Words can be powerful, especially when those words are spoken by the president of a top university. In a 2005 speech by Lawrence Summers, he put forth the hypothesis that there are more men than women in the most high end positions due to a different set of measurable attributes, rather than it being caused by pervasive sexism or discrimination. To make it to the top of highly demanding fields, one has to be of exceptional quality and these are “people who are three and a half, four standard deviations above the mean in the one in 5,000, one in 10,000 class” (Summers, 2005). Summers is making the point that we should analyze the dataset that produces this type of result, rather than saying it’s all because of discrimination. Summers does not deny that discrimination exists, but he argues it cannot explain every difference. While there are more women in science and math based majors than ever before, fewer of them are in the top research positions that require the most demanding work and longest hours. Summers was strongly criticized and forced to resign as president of Harvard.
The forced resignation of Summers was unjust. It’s easy to say that Summers is being sexist in his remarks, because his comments can be construed as promoting inequality among the sexes. But he prefaced his marks by saying that he was making observations based on data and not trying to be political. Summers points to other examples, such as white men being underrepresented in the National Basketball Association (NBA) and Jews not having enough representation in farming and agriculture. Does that mean those groups are discriminated against, or is it that they don’t possess the characteristics, or even a natural desire, to excel in those fields?
Summers hypothesized there was a diverse dataset that could explain the reason for the disparity between men and women in the highest positions. First, the demands and rigor of long hours is not necessarily well suited to women who want to raise a family. Summers noted that the women in the highest positions are either unmarried or without children. Rising to the top of one’s field requires long hours and “near total commitments” in work. How many women are willing to sacrifice raising a family for a career? Historically, married men have been more likely to make that sacrifice. Summers acknowledges that that’s not how it should be, but that’s what it is. He also asks the question if it’s right that society should ask married women to choose family over career.
There is nothing in Summers remarks that appear sexist, and in fact, he appears sensitive to the difficulties of women. But he does indicate data that supports his hypothesis. The resignation of Summers was a result of a reaction in our society. The kind of reaction where politics and ideology win out over reason and data. Summers, at least, is willing to start a conversation about the role of women in high end positions.
A data point cited by Summers is the pattern in...