Harvard Finally Releases Transcript of Lawrence Summers' Remarls
February 17, 2005 6:12 PM   Subscribe

Harvard has finally released a transcript of Lawrence Summers' remarks at a conference about women in science and engineering. These remarks, which were made without members of the press present about a month ago, caused a lot of controversy. Now we can finally see what he actually said.
posted by mai (30 comments total)
I know we have talked about this before, but it was always speculative because there was no official transcript.

I know this is a newsy post, but I think it's an important subject. Let's all try not to snark, shall we?

Here's the part that seems important to me:
"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. One is what I would call the-I'll explain each of these in a few moments and comment on how important I think they are-the first is what I call the high-powered job hypothesis. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and 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."
posted by mai at 6:15 PM on February 17, 2005

It might also be worth reading Steven Pinker's response

Steven Pinker is a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He is the author of The Blank Slate, a best seller that controversially asserted that nature was more important than nuture.
posted by sien at 6:42 PM on February 17, 2005

I know we have talked about this before.

twice, actually.
posted by casu marzu at 6:43 PM on February 17, 2005

Let's all try not to snark, shall we?
Lets try not to patronize people. How about that?
posted by banished at 7:50 PM on February 17, 2005

Those are really dense paragraphs.

Could someone less liquored up than me give us the gist? It seems like a high-powered microscope might be required to find the controversy (or clarity) in his remarks. I see what mai pasted, but reading it on paper is failing to flip my outrage switch for some reason. It sounds like vague, overcogitated academia-speak.
posted by dhoyt at 7:52 PM on February 17, 2005

I'll wait for the women with superior verbal skills and empathy to tell me what I should feel. Then I will calculate what my response should be.
posted by srboisvert at 7:52 PM on February 17, 2005

That's it? That is what that guy said? Jeebus. Good thing those chicks don't hang out at my office - they would REALLY be offended (AND I'm the only guy AT an office of eight women).

srboisvert: LOL. G1.
posted by tkchrist at 7:57 PM on February 17, 2005

Speaking as an alumnus, I think Harvard should shitcan the guy. It's great to be provocative, but the guy clearly hadn't done his homework. If you want to be an asshole, at least get your facts lined up so you don't end up being a stupid asshole.
posted by alms at 7:58 PM on February 17, 2005

OK, from the NYTimes:
Among his comments to a conference of economists last month, according to the transcript, Dr. Summers, a former secretary of the United States Treasury, compared the relatively low number of women in the sciences to the numbers of Catholics in investment banking, whites in the National Basketball Association and Jews in farming.
Which of course leads him to conclude:
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.
posted by alms at 8:05 PM on February 17, 2005

The simple fact that Summers' imprudent utterance will make the country's most scientifically & mathematically talented females less likely to pursue their limitless* futures at Harvard, is plenty adequate reason to can him.

* whether you consider them to be so in actual fact or just through their adolescent eyes, doesn't matter
posted by Zurishaddai at 8:11 PM on February 17, 2005

As far as I can tell, the President's job is primarily fundraising. Now, if firing him will win more money from the sandyopposing crowd than it'll lose from the old boys network, then it's in their best interest. Otherwise, onward and upward. Really, does anyone look at the President of Harvard as anything other than a smiling face and an open hand?
posted by uncleozzy at 8:12 PM on February 17, 2005

I am offended by this on several levels.

First, his categorization of the three factors is pretty ridiculous. He lumps together socialization (women are encouraged to have different interests, different behaviors, goals, etc. are expected of women) and discrimination (people who make decisions about who to hire are either overtly or subconsciously biased), and I think these should be separate. I also think this ignores the important fact that even if no one is discriminatory in hiring decisions, a physics department can still be an unfriendly place toward women (and I speak from some experience).

He is overly dismissive of all of these social factors, while giving a lot of weight to the idea that female brains are inherently less able to do science. Which isn't supported by evidence, and I'm not sure how you could even design an experiment to separate out inherent brain differences from socialization effects.

It's also strange to me that he thinks himself, an economist, qualified to make judgements about these things. Judgements that will end up carrying some authority because he's the president of Harvard.

If it were me, regardless of my opinions, I would have focused on those things that are within the power of the president of Harvard to effect.

Okay, thanks for letting me get that off my chest.
posted by mai at 8:36 PM on February 17, 2005

Okay, I read this and it still doesn't change my mind. I don't think that he should be burned in effigy, but as a woman in a scientific discipline it still rubs me the wrong way.

The problem I have is that so little of being an academic has to do with being truly brilliant in a subject area. A high level of intelligence is required, but after a certain point the ability to communicate those ideas is so much more important. It's one thing to have a great idea, but it needs grants for support and validation from other scientists. I think these skills would favor women if we are to believe stereotypes of female verbal prowess.
posted by Alison at 9:43 PM on February 17, 2005

people cry to much.
posted by nola at 9:59 PM on February 17, 2005

Wow. I see why Summers was so reluctant to release the transcript. His "best guess" that socialization is an obviously "lesser factor" than women's allegedly lower inherent aptitude for science and engineering is an embarrassment to anyone with half a brain. Here's the crux:

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....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.

