Harvard Chief Defends His Talk on Women
January 18, 2005, New York Times
By SAM DILLON
The president of Harvard University, Lawrence H. Summers,
who offended some women at an academic conference last week
by suggesting that innate differences in sex may explain
why fewer women succeed in science and math careers, stood
by his comments yesterday but said he regretted if they
"I'm sorry for any misunderstanding but believe that
raising questions, discussing multiple factors that may
explain a difficult problem, and seeking to understand how
they interrelate is vitally important," Dr. Summers said in
Several women who participated in the conference said
yesterday that they had been surprised or outraged by Dr.
Summers's comments, and Denice D. Denton, the chancellor
designate of the University of California, Santa Cruz,
questioned Dr. Summers sharply during the conference,
saying she needed to "speak truth to power."
Nancy Hopkins, a professor of biology at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology who once led an investigation of
sex discrimination there that led to changes in hiring and
promotion, walked out midway through Dr. Summers's remarks.
"When he started talking about innate differences in
aptitude between men and women, I just couldn't breathe
because this kind of bias makes me physically ill," Dr.
Hopkins said. "Let's not forget that people used to say
that women couldn't drive an automobile."
The Boston Globe first reported yesterday about Dr.
Summers's remarks and the stir they created.
Not all reactions were negative. Some female academics and
the organizer of the two-day conference that Dr. Summers
addressed on Friday at the National Bureau of Economic
Research, a nonprofit economic research organization in
Cambridge, defended the remarks as a well-intentioned
effort to speak candidly about the persistent
underrepresentation of women in university departments of
mathematics, engineering and physical sciences.
"A lot of people who absolutely disagreed with him were not
irritated, and he said again and again, 'I'm here to
provoke you,' " said Richard Freeman, an economics
professor at Harvard who directs the bureau's labor studies
program and invited Dr. Summers to speak. "He's very good
at stimulating debate, but he cares deeply about increasing
diversity in the science and engineering workforces,
especially since we have many more women getting Ph.D.'s in
science and engineering than ever before."
About 50 academics from across the nation, many of them
economists, participated in the conference, "Diversifying
the Science and Engineering Workforce: Women,
Underrepresented Minorities, and their S. & E. Careers."
Dr. Summers arrived after a morning session and addressed a
working lunch, speaking without notes. No transcript was
made because the conference was designed to be
off-the-record so that participants could speak candidly
without fear of public misunderstanding or disclosure
In his presentation, Dr. Summers addressed the question of
why so few women were on math and engineering faculties at
top research universities.
"I began by saying that the whole issue of gender equality
was profoundly important and that we are taking major steps
at Harvard to combat passive discrimination," he recalled
in yesterday's interview. "Then I wanted to add some
provocation to what I understand to be basically a social
He discussed several factors that could help explain the
underrepresentation of women. The first factor, he said,
according to several participants, was that top positions
on university math and engineering faculties require
extraordinary commitments of time and energy, with many
professors working 80-hour weeks in the same punishing
schedules pursued by top lawyers, bankers and business
executives. Few married women with children are willing to
accept such sacrifices, he said.
Dr. Hopkins said, "I didn't disagree, but didn't like the
way he presented that point because I like to work 80 hours
a week, and I know a lot of women who work that hard."
In citing a second factor, Dr. Summers cited research
showing that more high school boys than girls tend to score
at very high and very low levels on standardized math
tests, and that it was important to consider the
possibility that such differences may stem from biological
differences between the sexes.
Dr. Freeman said, "Men are taller than women, that comes
from the biology, and Larry's view was that perhaps the
dispersion in test scores could also come from the
Dr. Summers said, "I was trying to provoke discussion, and
I certainly believe that there's been some move in the
research away from believing that all these things are
shaped only by socialization."
It was at this point in his presentation that Dr. Hopkins
walked out, and shortly thereafter, Dr. Denton told the
Harvard president that she believed his assertions had been
contradicted by research materials presented at the
conference. Dr. Summers said he responded that "I didn't
think for a moment that I had proven anything, but only
that these are things that need to be studied."
A late phone call yesterday to Dr. Denton at the University
of Washington, where she is the dean of engineering, was
Paula E. Stephan, a professor of economics at Georgia State
University, said Dr. Summers's remarks offended some
participants, but not her. "I think if you come to
participate in a research conference," Dr. Stephan said,
"you should expect speakers to present hypotheses that you
may not agree with and then discuss them on the basis of
Catherine Didion, a director of the International Network
of Women Engineers and Scientists, said she was "surprised
by the provocation in tone and manner" of Dr. Summers's
"Initially all of the questions were from women, and I
think there was definitely a gender component to how people
interpreted his remarks," Dr. Didion said. "Male colleagues
didn't say much afterwards and later said they felt his
comments were being blown out of context. Female colleagues
were on the whole surprised by his comments."