In a conference on “Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce, “ President Summers was asked to offer “some attempts at provocation” on the question of “women's representation in tenured positions in science and engineering at top universities and research institutions.” The full transcript of his remarks is available online.
This is the summary statement he opened with. I have turned it into a list for clarity.
There are three broad hypotheses about the sources of the very substantial disparities that this conference's papers document and have been documented before with respect to the presence of women in high-end scientific professions.
1. One is what I would call the … high-powered job hypothesis.
2. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and
3. 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 that I just described.
Summers then gave a decent overview of the state of research on each of these points.
In the sensible corner of academia in which I live, this occasioned some interesting, calm conversation over the lunch table, in which the evidence for each point was the main relevant question. Moreover, on the meta-issue of whether one could even raise such questions in an academic setting, there was no controversy. Asking, and attempting to answer, such difficult questions is what the academy is for.
Alas, Harvard is, evidently, not as sensible a place as Centre College. When Summers made his remarks, there was an immediate uproar. Nancy Hopkins, a biologist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, walked out on his talk, saying later that if she hadn't left, ''I would've either blacked out or thrown up." There were calls for his resignation. President Summers felt obliged to apologize repeatedly, set up not one but two task forces to hire more women in science and engineering, and to stop asking politically incorrect questions. Not Harvard’s finest hour.
The controversy has largely been over Summers’ second point. Yet it is well documented that there are more men than women at the highest levels of math ability. Not zero women, just fewer of them. And not in the broad middle of the population, where most of us live our daily lives, but at the highest levels. As Summers said, he was talking about the miniscule population that is three or three and a half standard deviations above the mean, from which the “tenured positions in science and engineering at top universities and research institutions”are filled —which, let us remember, was the topic of the conference to which he was speaking.
But that is not the most important point. Note that the controversy was not over his main point, but on a secondary one. Summers offered that the main reason that women did not make up half of the top 25 science and engineering faculties was because women were less likely to want to devote their child-rearing years to spending 80-hour weeks in the laboratory. Lab sciences are the least child-friendly of all the academic disciplines. Any professional with a demanding career puts in long hours. But I was able to do some of my work as a sociologist at home when the kids were little, and the same was true with my wife’s legal work. I could also take my children to work on occasion, as could my wife. A lab scientist, on the other hand, pretty much has to spend all those long hours in the lab, away from home and children. Moreover, a scientific laboratory is one of the most dangerous work places that a child could go to.
Some women, of course, are willing to put in the long hours in the lab. Nancy Hopkins started working obsessively with James Watson when she was an undergraduate. Early in her career she would spend long hours in his Cold Stream lab, then take the ten-hour train trip home to her husband. Hopkins is a very eminent and accomplished biologist, and an important member of the MIT faculty. I can find no report that she has children. This life is her choice, and I don’t criticize it. But it is surely relevant in studying the proportion of women at the highest levels of science and engineering that these careers are among the most difficult to succeed in while raising children.