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On January 14, President Lawrence H. Summers appeared as a luncheon speaker at "Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce," a two-day symposium hosted by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Addressing a national academic audience — rather than the Harvard faculty members to whom, exactly a month before, he had suggested steps for better accommodating women professors (see "Women and Tenure") — his subject was "Faculty Diversity: Research Agenda." That innocuous title did not hint at the controversy Summers’s remarks set off, nor the fast-track efforts launched thereafter to reduce barriers to women at Harvard.

Women are underrepresented in fields such as mathematics, science, and engineering at elite research universities. At Harvard, women hold 19 percent of tenured positions within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), but just 8 percent in the sciences (see graph). That imbalance has persisted even though women have taken more undergraduate and graduate degrees in such fields in recent decades, achieving parity with or even outnumbering men in many disciplines. (Minority underrepresentation is even more pronounced; the conference explored this issue, too.) Focusing on women, Summers advanced three theories for the current mismatch: a "high-powered job" hypothesis; differing abilities, as measured by the distribution of high test scores; and discrimination.

The job hypothesis — that women are less willing than men to work the 80-hour weeks he said were required to succeed in academic science — would, if true, mean that the supply of highly qualified female candidates for professorships is smaller as a result. By implication, that would make it hard to find candidates to recruit to an institution’s science and engineering faculty.

As for gender-linked differences in test scores, Summers drew attention to boys’ higher performance at the upper end of mathematics test results. Boys also outnumber girls at the bottom of the curve. He said that the differences might be due less to social factors and more to biology than prevailing scholarship had suggested. Recent work on autism, he noted, gives greater weight to genetic factors than in the past.

Finally, Summers said that discrimination might be overused to explain the relative scarcity of women in science and engineering. Resorting to a classical economic analogy, he said that if discrimination were widespread, a competing institution could improve its own faculty by hiring superb women whom other schools had cast aside. Absent any evidence that this is happening, the argument that discrimination plagues university hiring weakens.

Precisely what Summers said, and how, cannot be ascertained. The meeting was not public, and although his remarks were taped (he often has significant talks recorded and transcribed; some are posted at www.president.harvard.edu), the record has not been released. The meeting organizer, Ascherman professor of economics Richard B. Freeman, later said he had asked the president to be "provocative." Judging by the reaction of some of the 50 or so participants, he was.

MIT’s Amgen professor of biology Nancy H. Hopkins ’64, Ph.D. ’71, who led that institution’s self-analysis and acknowledgment of bias against women faculty members, published in 1999, walked out of the symposium as Summers talked about the possibly innate basis of differences in mathematics skills. Her sharp criticisms of his presentation were featured in a Boston Globe story on January 17, along with those of several other attendees the newspaper interviewed, and further comments by Summers himself. His original presentation, the Globe reported, "sparked an uproar." In ensuing days, that controversy went global, with coverage extending from the Wall Street Journal to the Times of London, filling the Harvard news office’s daily summaries.

Radcliffe Institute Fellow Linda H. Krieger, a professor of law at Boalt Hall (Berkeley), who attended the symposium, said that a belief that women are less likely than men to be productive could infiuence decisions on granting tenure — the ultimate bet on a professor’s likely future output. In that light, much of the Harvard reaction to Summers’s presentation was shaped both by the recent discussion of the declining number of offers of tenured positions to women within FAS, and by the fact that he is the final arbiter on tenure decisions at the University.

Shulamit Kahn, an associate professor at Boston University School of Management who also attended, said that although the issues Summers advanced about the distribution of top test scores might be researched further, she did not expect such studies to augment current knowledge. She noted that several experiments show that average scores can be infiuenced by the context in which tests are administered.

As for innate differences in ability, much scholarship addresses gender variations in test scores and their predictive power for subsequent college studies, career choices, or professional performance for boys or girls. Perhaps the leading current work in the field is Women in Science: Career Processes and Outcomes, published by Harvard University Press in 2003, by Yu Xie and Kimberlee A. Shauman. Both attended the symposium. Their final chapter, included in the briefing materials, concludes that "gender differences in neither average nor high achievement in mathematics explain young men’s higher likelihood of majoring in [science and engineering] fields in college relative to young women."

Presentations made during the symposium sessions (which Summers did not attend), plus the two volumes of papers and background material, and existing research in the field, Kahn said, give a more coherent, interrelated picture of the issue of women’s pursuit of science and engineering careers. Nowhere in his hypotheses, she said, did Summers explicitly raise the issue of stereotyping. As Xie and Shauman wrote, "Although some of the gender differences are attributable to the advantages that marriage and parenthood bestow upon men, they clearly suggest that being married and having children create career barriers that are unique to women scientists."

