“Larry Must Go!”

After attending the National Bureau of Economic Research Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce on January 14, 2005, Dr. Nancy Hopkins, a biology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told reporters, “I felt I was going to be sick…my heart was pounding and my breath was shallow…I couldn’t breathe because this kind of bias makes me physically ill…”  If she had not left the room, she said that she “would’ve either blacked out or thrown up.[1]

Dr. Hopkins was reacting hysterically to the words of Lawrence Summers, then the president of Harvard University, who was speaking at the conference on the topic of  women’s representation in tenured positions in science and engineering at top universities and research institutions.

About a week later, Ellen Goodman, a columnist for the Boston Globe, opined that Summers’s words were “off-the-cuff and off-the-wall,” and that he suffered from “recurring bouts of foot-in-mouth disease.” [2]

Dr. Caroline Hoxby, a Professor of Economics at Harvard at the time, said,  “Apology or no apology, a lot of damage has been done by reinforcing these stereotypes.” [3]

Well-known journalist Cokie Roberts and her husband Steve opined, “Repeated studies all reach the same conclusion: unequal performances in math and science stem from social and cultural conditioning, not ‘innate differences’.” [4] This statement is patently false and the Roberts obviously had never read research on the topic, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Summers did have some notable defenders.  Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard, wrote this about the reaction to Summers’s words: “To what degree these and other differences originate in biology must be determined by research, not fatwa. History tells us that how much we want to believe a proposition is not a reliable guide as to whether it is true.”  [5]

Pinker also said that Summers’s suggestions were influenced in part by “ a suggestion that he drew partly from a literature review in my book, The Blank Slate.[6]

Law professor Alan Dershowitz said that the opposition to Summers “sounds like the trial of Galileo.”  He added, “This is truly a time of crisis for Harvard…The crisis is over whether a politically correct straightjacket will be placed over the thinking of everybody in this institution by one segment of the faculty.” [7]

A short two months after the event, Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences passed a no-confidence vote in Dr. Summers.  J. Lorand Matory, the professor who introduced the measure, called for Dr. Summers to resign as President of Harvard University. [8] Summers announced his resignation as President of Harvard University on February 21, 2006. [9] While other factors contributed significantly to Summers’ decision to resign, his comments at the NBER Conference galvanized his opponents against him.

What did Summers say at the NBER Conference to produce such hysterical and visceral reactions? His entire address, all 4319 words, may be found here. [10]

He sets out three main hypotheses from the papers submitted for the conference and summarized these points near the end of his address:

“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.” [11]

A fair summary, then, of Summers words on the topic of women’s [under] representation in tenured positions in science and engineering at top universities and research institutions would be:

  1. Women tend to have legitimate family desires that conflict with the tremendous time and energy that elite universities require of tenured and tenure-track faculty members 
  2. There are more men available with “high end” mathematical and scientific research aptitude.
  3. Socialization and continuing descrimination in tenure search efforts reinforce the first two factors.

While the third hypotheses never seemed to have been mentioned by his feminist adversaries, one can assume that they would agree with him.

With respect to his second hypothesis, that there are more men available with “high end” mathematical and scientific research aptitude, Psychologist and academic Diane Halpern and her colleagues said:

“When all the data on quantitative ability are assessed together, however, the difference in average quantitative ability between girls and boys is actually quite small. What sets boys apart is that many more of them are mathematically gifted.

At first, this statement seems almost paradoxical. If boys and girls are, on average, equally skilled at math, how could there be greater numbers of gifted boys? For reasons that are not yet fully understood, it turns out that males are much more variable in their mathematical ability, meaning that females of any age are more clustered toward the center of the distribution of skills and males are spread out toward the ends. As a result, men outnumber women at the very high—and very low—ends of the distribution. ” [12]

Another review concluded, 

“Men and women display different capacities in certain cognitive functions that are unrelated to differences in the general level of intelligence. The most consistently reported differences relate to spatial and language abilities, and whereas men excel in mental rotation and spatial perception, women perform better in verbal memory tasks, in verbal fluency tasks, and in the speed of articulation…. Males are reckoned to be better at tasks that are spatial in nature, such as maze performance and mental rotation tasks, mechanical skills, mathematical reasoning and finding their way through a route.” [13]

It would seem, then, that more men are gifted mathematically!

This conclusion would also seem to be consistent with the fact that males publish more scientific research papers on average than their female counterparts and also secure more scientific patents, on average, than their female counterparts. [14]

Annual productivity of male and female researchers over time. [14]

Lastly, we consider Summers’ first hypothesis, that women tend to have legitimate family desires that conflict with the time and energy required by Universities. 

Consider this study of Boston transit workers, completed in 2018 by two economists from Harvard University. Using data on bus and train operators from the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), they showed that the weekly earnings gap between male and female operators can be “explained by the workplace choices that women and men make. Women value time away from work and flexibility more than men, taking more unpaid time off using the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and working fewer overtime hours than men.” [15]

Women in another study were more likely than men to say that parenthood resulted in less travel and career-related networking opportunities.  Women in that study were also more likely to report that “parenthood influenced a change in career plans, most often in the direction of seeking jobs with less research emphasis that allowed for more time with family.” [16]

There is empirical evidence, then, for Summers’ claim about the dissuasive aspects of the consuming work expected of upper level academics in mathematics and science!

The feminist response to Summers’ comments were hysterical and anti-science and we should keep that in mind as our society becomes increasingly feminized.

[1]  West, Diana, “Ladies, please…”, The Times and Democrat (Orangeburg, South Carolina) · 3 February 2005, p. 14.

[2] Goodman, Ellen, “Can women have it all?”, The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts), 23 January p. 65.

[3] “President of Harvard apologizes for remark,” The Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield, Massachusetts) · 20 January 2005, p. 12.

[4] Roberts, Cokie, “Academic Gender Gap isn’t ‘innate’,” The Times and Democrat (Orangeburg, South Carolina) · 3 February 2005, p. 14.

[5] Pinker, Steven,“Sex Ed”, The New Republic, 13 February 2005.  https://newrepublic.com/article/68044/sex-ed, Retrieved September 15, 2019.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Harvard president’s remarks on women draw fire.” The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts) · 17 February 2005, p. 33.

[8] “Harvard arts faculty votes no confidence in Summers.” The Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield, Massachusetts) · 16 March 2005, p. 8.

[9]The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts), 22 February 2006, p. 1.

[10] https://web.archive.org/web/20080130023006/http://www.president.harvard.edu/speeches/2005/nber.html. Retrieved September 15, 2019.[1

[11] Ibid.

[12]Halpern, Diane F., et al.. “Sex, Math and Scientific Achievement.” Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/sex-math-and-scientific-achievement-2012-10-23/.  Accessed September 15, 2019.

[13] Zaidi, Zeenat F., “Gender Differences in Human Brain:  A Review.” The Open Anatomy Journal, 2010, Vol. 2, pp. 37-55.

[14] Mihaljević-Brandt H, Santamaría L, Tullney M (2016) The Effect of Gender in the Publication Patterns in Mathematics. PLoS ONE 11(10): e0165367. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0165367

[15] Bolotnyy, Valentin, Emanuel, Natalia.  “Why Do Women Earn Less Than Men? Evidence from Bus and Train Operators.” Working Paper, Department of Economics, Harvard University, November 2018.

[16] O’Laughlin, Elizabeth M., and Lisa G. Bischoff. “Balancing Parenthood and Academia: Work/Family Stress as Influenced by Gender and Tenure Status.” Journal of Family Issues, vol. 26, no. 1, Jan. 2005, pp. 79–106, doi:10.1177/0192513X04265942.


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