Larry Summers, the President of Harvard University, has resigned, citing his rift with the faculty of the university as the primary factor in his decision. Summers's comments on gender at a conference on Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce last year surely contributed to the faculty's recent vote of "no confidence" in Summers (although there were also many other reasons for the faculty's distaste). Of course, people are bound to start howling again that Summers is the "victim" of campus "political correctness" run amok.
So it is worth a reminder today that Summers's comments were, in fact, shockingly prejudiced to the detriment of women. This was NOT an instance in which feminists simply didn't want to hear an idea that might contradict our worldview. This was an instance in which the head of a major research university stated at an official event that he believes that women do not tend to advance to tenured positions at major research universities because (a) they don't WANT to put in the punishing 80 hour work weeks that are required and (b) genetic biological factors disfavor women's achievement at the highest levels in math and science. He stated that this was his opinion, even while also admitting that we don't actually KNOW whether this is the case. In other words, he WASN'T just broaching an idea for further investigation -- he was endorsing a particular point of view regarding women's inferiority in a particular field while simultaneously admitting that he couldn't support his point of view. If that isn't prejudice, what is? And is it unreasonable for the faculty to be concerned that the guy in charge of tenure decisions and university policy is admitting to this kind of prejudice regarding the inherent inferiority of a particular group? I think not.
Here are some doozies from Summers's original remarks (you can read the entire transcript here):
-- The other prefatory comment I would make is that I am going to . . . just try to think about and offer some hypotheses as to why we observe what we observe [i.e. the underrepresentation of women in tenure science positions at top universities] without seeing this through the kind of judgmental tendency that inevitably is connected with all our common goals of equality . . . I think it's important to try to think systematically and clinically about the reasons for the underrepresentation.
Ok, that would be nice if that's what he actually did. But instead of thinking about anything non-judgmentally or clinically, he then goes on to endorse particular hypotheses, even as he admits that we haven't studied them sufficiently. And, of course, the particular hypotheses he endorses without sufficient study are the ones that let Harvard off the hook for any gender disparities in its tenured science faculty! Summers tries to have his cake and eat it too -- he wants to express his unsupported prejudices while hiding behind words like "systematic" and "clinical."
-- There are three broad hypotheses about the sources of [women's underrepresentation] . . . the first is what I call the high-powered job hypothesis [i.e. that women don't want high-powered jobs]. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and the third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search. And, in my own view, their importance probably ranks in exactly the order I just described. [emphasis mine] . . So my sense is that the unfortunate truth -- I would far prefer to believe something else, because it would be easier to address what is surely a serious social problem if something else were true - is that the combination of the high-powered job hypothesis and the differing variances [in aptitude] probably explains a fair amount of this problem.
This guy is not just raising ideas for further study, but endorsing a point of view that women by inclination and natural aptitude are less suited than men for tenured science positions at Harvard.Summers then goes on to explain his "high powered job theory:"
. . . [T]he most prestigious activities in our society expect of people who are going to rise to leadership positions in their forties nearly total commitments to their work. They expect a large number of hours in the office, they expect a flexibility of schedules to respond to contingency, they expect a continuity of effort through the life cycle, and they expect . . . that the mind is always working on the problems that are in the job, even when the job is not taking place. And it is a fact about our society that that is a level of commitment that a much higher fraction of married men have been historically prepared to make than of married women . . . so I think in terms of positive understanding, the first very important reality is just what I would call the, who WANTS to do the high-powered intense work? [emphasis mine].
How convenient. The women just don't WANT these jobs. Of course, even while endorsing this rather simplistic and overly convenient viewpoint, Summers also admits that he doesn't really know:
. . . [T]he work that Claudia Goldin and Larry Katz are doing will, I'm sure, over time, contribute greatly to our understanding of these issues and for all I know may prove my conjectures completely wrong.
When confronted during the question and answer session with the fact that there are "very high powered women in science in top positions" in France, Summers says, "Good question. Good question. I don't know much about it." He then hypothesizes that there simply isn't the same pressure to perform or work 80 hours a week in France.
