men scientists. Does our research environment really leave women scientists feeling underappreciated or discouraged a factor in the inability to retain or promote them?
Emil Chuck
Posts: 2981
Joined: Tue Jan 10, 2012 11:28 pm

a lot of people miss the point...

Postby Kate » Fri Feb 25, 2005 1:47 am

There is absolutely nothing wrong with studying the differences between the sexes, even in terms of learning and aptitude. I would even say that it is an absolutely necessary line of study. What I found particularly disturbing about Mr. Summers comments is the science behind them or the perceived lack thereof.

It appears to me that a number of assumptions were made to support his theories. First, that SAT scores are a true representation of innate mathematical aptitude. I don't believe that aptitude and proficiency are the same thing. Second, he assumes that the SAT scores could in some way correlate to the number of women applying for and getting high-profile academic positions. Third, I find it a bit presumptive to assume that the innate differences between men and women in some way put women at a disadvantage in terms of academia. For example, men are supposedly better at focused concentration, while women are better at multi-tasking. I would think that multi-tasking would also be a benefit to a department chair or a scientist.

Finally, it seems to me that using a system such as the SAT to correlate to the extremely small population of those in high-powered academic positions is a stretch. But it does seem like something that could be studied. Why not look at the SAT scores of these academics? Are those in these high level positions, regardless of gender, even scoring at the extreme end of the math section of the SAT. If not, if they tend to be spread out, doesn't this discredit the entire arguement?

All topics are open to debate, so for once I would like to hear comments on the scientific merit of Mr. Summer's remarks. I am no expert in this field, this is just my view of things. What do the rest of you think?

Posts: 20
Joined: Tue Jan 10, 2012 11:29 pm

a lot of people miss the point...

Postby Emil Chuck » Fri Feb 25, 2005 1:26 pm

The remarks LS made come at a conference discussing the NSF's recent review of gender differences in mathematics and science academia. I was not at this meeting, but to say the least, the investigators did a statistical analysis of the Survey of Doctorate Recipients to see differences in the success rates of men and women and determining common factors or signs for success.

I don't know the literature that well but it has been told to me that women are somehow or another drop off from being interested in science and mathematics from early education onward. There is a cultural bias that begins to appear late in elementary school (I think). I don't know exactly why women are not drawn to the sciences, but certainly whether it's genetic or environmental ... that's a very tough argument.

I am sure there are differences in how women perceive things relative to men, and their values are different. But is that because of culturally defined gender roles and expectations?

Maybe there is a lag in the process, but there are many successful women in areas of business and law/politics and medicine. Maybe they aren't in high-enough proportions relative to the population, but I cannot fathom saying that women are not capable of performing in high-powered jobs given the number of women we have in the military or in law firms or clinics. What I can say from observation is that women (and minorities) are discouraged in certain environments from success, and those environments include unsympathetic mentors.

The American Council on Education recently issued a report on the leaks in the pipeline for women from getting their degrees to getting tenure. What they have found is academe's culture is much less friendly for women and minorities, and changes must be made to the tenure-track process to attract and retain these cohorts of academics. Women/minorities are less likely to get proper mentoring and thus fail to succeed. Women are less likely to negotiate for better salaries or start-ups for whatever reason. Is this because they are more "nurturing" because they lack a Y chromosome? Somehow I doubt that (as the sole reason anyway).

To note, all junior faculty are expected to publish their work or perish in the process. There needs to be a critical mass of women or underrepresented minorities in a place in order to seed a more diverse environment. As a result, any move to "rock the boat" could be considered a detriment to one's re-appointment or tenure proceedings. So you are supposed to "take it like a professor", including any lack of mentoring or guidance.
Emil Chuck
Posts: 2981
Joined: Tue Jan 10, 2012 11:28 pm

a lot of people miss the point...

