Friday, February 18, 2005

Larry Summers

I took a look at the Laurence Summers transcript because of all the hooplah and the calls for his resignation. Essentially he throws out some reasons as to why women are not as well represented in math and science as men. The sad fact is that he says some pretty ridiculous things about innate differences between men and women (especially the standard deviation stuff), but what I find particularly frightening is the fact that we in the academy are completely incapable of having a conversation about issues of racial and gender diversity without someone being called a nazi.

The assumptions out there is that all behavior is based on socialization. This may or may not be true, but anyone coming down on the "wrong" side of this issue is labelled a fascist. The sad truth is that there are racial and gender disparities throughtout the academy, and we have no idea why. Part of it is probably discrimination, but in my experience, the faculty at universities are some of the most liberal people you'll find on the planet (which is probably why i'm an academic) what gives? If it's inadequate support for child-bearing, bias by white male senior faculty, etc...we'll never know because the questions can't be raised.

At any rate, my fellow immoral minorities, i'd like you to read his remarks and hear your comments.


Anonymous s. aerni said...

Thanks for posting that link to his comments. I read through them, and although there are definitely a few parts of them where he's providing very anectdotal evidence (his twin daughters playing house with the dump trucks), I didn't find much in the speech that was terribly controversial.

He questions some things that I've definitely heard other economic professors argue; namely that we don't know the costs of career interruptions to anyone, or whether taking some years off to raise children substantially decreases a person's (women's) productivity when looked at over a lifetime.

It is hard to raise these issues without making people upset, which to my mind does signify that it is a problem in our country.

Maybe it's the puritan work ethic that we should really be criticizing!

11:09 AM  
Blogger deo said...

Sorry, Sarah, but I've got to disagree here. I think for someone who is ultimately at the head of one of the world's leading scientific faculties, these remarks are disgraceful.

It disturbs me that Summers seems to think that he has thought carefully about these issues. Meanwhile he bends over backwards to give credence to "probably wrong, back of the napkin" reasoning suggesting women have less native aptitude, (which he admits he has no idea what it means never mind how to measure it) while dismissing a problem--discrimination--which I--as someone who has not thought as carefully about these things, can cite clear evidence for. Two things I have read about recently: 1. A marked and surprising shift in hiring patterns when symphonies began hiring by blind audition (where you can't see the player). 2. A study which sent out identical resumes sometimes with anglo-sounding names (e.g. mary scott), sometimes with afro-sounding names (e.g. tamika washington), and found that the anglos got many more interview invites.

This is not to say that the entire problem is discrimination. If I said I knew that I'd be as guilty of pigheadedness and willful reasoning as Summers. There are questions about aptitude, but let's remember that at one time it was uncontroversial to say that blacks, italians, irish, or just about any minority/immigrant group were objectively inferior. I wonder what dr. summers' back of the napkin calculation would say about american men's math aptitude vs. that of say, hungarian men, and if he'll be giving a speech that says yes, socialization may play a part, but we might just have to accept that americans can't really compete for that many top jobs in science.

As someone with such a powerful public profile and the power to set a tone about attidutes toward these issues in academia, I think idle, or as he calls it "provocative," speculation (and that's what I think it is) is incredibly irresponsible.

10:23 AM  
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