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Harvard President Asks Provocative Questions about Women and Gets in BIG Trouble

Lawrence H. SummersI have a feeling we’ll be hearing about this for a while. Dr. Lawrence Summers, a very smart and yes, Jewlicious, cookie who currently heads Harvard, just released the transcript to the off-the-record talk he gave a month ago where he essentially suggested that one of the reasons women are under-represented in the upper echelons of Science and Engineering departments in academe may be innate. In other words, males can crunch numbers, do physics, puzzle out scientific mysteries, and invent stuff better than women. He also suggests that our society still encourages men to be the breadwinners who work 80 hour weeks while women tend to shy away from that committment.

Needless to say, Summers has stirred up numerous discussions and debates not only about the issues he has raised, but about the topic of political correctness and whether he has breached a line that the head of a university must not breach because he must be impartial.

After reading the transcript, I have to admit that he raises interesting questions, makes some obvious points and achieves his stated goal of being provocative. It’s no surprise he’s getting skewered now by many on the Left and among Feminist groups, along with many female academics, but I don’t believe he was out of line. He might have been wrong, but he admits this throughout his talk and merely suggests that these ideas should be a starting off point for much-needed further research into this matter.

19 Comments

  1. Roman Levin

    2/18/2005 at 5:27 am

    Ehm… bacon.

    *looks around*

    Eh, I mean, uh – Ehm… whores.

    Phew. Dodged that bullet.

  2. Roman Levin

    2/18/2005 at 5:31 am

    This is, uh… this is the wrong post. Damnit.

  3. T_M

    2/18/2005 at 5:43 am

    Maybe not. If you read the transcripts, I believe Lawrence Summers specifically mentions that the preponderance of bacon whores being female is a problematic issue.

  4. Roman Levin

    2/18/2005 at 5:49 am

    Yeah, that’s right.

    I, uh… meant to do that.

  5. Geoff

    2/18/2005 at 12:39 pm

    The long and the short of it is that Summers got himself in trouble because he dared to utter a taboo among feminists and the PC police – that in general, men might just might actually be better than women at something (other than committing murder, rape, and other forms of evil) and this might, just might in some part contribute to the lack of women in academic positions in the hard sciences. Steven Pinker has a good piece on this over at the New Republic.

    Reading the NYT article shows how much of a Rorschach test Summers’ comments is. People see what they want to see. The most amusing reaction comes from Cornell West, who is obviously still smarting from Summers’ demand that the actually produce something…well scholarly. Would that MIT do the same to Chomsky.

  6. Anne

    2/18/2005 at 12:43 pm

    Well, after men bring home the bacon, what ARE women supposed to do with it? Seems to me an unfair double standard here. Typical.

  7. ck

    2/18/2005 at 12:51 pm

    What’s with all the damn bacon. Bacon stinks and is totally treif and not at all Jewlicious. I’d never bring home the bacon.

    As far as Lawrence goes, well… I think that he points out to the continued existence of a double standard in our society vis-a-vis gender roles etc. That these issues are being discussed more as a result of his perhaps impolitic statements, is probably a good thing.

  8. Grandmuffti

    2/18/2005 at 12:57 pm

    Muffti likes bacon, even more when served by hot chicks. But nothing beats tasty ‘gator.

  9. T_M

    2/18/2005 at 1:37 pm

    Double standard?

    Why is it a double standard? The question is one of socialization, right? As a society, we seem to still believe that mothers better serve as people who have greater access to the children and household than to the executive suite.

    This is not something that necessarily comes from the men, it often comes from the women. Many of the mothers I know, including a couple of very capable lawyers, PR executives, a former VP of marketing, etc., have decided to let their husbands be the breadwinners while they become homemakers for a few years (they are saying “a few years,” but it might become longer).

    If there is a problem with the reaction to Summers’ comments, it is that women are taking umbrage at what he said. Is it untrue that a woman who wishes to have children would have difficulty working in the executive suite, or as a senior partner at a law firm? Of course it isn’t. That’s not to say she isn’t capable of being there, it’s just that it is very challenging to raise children when you have to be at the office when you put in 80 – 90 hour weeks. Your nanny has to raise them.

    Can your husband raise them while you have the career? Sure!!! And yet, in almost all of the couples we know (and most of our friends have children of different ages), the men are the breadwinners and the women have greater responsibilities for house and children…and a lot more free time and flexibility because they’re not at a workplace.

    The issue of whether men have a greater innate proclivity for doing science and engineering is a different issue. Do they or is that part of socialization as well? I don’t think we know and even Summers was suggesting this is something that needs to be looked at. It is, however, an interesting question to ask at a time when most graduate schools have a majority female population but the exceptions seem to be in engineering departments as well some science departments (although biology seems to get a large proportion of women from what I’ve observed).

    I think this calls for an image of a Jewlicious scientist.

  10. Anne

    2/18/2005 at 7:16 pm

    Sheesh, nobody appreciates a good pun these days.

    I’m going to crumble my totally parve soy bacon into my salad now while I contemplate the biological inequities that keep me barefoot and pregnant (I’m currently both) instead of chained to a desk helping the CEO fatten his stock options.

    Silly me.

  11. T_M

    2/18/2005 at 7:29 pm

    Anne, bon appetit!

