Friday, February 18, 2005
On this day:

Summers's Speech - Excerpts and Comments

After reading the transcript of Dr. Summers's speech, it is difficult to sympathize with the defenders of PC orthodoxy whose fits of hysteria led him to apologize for his alleged insensitivity. In his speech, Summers put forth a logical approach to the issue, asking exactly the right questions in response to factual observations.

Dr. Summers opened his remarks by stating his intention to provoke thought about the "whys" surrounding the underrepresentation of women in the fields of science and engineering.

I asked Richard, when he invited me to come here and speak, whether he wanted an institutional talk about Harvard's policies toward diversity or whether he wanted some questions asked and some attempts at provocation, because I was willing to do the second and didn't feel like doing the first. And so we have agreed that I am speaking unofficially and not using this as an occasion to lay out the many things we're doing at Harvard to promote the crucial objective of diversity... I'm going to confine myself to addressing one portion of the problem, or of the challenge we're discussing, which is the issue of women's representation in tenured positions in science and engineering at top universities and research institutions, not because that's necessarily the most important problem or the most interesting problem, but because it's the only one of these problems that I've made an effort to think in a very serious way about. The other prefatory comment that I would make is that I am going to, until most of the way through, attempt to adopt an entirely positive, rather than normative approach, and just try to think about and offer some hypotheses as to why we observe what we observe without seeing this through the kind of judgmental tendency that inevitably is connected with all our common goals of equality.

He goes on to discuss three hypotheses that could explain the underrepresentation of women in certain fields.

First, he discusses what he calls the "high-powered job hypothesis."

...the most prestigious activities in our society expect of people who are going to rise to leadership positions in their forties near 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-and this is harder to measure-but 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. That's not a judgment about how it should be, not a judgment about what they should expect. But it seems to me that it is very hard to look at the data and escape the conclusion that that expectation is meeting with the choices that people make and is contributing substantially to the outcomes that we observe.

Second, he discusses the "different availability of aptitude at the high end," pointing to data showing that the aptitudes of males in math and science vary over a wider range than do those of females.

It does appear that on many, many different human attributes-height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability - there is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference in means - which can be debated - there is a difference in the standard deviation, and variability of a male and a female population. And that is true with respect to attributes that are and are not plausibly, culturally determined...if my reading of the data is right - it's something people can argue about - that there are some systematic differences in variability in different populations, then whatever the set of attributes are that are precisely defined to correlate with being an aeronautical engineer at MIT or being a chemist at Berkeley, those are probably different in their standard deviations as well.

The third hypothesis is that the problem arises out of "different socialization and patterns of discrimination." He expresses doubts that either of them adequately explain the differences in representation.

[Addressing socialization]...what we've learned from empirical psychology in the last fifteen years has been that people naturally attribute things to socialization that are in fact not attributable to socialization. We've been astounded by the results of separated twins studies. The confident assertions that autism was a reflection of parental characteristics that were absolutely supported and that people knew from years of observational evidence have now been proven to be wrong. And so, the human mind has a tendency to grab to the socialization hypothesis when you can see it, and it often turns out not to be true.

[Addressing discrimination]...there's a real question as to how plausible it is to believe that there is anything like half as many people who are qualified to be scientists at top ten schools and who are now not at top ten schools...

If it was really the case that everybody was discriminating, there would be very substantial opportunities for a limited number of people who were not prepared to discriminate to assemble remarkable departments of high quality people at relatively limited cost simply by the act of their not discriminating, because of what it would mean for the pool that was available. And there are certainly examples of institutions that have focused on increasing their diversity to their substantial benefit, but if there was really a pervasive pattern of discrimination that was leaving an extraordinary number of high-quality potential candidates behind, one suspects that in the highly competitive academic marketplace, there would be more examples of institutions that succeeded substantially by working to fill the gap. And I think one sees relatively little evidence of that.

His conclusion is that these first two hypotheses, taken together, are the most likely explanation for the underrepresentation of women in science and engineering.

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 probably explains a fair amount of this problem...

So my best guess, to provoke you, of what's behind all of this is that the largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people's legitimate family desires and employers' current desire for high power and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination. I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong, because I would like nothing better than for these problems to be addressable simply by everybody understanding what they are, and working very hard to address them.

Finally, Dr. Summers expresses his respect for those who hold differing opinions and welcomes research that proves him wrong. It is unfortunate that his detractors don't have the same high regard for free inquiry.

Let me just conclude by saying that I've given you my best guesses after a fair amount of reading the literature and a lot of talking to people. They may be all wrong. I will have served my purpose if I have provoked thought on this question and provoked the marshalling of evidence to contradict what I have said. But I think we all need to be thinking very hard about how to do better on these issues and that they are too important to sentimentalize rather than to think about in as rigorous and careful ways as we can.