The Summers Affair

Jonathan I. Katz

Professor of Physics

Washington University, St. Louis, Mo.

[my last name]

In January 2005 Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard University, remarked in a meeting that one possible explanation for the comparative scarcity of women in science (substantially fewer than half of all scientists, and particularly of science professors at research universities, are women, and the fraction is smallest in the physical sciences, mathematics and engineering) might be that women have, on average, less aptitude or inclination for these subjects than men. This provoked a storm of criticism; one lady-professor even threatened to faint.

This raises two questions: Is the ``Summers Hypothesis'' (which he was only putting forward as a possibility, not advocating) correct, and why the controversy?

Prior to the 1960's there were few women in science, medicine and law. To some extent this was the result of actual discrimination (exclusion from or quotas on the number of women in professional schools), and to some extent the result of social expectations that women would not pursue these careers. In the 1960's the social expectations changed, and discrimination on the basis of sex was outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The fraction of women in law and medical schools rose rapidly from less than 10%, and is now around (sometimes above) 50%. But in the physical sciences, mathematics and engineering the fraction of women stayed stubbornly around 10%.

I have been a faculty member in Astronomy and Physics departments since 1976, and have never seen any discrimination against women. I have seen explicit and substantial discrimination in their favor, particulary in admissions and hiring, with the consequence of a disproportionate number of woefully unqualified female graduate students (we also have woefully unqualified male graduate students). This discrimination is illegal, but most academic institutions ignore the law, which isn't enforced. My wife, with a Ph.D. in physics, states that she has never seen any discrimination against women in physics. There are also a certain number of fellowships, grants, prizes and other opportunities reserved for women (none reserved for men). This is in contrast to law and medicine, in which it was common knowledge that women (at least in the past) encountered a significant amount of hostility and even harassment.

How can we explain the contrast between the physical sciences, mathematics and engineering, in which the proportion of women hasn't risen despite ample encouragement, and law and medicine, in which it has? It's social science, so we cannot be sure (no one ever really knows why people make the decisions that govern their lives, whether it is age of marriage, number of children, or choice of profession), but certainly the hypotheses that fewer women (than men) are interested in science, or have the talent to succeed at it, must be considered.

I, for one, think it the most plausible explanation, but I also don't think the whole question is very important or very interesting. Let's get on with with our work, and not worry about why some people make one choice and others another.

More interesting is why Summers's casual suggestion aroused so much controversy. Certainly it is a hypothesis that every open minded person who thinks about the question must consider. It's an obvious possibility and there is no demonstrated alternative. Anyone with any experience in American science knows that there has been no systematic discrimination against women for at least a generation. Perhaps there are subtle but powerful cultural pressures pushing women out of science (but not out of medicine or law), but these must be very subtle because no one seems to be able to identify them. We could, of course, say that the whole question is one of those mysterious imponderables we have no hope of understanding, and just ignore it. That might be best, but doesn't explain the controversy. There are people who have no intention of ignoring it.

These people have a strong vested interest in keeping the controversy alive. Usually they are people whose careers involve running programs designed to increase the number of women in science (actual working women scientists are typically much less involved). In order to create support for these programs they need to excite controversy and interest to convince potential supporters that the scarcity of women is a problem that must be solved (rather than a fact of nature that we live with but pay little attention to), and that they are the ones to solve it. So anyone, especially someone as prominent at the president of Harvard, who challenges the line that the scarcity of women is the result of horrible acts of discrimination that must be remedied (usually by handing out goodies to the people advocating this line), is met with a hysterical reaction. It's good copy.


Jonathan Katz
Thu May 13 12:39:11 CDT 1999