That's quite a simplistic assumption - er, I mean "suspicion" - there. Any fair look at socialization issues, science and women's careers would have to include an acknowledgement that the problem (according to theorists who favor this explanation) starts early in schooling, and results in a discouragement of female participation in science and engineering long before candidates reach the point of applying for tenure-track jobs in the "highly competitive academic marketplace." In other words, Summers' assumption of an available "pool" of candidates just waiting to be tapped by enlightened institutions ignores/excludes a key part of the argument he claims to be refuting.

Summers is either absurdly ignorant of the sensitive issues he's discussing in public, or is so bigoted he's unaware that his framing of the topic is completely unfair. Either way he's an embarrassment to Harvard.
posted by mediareport at 12:50 AM on February 18, 2005

I think that he's both of those, but also very full of himself so that he thinks that his own very naive analysis is better than those of people who have spend months or years studying this topic.
posted by mai at 2:22 AM on February 18, 2005

Havong read Summers's remarks, I am mystified. What on earth was all the fuss about?

I don't agree with everything he said. In particular, I think he underestimates the influence of cultural factors (or what he calls "socialization") in shaping gender roles and career choices. (Perhaps he should try the Implicit Association Tests on his own university's website.) But this falls well within the spectrum of legitimate disagreement and debate. There is nothing in his remarks, nothing at all, to suggest that he is turning a blind eye to discrimination. Indeed he quite plainly says the opposite. "No one who's been in a university department or who has been involved in personnel processes can deny that this kind of [discrimination] does go on .. and it is something that absolutely, vigorously needs to be combated."

Some people have accused Summers of arrogance. I don't see that at all. Throughout his talk, he is very careful to stress that he is only stating his personal opinion, not the policy of his university; that his remarks are only provisional; and that he is willing to be corrected. "I've given you my best guesses afer a fair amount of reading the literature and a lot of talking to people. They may all be 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." What's arrogant about that? How can you possibly say, mai, that he is so "full of himself .. that he thinks that his own very naive analysis is better than those of people who have spent months or years studying this topic"? That is the very opposite of what he says.

I think Summers's fiercest critics owe him an apology. Of course they won't give it. I can already predict some of their excuses. "It's not what he said, it's what he was perceived as having said .. he was perceived as justifying discrimination, and therefore he should resign." Well, to hell with that. He should be judged on what he actually said, and not on other people's misinterpretations. "But he's the President of Harvard." Yes, and so what? Why shouldn't the President of Harvard enjoy the same rights of free speech as anyone else?

Summers could have delivered an uncontroversial speech about the need to combat discrimination. Instead, he chose to go out on a limb, and engage in some (fairly modest) speculation and provocation. And he has been vilified for doing so. Will he dare to speak his mind again? The next time he, or any other academic leader, makes a speech touching on these issues, you can be sure that it will be full of worthy platitudes about how there is "no place for discrimination in the workplace of the twenty-first century" blah blah blah, all signifying absolutely nothing. And public intellectual discourse will have been further impoverished.
posted by verstegan at 2:54 AM on February 18, 2005

Not to derail, but was this statement from Councillor West really necessary?
After the transcript was issued, Dr. West volunteered his reaction to the latest imbroglio.

"I've been praying for the brother, hoping he would change," Dr. West said in an interview. "It's clear he hasn't changed. I feel bad for Harvard as an institution and as a great tradition. It was good to see the faculty wake up. The chickens have come home to roost."
What ever happened to taking the high road?
posted by felix betachat at 8:20 AM on February 18, 2005

verstergan, my criticism of Summers is primarily that the number of women hires at Harvard has dropped precipitously on his watch. In light of that, this speech sounds very much like self-justification to me. I don't much care what he's "perceived" as having said. I'm pissed off about what he's actually *done*.
posted by kyrademon at 8:25 AM on February 18, 2005

Well, heaven forfend that Cornel West's enormous ego not be properly attended to. Five demerits are awarded to Dr. West for using "The chickens have come home to roost" with its unfortunate echo of Malcolm X's commentary on JFK's assassination as payback for slavery [which is to say, Dr. West is deliberately implying that Dr. Summers is now paying for "forcing" West out]. Tacky, tacky, tacky.
posted by gsh at 8:45 AM on February 18, 2005

The whole "women are better at verbal stuff! And that's more important anyway so why are you whining!" thing sounds pretty suspect to me whenever people do it. Notice how many ultra-high-paying fields there are for those with high verbal skills.

I was a nuclear engineering major for a time. I was one of two female students in a 100 student major. The other girl also left because they made metafilter look like a girlzone.

