On January 14, 2005, Harvard President Lawrence Summers said that the underrepresentation of female scientists at top universities may be in part due to natural differences between men and women.
Why does this matter? Well, it looks as if Summers, who served in the Obama White House as director of the National Economic Council until the end of 2010, may be the front-runner to succeed Ben Bernanke at the Federal Reserve Board. That's based off new reporting from The Washington Post's Ezra Klein. A source close to Obama told The New York Times' John Harwood that Summers "should be" the choice to lead the Fed.
Alarms are already beginning to go off. The feminist advocacy group UltraViolet issued a statement Tuesday night saying, "Women will not soon forget if President Obama picks Mr. Summers." Some, including UltraViolet, are particularly peeved because for months the presumed front-runner was a woman, Janet Yellen. David Dayen at Salon has a story up Wednesday morning headlined "Sexist Larry Summers Will Destroy the Economy." That story also reports that the White House is leaning toward Summers. On Twitter, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.; called the potential pick "disconcerting."
Which brings us back to the 2005 speech. Here's a section of the relevant part of the speech at the National Bureau of Economic Research conference, which is full of hyphenated caveats. Emphasis is ours:
The second thing that I think one has to recognize is present is what I would call the combination of, and here, I'm focusing on something that would seek to answer the question of why is the pattern different in science and engineering, and why is the representation even lower and more problematic in science and engineering than it is in other fields. And here, you can get a fair distance, it seems to me, looking at a relatively simple hypothesis. It does appear that on many, many different human attributes—height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability—there is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference in means—which can be debated—there is a difference in the standard deviation, and variability of a male and a female population. And that is true with respect to attributes that are and are not plausibly, culturally determined. If one supposes, as I think is reasonable, that if one is talking about physicists at a top twenty-five research university, one is not talking about people who are two standard deviations above the mean. And perhaps it's not even talking about somebody who is three standard deviations above the mean. But it's talking about people who are three and a half, four standard deviations above the mean in the one in 5,000, one in 10,000 class. Even small differences in the standard deviation will translate into very large differences in the available pool substantially out. I did a very crude calculation, which I'm sure was wrong and certainly was unsubtle, twenty different ways. I looked at the Xie and Shauman paper-looked at the book, rather-looked at the evidence on the sex ratios in the top 5% of twelfth graders. If you look at those-they're all over the map, depends on which test, whether it's math, or science, and so forth, but 50% women, one woman for every two men, would be a high-end estimate from their estimates. From that, you can back out a difference in the implied standard deviations that works out to be about 20%. And from that, you can work out the difference out several standard deviations. If you do that calculation—and I have no reason to think that it couldn't be refined in a hundred ways—you get five to one, at the high end. Now, it's pointed out by one of the papers at this conference that these tests are not a very good measure and are not highly predictive with respect to people's ability to do that. And that's absolutely right. But I don't think that resolves the issue at all. Because if my reading of the data is right—it's something people can argue about—that there are some systematic differences in variability in different populations, then whatever the set of attributes are that are precisely defined to correlate with being an aeronautical engineer at MIT or being a chemist at Berkeley, those are probably different in their standard deviations as well. So my sense is that the unfortunate truth—I would far prefer to believe something else, because it would be easier to address what is surely a serious social problem if something else were true—is that the combination of the high-powered job hypothesis and the differing variances probably explains a fair amount of this problem.
The Boston Globe reported on the speech on January 17. According to The Globe, an MIT biologist who was in attendance walked out, explaining that if she hadn't, she "would've either blacked out or thrown up." And as The Globe made clear, the anger at the speech was about more than just what Summers said. Up to that point during his tenure, the percentage of tenured offers made to women by Harvard's faculty of Arts and Sciences had severely dropped. In 2004, only four of a total of 32 offers went to women, a result Summers called unacceptable. Following the speech, Summers faced a 218-185 no-confidence vote, and the lingering anger eventually led to his resignation in 2006.
If nothing else, the storm surrounding Summers's comments did lead to some changes at the university. In 2009, three years after Summers resigned, 16 women and 25 men received tenure offers. And Summers's successor was Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard's first female president.
Summers repeatedly apologized, saying he does not believe "that girls are intellectually less able than boys, or that women lack the ability to succeed at the highest levels of science." But the speech clearly still haunts him, and will continue to do so if he is nominated to be the next chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, a job he has been long rumored to covet. It's likely that, faced with a Senate confirmation process, he'd have to again answer for his eight-years-old remarks.