Summers spoke the truth
THE REAL scandal at Harvard is not that university president Lawrence Summers suggested, at a private symposium, that the small numbers of women in math and science departments at top research institutions may be due less to sex discrimination than to personal choices and inherent sex differences. The scandal is that his fairly innocuous, carefully hedged remarks sparked an irrational, intolerant outcry -- and that Summers was forced to offer groveling apologies in order to save his job.
Now that the transcript of Summers's remarks at the National Bureau of Economic Research Conference on Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce on Jan. 14 has been released, let's clarify what Summers did not say. He did not say that women are intellectually inferior to men or that women can't be great scientists. He did not say that young women shouldn't be encouraged to pursue careers in math and science or that there is no need to combat discrimination. (In fact, he said just the opposite.) He did suggest that even with the best efforts, full parity might be unattainable.
One reason for the imbalance, Summers said, is that science is one of those fields where highly successful people must have ''near total commitments to their work" -- and fewer women than men are willing to make such a commitment, particularly women with families. (He added, ''That's not a judgment about how it should be.") That is, quite simply, true. In a 2001 study by University of Vanderbilt psychologists David Lubinski and Camilla Persson Benbow, nearly a third of talented female graduate students in math and science -- and only 9 percent of the men -- said it was important to work part-time for at least a part of their careers. More egalitarian family roles would solve the problem.
Summers also touched feminism's third rail: biological differences between the sexes. The issue isn't average mathematical ability, which is quite similar for men and women; it's that many more males are clustered at the high and low ends of the scale, among the geniuses and the learning-disabled, while women are more likely to be found near the middle.
Is it ''crazy," as Harvard physics professor Howard Georgi averred, to suggest that this may be due partly to scientifically proven brain differences? These differences aren't absolute (about a third of each sex usually fits the pattern more typical of the other), but they're significant enough to result in uneven distribution. Few would question the role of biology in the fact that four out of five children with autism are male.
Why deny it so strenuously when it comes to mathematical and scientific geniuses? Why refuse to consider that innate differences in temperament may make women more likely to prefer people-oriented occupations? Discrimination can't explain why women have made far greater inroads in formerly male-dominated fields such as law and medicine than the hard sciences.
Summers's comments are hardly beyond criticism. He may well have underestimated the role of culture in gender differences. His story about his daughters calling their toy trucks ''daddy truck" and ''baby truck" belongs to the annoying ''how my kids confirm gender stereotypes" anecdotal genre. Still, his informal talk was more grounded in solid research than the 1999 Massachusetts Institute of Technology report on the status of women faculty, a largely data-free hodgepodge of broad claims about discrimination and women's feelings of marginalization and misery.
The anti-Summers backlash is a scary display of know-nothingism, an embarrassing spectacle of academics rushing to denounce the mere statement of an unorthodox hypothesis. Like the MIT study, it's likely to create a climate that ultimately won't be good for women scientists. In his talk, Summers warned that an aggressive push to hire and promote more women -- i.e. preferential treatment -- may cast a shadow on women's merits, even when their advancement is based solely on talent. A number of women scientists such as Lynn Hillenbrand, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology, have expressed similar concerns.
It has been suggested that Summers's comments could discourage scientifically talented young women. But exaggerated claims of pervasive, subtle discrimination could have an even more discouraging effect. Our message to these women should be that they are individuals whose talent is not diminished by the male-to-female ratio in their field and whose personal choices play a key role in shaping their careers -- not victims whose fragile egos must be protected from dangerous ideas of gender difference.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.