Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Summers and other economists: out of touch?

from Michael Dobbs of the Washington Post on Wed., Jan. 19, 2005:

During his four years as president of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers has earned a reputation for blunt, sometimes brutal comments. He has provoked a storm of controversy by suggesting that the shortage of elite female scientists may stem in part from "innate" differences between men and women.

"I felt I was going to be sick," said Nancy Hopkins, a biology professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who listened to part of Summers' speech Friday [Jan. 14] to a session on the progress of women in academia organized by the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Mass.

Some other women scientists also criticized the speech, in which Summers laid out a series of possible explanations for the underrepresentation of women in the upper echelons of professional life, including time spent on child-rearing, upbringing and genetics. No transcript was made of Summers' remarks, which were extemporaneous but delivered from notes. Summers' remarks were first reported by the Boston Globe in Monday's [Jan. 17] editions.

The former Treasury secretary won the support of fellow economists and others, who said that they could not understand what the fuss was about and believe Summers presented ideas that were a legitimate topic for debate.

"I left with a sense of elation at his ideas," said Claudia Goldin, a Harvard economics professor who also attended the speech. "I was proud that the president of my university retains the inquisitiveness of an academic."

from Eileen McNamara of the Boston Globe:

Summers suggested that women do not rise higher in the academic or professional firmament because they choose to become mothers and thus devote less time to their careers. "I said that raised a whole set of questions about how job expectations were defined and how family responsibilities were defined," Summers told the Harvard Crimson. [He did not return my call.] "But I said it didn't explain the differences [in the representation of females] between the sciences and mathematics and other fields."

Why doesn't it? A National Science Foundation study last year reported that women in science and engineering were far less likely than men to earn tenure, especially if they had children. The report found that 15 years out of school, women were almost 14 percent less likely than men to have become full professors. Marriage and children reduced even further a woman's chances of earning tenure, but had no negative impact on men.

That sounds like a cultural, not a biological, problem to me. Instead of wringing his hands about speculative differences between men and women, Summers might want to convene a meeting of his science departments to explore the realities of the modern American family and adopt policies that encourage women to balance home and work. Mentor women. Provide child care. Encourage flex-time. Stop the tenure clock during pregnancy or maternity leave.

The academy is tailor-made for just such experimentation. Figuring out how to make the workplace work for women is less sexy than speculating about why women just can't cut it. Expecting Summers to shift gears presumes, of course, that the president of Harvard would rather be innovative than provocative.

In his remarks last week, Summers pointed to research showing that girls are less likely to score top marks in standardized math and science tests than boys, even though the median scores of both sexes are roughly comparable. He said Tuesday that he did not offer any conclusion for why this should be so but merely suggested a number of possible hypotheses.

end Globe
Mr. Summers received a B.S. degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1975 and a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1982. He was Professor of Economics at Harvard from 1983-1993.


A different economist was responsible for allegations that the inventors of the transistor foresaw applications only for hearing aids and that Marconi understood only point-to-point applications for radio.

Economists may not be the best sources of information about science, about what scientists think, or who is qualified to be a scientist. Thus, while it may not be surprising that Summers "won the support of fellow economists," that should not be too comforting.


Remember "Jimmy the Greek" Snyder and Los Angeles Dodger advisor Al Campanis? Maybe it's time for Summers to go.

One respondent wrote me of Summers:

He sounded like a white guy--coming from a culture where men make very rigid rules and only women who act like men can win.

In a column "You can't say that at Harvard," (eg, Trenton Times, A13, Jan. 27, 2005), George Will wrote

Addressing a conference on the supposedly insufficient numbers of women in tenured positions in university science departments, he suggested that perhaps part of the explanation might be innate--genetically baased-- gender differences in cognition. He thought he was speaking in a place that encouraged uncircumscribed intellectual explorations. (...)

He was at Harvard, where he is president. Since then he has become a serial apologizer and accomplished groveler.


Blogger Lawrence B. Ebert said...

Note the editorial in the 10 Nov 06 issue of Science (314 Science 893) by Maxine Singer entitled "Beyond Bias and Barriers," which cites the NAS report "Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering."

1:01 PM  

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