Were President Summers’ Comments Sexist?

The New York Times has picked up the story. The NYT has a bit more information on what Mr Summers thinks he said and what participants heard him say: “”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.”

OK, so Summers wanted to provoke thought. Here’s what he said next: “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.”

In other words, innate, biological differences between the sexes might be a determinant in math and science proficiency. The question is, what research was Mr Summers citing? Is that research being conducted by reputable investigators?

I never want to rain on anyone’s academic freedom parade. But I find it difficult to believe that any serious investigator has returned to thinking that boys’ and girls’ brains are different to the point that certain forms of academic inquiry are more difficult for girls than boys. To suggest seriously, or even for the purposes of argument and provocation, is to advance a sexist argument. Let me put it another way: imagine if Mr Summers had instead suggested that lower math scores among African-Americans than white Americans were the result of innate biological differences. Can you imagine the firestorm of controversy? It should be anathema for anyone, but especially a university president, to suggest something similar about women and men

Mr Summers has issued a press release stating that “My remarks have been misconstrued as suggesting that women lack the ability to succeed at the highest levels of math and science. I did not say that, nor do I believe it. “ This clarifies nothing, however. Mr Summers, what precisely did you say and which studies precisely did you cite as evidence? Until Mr Summers furnishes that information and submits it to true academic dialogue, I’m standing by the assertion that his comments can and should be construed as sexist.

The New York Times article concludes with an interesting comment:

“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.”

Of course the men in the room were not upset. Their competence and innate abilities, whatever those are, were not being called into question.

Forty years ago, the Harvard History Department faculty were all male. Women PhD candidates were rare and could not look forward to gainful employment, and it was whispered that women were not innately smart enough to make good historians. Rumors persist even today that the great Samuel Eliot Morison did not allow Radcliffe women in his classroom. I am ashamed that the President of Harvard University is using supposed scientific data to perpetuate such stereotypes in the maths and sciences.

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