/bitter journalist examining paycheck
posted by u.n. owen at 8:59 AM on February 18, 2005

I think some of the perceived arrogance comes out in the Q&A at the end. There's a "Well, maybe I didn't prove my point, but don't think *you* have all the answers!" tone to many of his answers.
posted by occhiblu at 9:25 AM on February 18, 2005

I think Larry Summers himself said it best at the beginning of this week's faculty meeting.

"[I] sent a signal of discouragement to people in this room and beyond who have worked very hard for many years to advance the progress of women in science and throughout academic life. I deserve much of the criticism that has come my way.... I made a serious mistake in speaking in the way I did, especially given my role as President."

Folks who think that the kerfuffle is overblown, I think, don't understand the context. As noted by kyrademon, there has been a drop in female professorships since Summers arrived. Read the recently-published Harvard Rules for an explanation of the environment into which he threw his unscientific assertions.
posted by Cassford at 9:37 AM on February 18, 2005

That is one long winded man. I have three points
1. His whole "there are more men at the top of the curve than women" spiel is based, as far as I know, on one or two studies and while he implies that the spreads were different across the board I believe there were only significant differences in one test, that is fairly controversial as a measure of analytical reasoning.
2. The points at which women "drop out" seem to be the points at which they leave the academic/intern system and have to compete for postdoc positions and grants or industry jobs. Hmmm. Personally I think it's probably easier to get accepted to a doctoral program or clerkship as a woman but I can tell you it is harder to step up to a management type job that regularly involves meeting with clients. Since husband/wife teams almost always use the mans name as chief grant applicant no matter who will do the actual work there is an implied bias that it's better to have a man on there.
3. 80 hours a week? Ha! I've never worked for a senior scientist that came in before 10am or left much past 5:30. They must run them ragged at Harvard.
posted by fshgrl at 9:43 AM on February 18, 2005

verstergan, my criticism of Summers is primarily that the number of women hires at Harvard has dropped precipitously on his watch. In light of that, this speech sounds very much like self-justification to me. I don't much care what he's "perceived" as having said. I'm pissed off about what he's actually *done*.

And he certainly invites such criticism considering that he states right at the beginning:

"I'm going to confine myself to addressing one portion of the problem..., which is the issue of women's representation in tenured positions in science and engineering at top universities and research institutions, ... because it's the only one of these problems that I've made an effort to think in a very serious way about."
posted by carmen at 9:57 AM on February 18, 2005

verstegan: has he overstepped his first amendment rights? Of course not. But just because I respect his right to say what he said, doesn't mean I can't criticize it.

The problem is that even if he says something is just his own opinion, he's an incredibly powerful guy - he has a lot of influence over the direction of one of the most presitgous universities in the world. If he is dismissive of certain aspects of the problem of women being underrepresented in science, he sends a signal that Harvard is not going to prioritize those problems, and that his administration, all its platitudes to the contrary, doesn't take them seriously.
posted by mai at 10:19 AM on February 18, 2005

To buttress conviction and theory with anecdote, a young woman who worked very closely with me at the Treasury and who has subsequently gone on to work at Google highly successfully, is a 1994 graduate of Harvard Business School. She reports that of her first year section, there were twenty-two women, of whom three are working full time at this point. That may, the dean of the Business School reports to me, that that is not an implausible observation given their experience with their alumnae. So I think in terms of positive understanding, the first very important reality is just what I would call the, who wants to do high-powered intense work?

This anecdote is an example of his drawing conclusions without sufficient evidence. Based on the numbers, which are admittedly startling, Summers concludes that the reason why so many women who have already spend years of their lives working very hard must be because these women don't want to do 'high powered intense work.' Bollocks. I know the kind of woman who goes to Harvard Business School, because they're the same kind of woman who goes to Michigan Law School (where I went). From my class there are currently many, many women who aren't working full-time, 99% percent of whom because they've had babies and their families have made the decision that having a full-time parent during the first few years of a child's development is worth an investment of time. To somehow extrapolate from this that these women are not willing or capable of doing intense work with long hours is patently ridiculous. it's this kind of conclusion that makes it unneccessarily difficult for women (and men) to step back in to high-powered careers after taking time off for parenting.

This type of poor reasoning is charecteristic of his entire speech.
posted by miss tea at 10:22 AM on February 18, 2005

From quaeler's link:

He merely mentioned it en passant as one possibility, among a list of alternative hypotheses, that ought to be looked at in the process of formulating a fair and sensible policy for recruiting more women into elite academic science.

That's just plain not in accord with the transcript; Summers clearly went a lot further than mentioning the possibility "en passant." It makes sense that the piece was written before the transcript was made public.
posted by mediareport at 8:23 PM on February 18, 2005

Yes, though even before the transcript was released it was pretty clear that Summers labelled it the second-most important reason for the lack of women in science, so I don't know what the author is trying to prove at all.
posted by occhiblu at 11:12 PM on February 18, 2005

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