Postby MPB » Fri Feb 25, 2005 3:08 pm

Biologically, there is a very large literature on the relationship between sex and mathematical giftedness that goes back really to the early 1980s. This is not something LS just came up with out of the blue. Although it\'s difficult to definitively separate biology from culture, mathematical giftedness (ability at the very highest end of the range) is much more common among young boys than among young girls. For awhile, there was a lot of speculation that giftedness was related to a cluster of interrelated factors included handedness, cerebral lateralization, and autoimmune diseases, possibly all related to fetal testosterone exposure. I haven\'t kept up with this and don\'t know the current thinking on it. Some of the differences in the identification of giftedness between boys and girls could come from a bias toward recognizing it in boys; but my understanding is that the difference in the rate of mathematical giftedness between boys and girls is very large (something like a factor of 10), making a purely cultural explanation unlikely. I\'ve also heard it suggested that overall, the mean difference between males and females in math ability that is due to sex is pretty small, but that variability is larger in males than in females (producing more high-ability, but also low-ability, males than females). My point is not to put these ideas out there as true [or not], but just to point out that LS\'s notion that there could be sex differences in math and science ability, and that these differences tend to draw people in different career directions, is not completely crazy. It bothers me that it\'s become off limits to even suggest something like this as a hypothesis.

However, even if all of that is true, it is clear that girls are not supported and encouraged to study math and science as much as boys are. Anyone who has friends and family with young children probably encounters this all the time. I have a niece (age 9) and nephew (age 7) and the kinds of encouragement they get from family and other peoplle even at that age are very discouraging to me. Everyone always says that my nephew is \"better at math,\" but he gets much more attention for being good at math, and much more help and support in this direction [on his homework, for example] than my niece does.

Also, a huge degree of success in science is the result of social interactions with other scientists, especially mentoring. The dearth of tenured female faculty makes it harder for young women to get good mentoring.

Posts: 479
Joined: Tue Jan 10, 2012 11:28 pm

female mentors

Postby Emma » Sun Feb 27, 2005 5:34 pm

It's more than just a lack of women, it's also a lack of women whose lives one would want to emulate. If the only women in science you see aren't people whose lives you'd want to emulate, that adds to the leaky pipeline. Single and trapped in a small town with no prospects. Married, greying, and childless. Divorced after her husband got fed up with how much she was working. Commuting 1000 miles every weekend to be with the spouse after they couldn't get jobs together.

I don't intend to imply that women scientists must be married with children to be happy (not at all!), but many of our younger women students _do_ want to end up married with children, and I think they don't always see anyone actually doing so successfully.

And that, I think, is why the pipeline leaks.

The Larry Summers debate

Postby John Fetzer » Mon Feb 28, 2005 12:07 am

This debate on the "success" in certain fields is based on differences defined of success. Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, Caltech, and so on are the model; the ideal of academic success. This model was created over a hundred years ago by a science community of predominantly white, upper-class males from institutions like those. This is a very exclusive definition.

There are differences, both cultural and biological, between males and females. Some of these run counter to that model. Teaching is not highly valued, except for a professor generating others who succeed in that model - new generations of research scientists. This model favors competition over collegiality and collaboration. Women are more collegial, collaborative, value teach as an esteemed task, and although they can be competitive are much less ruthless in their appeoach to succeeding. These "big name" schools are not welcoming and confortable, not just because there are few women, but because they are often the antithesis of what many women think is a good position to be in.

We can ask why women are not there, but the large number of women professors at smaller colleges and universities may be the answer, not a symptom.

This leads to the obvious question of why has science not learned to value these locales that generation some good research and many students, particularly bachelors ones who go on to be very successful in graduate schools.

User avatar
John Fetzer
Posts: 588
Joined: Tue Jan 10, 2012 11:28 pm

Apples and Oranges

Postby MJR » Mon Feb 28, 2005 11:49 am

Are there biologlical differences? Sure.

But in regards to women succeeding in science, it borders on ridiculous to worry about biological differences at this stage in the game. It's like worrying about how the aerodynamics of a given car may impact its overal speed in comparrison to other cars, while ignoring the fact that the car in question isn't allowed to have any gas.

Many of the people complaining about Summer's remark are women who have already proven they excel at math/science, who work at top universities, who are willing to work long hours and put off kids and family, and are eager to compete toe-to-toe with their peers. And yet, even when they play the game like a man would, they're put at an disadvantage by men who knowingly or unknowingly favor their own sex.

MIT studied the problem a while ago:

Other schools/labs are following, but many ignore the problem or don't really think it's an issue. Or they hype things like "biological" differences and be done with it.

The "biological differences" debate is a red herring. There are objective steps that can be taken that could make a great difference for women in science (eg, like letting more women make decisions about hiring, controling resources). There's no reason to concentrate on minituia when there are glaringly obviously larger problems that need to be dealt with first.



Return to Science Careers Forum

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: Bill L. and 18 guests