After the Globe article appeared, Summers posted a statement on his website, saying, "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….In the spirit of academic inquiry, my aim at the conference was to underscore that the situation is likely the product of a variety of factors, and that further research can help us better understand their interplay," the better to secure success in advancing women’s progress.

Unmollified, the FAS Standing Committee on Women wrote to Summers the next day to "express our concern" over the statements he was reported to have made, and over his amplifying remarks to the Globe. Citing his role as president, the letter said that "your efforts to ‘provoke’ your audience did not serve our institution well," served to "reinforce an institutional culture at Harvard that erects numerous barriers to improving the representation of women on the faculty," and "send at best mixed signals to our high achieving women students."

The exchanges and explanations cascaded. Summers responded to the committee, "I share your concerns about the fallout from my remarks, and I apologize for any adverse impact…on our common efforts to make steady progress" in advancing women in science.

The president amplified in a further note, disseminated throughout the University on January 19, after dozens of faculty members signed the committee’s statement. Steps he advocated to nurture women included "carefully avoiding stereotypes, being alert to forms of subtle discrimination, and doing everything we can to remove obstacles to success." And he reiterated commitments he had made in FAS meetings last fall, both to research and immediate steps aimed at "actively exploring ways to enhance flexibility and support for faculty trying to balance career and family, through such measures as enhanced leave, parental teaching relief, delayed tenure clocks, and better childcare options."

In the wake of these exchanges came three broad strands of public discussion. There were extensive reports on the research findings about the basis for gender differences in mathematics skill — and whether those differences are innate or social constructions, fixed or mutable, apparent in other countries or cultures, or consequential. The Crimson, for example, interviewed Johnstone Family professor of psychology Steven Pinker, whose writing on behavioral genetics Summers invoked, and professor of psychology Elizabeth Spelke, who studies cognitive development (she downplayed the significance, if any, of gender differences in diverse intellectual abilities). Joining the debate in a different forum, economics professors Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz — whose study of women’s careers is supported by Summers — wrote in the Globe that, compared to discriminatory barriers to advancement or differences in career choice, "The ‘ability’ reason is of limited importance not because it is politically incorrect to talk of gender differences in ability, but because research shows that men and women of similar ability have different career outcomes, particularly in science and engineering."

The debate spread across the country. Reports in newspapers as far-fiung as San Francisco and Lincoln, Nebraska, featured women documenting the obstacles they had faced, from early school days through their current professions, as they pursued their interest in science. Some political commentators — none of them present at the symposium — suggested that Summers had run afoul of feminist political correctness. Humorists and political cartoonists weighed in: Andy Borowitz ’80 headlined his daily on-line column for January 26 "Harvard to Offer Major in Home Ec; Move Seen as Olive Branch to Women."

And there were reports focused on the effectiveness of the president’s style and manner of presentation — notably a January 26 New York Times article titled "At Harvard, the Bigger Concern of the Faculty Is the President’s Management Style." The January 24 issue of Fortune excerpted You’re in Charge — Now What? by Thomas Neff and James Citrin, a recent business book on leaders’ first 100 days in their new organizations. In a highlighted passage based on a conversation with Summers, the president recalled that "a student came to see me and said she was from the choir. I asked, ‘Why is it important for the university to have a choir?’ I was asking because I truly wanted to understand the reason, but the student took my questions as a challenge to the existence of the choir" — a misunderstanding he acknowledged he could have avoided by joining an appreciation of the choir’s role with questions about how it worked and what it contributed to Harvard.

Following a meeting with the standing committee on January 20, Summers asked Radcliffe Institute dean Drew Gilpin Faust and Provost Steven E. Hyman to develop a set of initiatives to enhance women’s status within Harvard. In an interview on February 2, Summers said he was "determined to…take new, concrete steps to assure that Harvard is at the state of the art in every aspect of recruitment, career development, and career enhancement of women in science and other areas."

To that end, the next day — just before scheduled meetings of the alumni association, the Board of Overseers, and the Harvard Corporation — Summers announced two new University task forces, coordinated by Faust: one on women faculty generally, and one on women in science and engineering. (Complete committee memberships and their respective charges are available at www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/daily/2005/02/03-women.html). Each is to report by May 1, so recommendations can be implemented by the new academic year. Spurring the sense of urgency, Summers said in an accompanying statement, "I have long been aware of the many challenges women face in pursuing academic careers, but in the past several weeks the nature and extent of those challenges have been made particularly vivid to me."