Harvard president Lawrence Summers created a firestorm of controversy when he rashly speculated that the underrepresentation of women faculty in science and engineering may result from innate biological differences between the genders. He later said his remarks were misconstrued, but he should have known better.
Every university faculty member and student should be free to express his or her opinions and ideas. That concept is fundamental to the idea of a university. We cannot defend academic freedom only for those with whom we agree. Nonetheless, there are three reasons Summers's statements are disturbing:
His statements fly in the face of the latest scientific research.
Summers is a distinguished economist, but he is not a psychologist or biologist. Thus, his credentials to address the topic are shaky.
Sadly, he may have contributed significantly to the very problem he was addressing.
Many young girls encounter teachers or counselors who believe they lack the ability to succeed in science or mathematics. Those negative beliefs affect the student's choices, self-concept, and aspirations as well as how the adults interpret the questions she asks and the work she produces.
Young women who are told by authority figures that they are not smart enough to master or excel in mathematics and science are less likely to pursue careers in those fields--except for those who are unusually resilient and self-confident. Many young women, including the best and the brightest, have been persuaded that they are inferior.
In a 1994 study of the science pipeline funded by the National Science Foundation, I examined a national sample of college students who were asked to rate their own ability in mathematics twice--as first-year students and again three years later. I studied only those students who were in the top 10 percent, based on their score on the quantitative portion of the SAT. Though they had been told their score and their percentile rank by the College Board, only about a quarter of the women who actually were in the top 10 percent believed that they were in both questionnaires.
Imagine the impact on, say, a 12-year-old girl of learning that the president of the world's leading university has suggested that women may be innately inferior.
Programs to confront these negative expectations and prejudiced beliefs have dramatically reversed the male/female achievement gap as well as the White/minority achievement gap. Such programs focus on recruitment, consistent and engaged mentoring, and providing resources to support a peer culture in which students work collaboratively towards academic achievement.
Educator Sheila Tobias has led the way in articulating, developing, and describing the concepts "math anxiety" and "math avoidance." She suggests that there are several internal, though not innate, variables that cause girls to do more poorly than boys in many mathematics courses and tests. One of these is "female isolation." Unless they are blessed with a math-oriented family, or collected in a special dormitory for math/science majors, girls find themselves isolated both in class and outside of class when it comes to math. Not having anyone to talk to about what they're learning, they fail to learn to "speak" mathematics. Worse yet, they do not get the opportunity to extend their knowledge, their skills, and their imagination through discussion. Tobias found that boys attribute their success to ability and their failure to not having worked hard enough. Girls, conversely, attribute their success to effort, or sometimes luck, and their failure to lack of ability.
Those women who persist in their studies and become researchers and professors often encounter a glass ceiling in academia. Sociologist Jonathan Cole commented that even after taking into account factors "such as career interruptions and the quality and assessed quality of research performance of men and women. ...Women are still less likely to be promoted to high academic rank. And when they are promoted, it is not apt to happen as quickly. ...The pattern of promotion to high rank has persisted for the past fifty years at much the same level."
President George W. Bush recently acknowledged that he made a mistake in challenging Iraqi insurgents to "Bring it on," adding that "those words had an unintended consequence." Perhaps President Summers will learn a similar lesson from this experience. Harvard faculty, staff, students, and alumni, as well as the wider audience of concerned Americans, have a right to expect him to think through an issue before advancing speculations.
People living over glass ceilings shouldn't throw stones.
David E. Drew holds the Joseph B. Platt Chair and has appointments in education, management, and mathematics at the Claremont Graduate University, where he served as dean of the School of Educational Studies for 10 years.