  12. Talia

    2/18/2005 at 8:29 pm

    There’s a pretty small % of our population, male or female, that can do math or science at Harvard. It would be interesting to figure out why that’s the case too. Summers was posing what he saw as a puzzle, and thinking up potential explanations. It’s something most people do among their friends or colleagues, but it’s become unacceptable to do this in a public forum, even among academics.

  13. Ziva Lehava

    2/19/2005 at 10:16 am

    Good point, Talia. I think it is important to note that he was hypothesizing something that perhaps needs to be questioned about women in math and sciences—and the point that not everyone, male or female, can do math or science at the school is a very important one.
    I am a woman and I do work 80 hour work weeks at times. My husband and I are hoping for me to be the career professional (bringing home the soy bacon) while he stays home with the children (which we do not have right now because of the fact we both work so much). This choice may not work for most people, but it is what we chose.
    My mom, who can beat anyone at any academic anything around, math, lit, science or otherwise, never went to college and instead chose (the important word) to stay home with her kids. On one hand, I am sorry about the experiences she missed in a college environment (the academic experience, not the boobs and beer), but I am selfishly grateful to all her gifts provided to my sister and me when we were growing up.
    However, this post isn’t about work/home choice, it is more about free speech. Does an academic have the right to say things in an academic forum in an academic way? One one hand, I think he does. However, what if he was positing something more virulent (like “all Jews are naturally ……anything”)—-would he still retain that right? Ok, there is my ramble, free of charge.

  14. T_M

    2/19/2005 at 12:47 pm

    Ziva, I’d like to think this post is about both freedom of speech as well as the contents of his speech.

    By the way, don’t certain streams of Orthodox Judaism (the vast majority) discourage (disallow?) women from studying torah and talmud as the men do? Don’t they assume that a woman’s place is in the home while the husband earns or studies? I’m asking not with intent to disparage but because sometimes you wonder whether a society creates constructs based upon what seem to be a natural order of things.

    In our world, are these matters issues of innate ability or socialization?

  15. Ziva Lehava

    2/19/2005 at 5:57 pm

    That is a good point, TM. The irony is that I was just having a conversation with someone about whether socialization can preclude or overcome reasoning. I’m certainly not saying that women can’t do higher math or science. However, I know that there have been studies (and yes, studies can “prove” anything) that some people can have higher aptitude for some subjects and some of those people might be gender related. This isn’t to say women cannot do math or science or that men cannot do literature or nursing. In fact, you may be right—-if someone is socially pushed away from a certain area, how can we know what they can or cannot do? Women were hired in some factories because of the scientifically proven concept that they have better hand-eye coordination for close work, yet less women are auto mechanics than men. I would assume that would be socialization rather than aptitude (my assumption is based on the fact that one of the best mechanics I know is a woman). Hmmmm…..

  16. T_M

    2/19/2005 at 6:49 pm

    I seem to recall that the general view on these things is clearly expressed in the song “Tradition” in Fiddler on the Roof.


    [TEVYE]
    Tradition, tradition! Tradition!
    Tradition, tradition! Tradition!

    [TEVYE & PAPAS]
    Who, day and night, must scramble for a living,
    Feed a wife and children, say his daily prayers?
    And who has the right, as master of the house,
    To have the final word at home?

    The Papa, the Papa! Tradition.
    The Papa, the Papa! Tradition.

    [GOLDE & MAMAS]
    Who must know the way to make a proper home,
    A quiet home, a kosher home?
    Who must raise the family and run the home,
    So Papa’s free to read the holy books?

    The Mama, the Mama! Tradition!
    The Mama, the Mama! Tradition!

    [SONS]
    At three, I started Hebrew school. At ten, I learned a trade.
    I hear they’ve picked a bride for me. I hope she’s pretty.

    The son, the son! Tradition!
    The son, the son! Tradition!

    [DAUGHTERS]
    And who does Mama teach to mend and tend and fix,
    Preparing me to marry whoever Papa picks?

    The daughter, the daughter! Tradition!
    The daughter, the daughter! Tradition!

  17. Grandmuffti

    2/20/2005 at 3:55 pm

    Muffti is sort of confused. A study could come out showing that men are better than women at some skill F. Would that study be disproven by finding one woman who was better than most men at doing F? No, of course not. The study at best will show a statistical correlation and makes no predictions about whether or not there are outlying cases. Studies show, fairly conclusively, that smoking causes cancer. Is that study disproven by finding a life long smoker who doesn’t get cancer? Of course not. Smoking merely increases likelinesses. Similarly, if the studies could show anything about male vs. female aptitude, it would only tell you what to expect on average, not that you could accurately predict that males were better than females at F come what may. (Why is everyone still trashing studies?!?!)

  18. GaijinBiker

    2/23/2005 at 9:49 am

    Of course, there are some kinds of sexism Harvard actually likes.

  19. ck

    2/23/2005 at 11:41 am

    Interesting post on your site Gaijinbiker. Here’s the conclusion:

    To recap: Larry Summers makes a casual suggestion that gender differences might play a role in explaining disparities between men and women, and is roundly criticized. Carol Gilligan bases an entire career on a corrosive, sexist worldview backed up by fraudulent research, and she is rewarded with a professorship and a research center.

    At Harvard, it would seem, gender-based distinctions are good for the goose, but not for the gander.

    Check it out on Gaijinbiker’s blog.

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