Harvard President Suggests Research May Explain Gender Gap in Sciences and Engineering

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February 3, 2005

Mills College Weekly

The president of Harvard was engulfed in criticism after challenging the role discrimination plays in keeping women from advancing in science and engineering at the rate men do, and suggesting that more research be done to determine the role biology might play.

At a conference earlier this month on “Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce: Women, Underrepresented Minorities, and their Careers,” the university’s president, Lawrence H. Summers, reportedly suggested that further research might explain the gender gap in those male-dominated fields. Summers stirred up further controversy after sharing a story about how he’d given his daughter toy trucks in an effort to challenge gender norms, and she called them “Daddy Truck” and “Baby Truck.”

He also reportedly said that after 80 hour work weeks, women with children are too tired to pursue science.

“Women are often put into a role outside of the career,” said junior Crystal Corbett, who studies Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Mills. “I love science. For me, there’s no other field. I would like to be a mother also, and to me those aren’t dualities.”

Summers refused to supply a transcript of his speech to the press, but told the Associated Press that he “would prefer to believe” the differences in women’s advancement are due to social factors, “these are things that need to be studied.”

Summers later said that he does not believe research would show that women lack scientific competency and that his comments were “in the spirit of academic inquiry.”

Many scholars have agreed that the question of differences in men’s and women’s thought processes is valid.

“It’s legitimate for people to do research into how men and women think differently,” said Ellen Spertus, associate professor of computer science at Mills, who received her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees at M.I.T. “But Summers was wrong because what he said is based on the assumption that there is a level playing field.”

In an op-ed letter sent to papers nationally, President Janet Holmgren said, “It is disappointing when the leader of a renowned academic institution expresses views that discourage half the students as his institution from confronting the existing obstacles to access and advancement. Summers’ remarks are misguided and should raise the ire of parents who expect Harvard to make the most of their daughters’ intelligence, rather than question it.”

Summers has since stressed his commitment to women’s advancement in math and sciences and said Harvard will continue with strong efforts to recruit women in those fields.

Studies have shown that women’s test scores get lower as the proportion of men in the room gets higher, according to the Globe. This may be because men are more encouraged to participate in class, said junior Stacia Mills, who studies Biopsychology.

“They feel more comfortable to talk and ask questions… [women’s] knowledge isn’t as developed because they don’t interact in the classroom as much,” said Mills.

Summers was already under scrutiny for hindering women’s progress in the institution. Since his election three years ago, the percentage of tenured jobs offered to women has reportedly dropped dramatically. Last year, women were offered only four out of 32 tenure positions at Harvard.

Some feel that the controversy is sparking necessary discussion.

“[People] are free to think or say what they want. And we get to say we think they’re wrong,” said Spertus, “I voted with my feet. I came to work at a women’s college where I knew I wouldn’t face sexism.”

This fall, students set up a Mills chapter of the American Medical Students Association to support undergraduates in their pre-med education.

“We have a lot of strong, intelligent women here at Mills,” said Corbett, “and it’s going to take a lot of strong, intelligent women to prove [Summers] wrong. I think we’re up to the challenge.”


Harvard President Suggests Research May Explain Gender Gap in Sciences and Engineering was published on February 3, 2005 in News

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