Thursday, November 17, 2005

Lawrence Summers Was Right the First Time

I was going to stay out of this one, but Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard, is still taking grief for remarks he made last January about women and science. This has been bothering me, so I will take this opportunity to weigh in.

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.


Anonymous said...

I agree; the life choices that many women make often do not mesh with the long hours and strict devotion that lab sciences, as well as upper-level corporate and certain other leadership positions, require. But, if a woman does make a choice to raise a family, and let’s say that she devotes 18-20 years of her life solely to that role, after her children are in college shouldn’t she then be able to go back into her chosen field and retain the hope of making it to those upper levels professionally? It seems like more women would be found in the highest levels of science and engineering if this were a realistic option. As it stands now, a woman returning to these professions after having taken off even as little as a year to devote to family has to start back at square one regardless of her previous experience or the fact that she has kept current on the literature and progress in her field during her leave. Sure, it is harder to keep current in lab sciences if you are not in a lab day to day. But, if people aren’t retiring until their 70s or later, then there seems to be ample opportunity for these women to reach the upper levels of science and engineering if they start back at age 40. They might be neck and neck with 20-30something young men at that point, but should that make a difference if the work they produce is of the same quality (with perhaps the added benefit of experience that age brings)? What keeps them from coming back and if they do, why aren’t they then reaching those upper levels?

SPorcupine said...

Here's a guess: academia is one of the few remaining careers that really thinks there's only one way to build a career. In law, you could reappear, collect clients, build a record, and have 30 years as good as the first 30 years of anyone else's career. In medicine, I suspect it's the same. That's roughly true of any career where you can create your own business. My guess is that in most larger corporations, you can also rise by delivering results.

Gruntled said...

Felice Schwartz made a proposal a few years ago that the small number of professions with a strict up-or-out timetable, such as those produced by "getting tenure" or "making partner," should explicitly institutionalized a slower "mommy track" so moms could take more time with their children, without having to go back to square one. She was roundly criticized by feminist organizations at the time, but it seemed, and still seems, like a good idea to me.