Summers then moves on to the issue of why the disparities between men and women in high-powered positions is the greatest in science and engineering. His answer is: biology. But the thing is: No one KNOWS where nature ends and culture begins when it comes to math and science ability. No one knows. But does that stop the supposedly open-minded and objective Larry Summers? Oh no, he does not hesitate to endorse the notion that women are genetically less likely to achieve in math and science at the highest levels. He then discounts the effects of socialization on the most specious grounds imaginable. First the kibbutz example:
I just returned from Israel, where we had the opportunity to visit a kibbutz and to spend some time talking about the history of the kibbutz movement, and it really is very striking to hear how the movement started with an absolute commitment, of a kind one doesn't encounter in other places, that everybody was going to do the same jobs. Sometimes the women were going to fix the tractors, and the men were going to work in the nurseries, sometimes the men were going to fix the tractors and the women were going to work in the nurseries, and just under the pressure of what everyone wanted, in a hundred different kibbutzes, each one of which evolved, it all moved in the same direction [apparently towards men doing stereotypically male jobs and women doing stereotypically female jobs].
Right. Because the differences the gender roles on the kibbutz must be genetic. I guess the notoriously low status suffered by women kibbutzniks is just natural. The socialization of the founders of the kibbutz had nothing to do with it. The fact that the child care workers were all women from the get-go had nothing to do with it. And, of course, there are so many opportunities for women to pursue high powered scientific research careers on the kibbutz, so this example is clearly applicable. I'm being sarcastic obviously. My point is that the conclusions Summers draws from his kibbutz example are a huge leap when we are supposed to be examining this issue "clinically."
Moving on to the notorious "mommy truck" example:
So, I think, while I would prefer to believe otherwise [uh huh. So why are you leaping to conclusions without evidence?], I guess my experience with my two and a half year old twin daughters who were not given dolls and who were given trucks, and found themselves saying to each other, look, daddy truck is carrying the baby truck, tells me something. And I think it's just something that you probably have to recognize.
Wow. I am pretty impressed that Larry Summers has raised his little girls in complete isolation from any societal influences. I guess since his kids were raised in a lab, we must be able to conclude that their behavior is genetically programmed. And, of course, since feminists deny any differences between the sexes, this example must defeat us.
OK, Ok, obviously this example is irrelevant, and insulting to boot. First, his example proves exactly nothing. Second, feminists don't deny biological differences between the sexes. That's not the issue. But with regard to achievement at the highest levels of math and science, which is ostensibly the subject of Summers's talk, we DON'T KNOW whether or how much such achievement is genetically determined by sex. We DON'T KNOW. We have no idea. Yet Summers, who touts the notion of clinical objectivity, is ready to embrace the notion of genetic pre-determination by sex at the highest levels of scientific achievement. Why shouldn't this clearly expressed prejudgment be troubling to the Harvard faculty?
Summers goes on to talk about how he does not believe that discrimination is a major factor, and gives some lip service to the need for further study.
In the question and answer session, Summers again ADMITS that he is talking out of his ass.
Question: And, you know, a lot of us would disagree with your hypotheses and your premises . . .
Summers: Fair enough.
Question: So it's not so clear.
Summers: It's not clear at all. I think I said it wasn't clear. I was giving you my best guess but I hope we could argue on the basis of as much evidence as we can marshall . . I don't presume to have proved any view that I expressed here, but if you think there is proof for an alternative theory, I'd want you to be hesitant about that.
OK, so why are you, as the head of a major major research and teaching university expressing a view that women are inherently inferior at scientific achievement at the highest levels without having the evidence to back it up? And why shouldn't the faculty be upset about your admitted prejudice on this subject?
This isn't about censorship or squelching ideas that we find unpleasant. This is about questioning the leadership of a man with the power to influence and determine who gets the plum tenure positions at THE premiere American university and who also admits that he believes, without the evidence to back it up, that women are inherently less able to rise to certain of those tenure positions.
(Hat tip: Feministing.)