Harvard President Lawrence Summers’ provocative remarks on women and science at a conference last month set off a debate that has swirled in academic circles and beyond ever since.
But his exact words remained a mystery, made public only in accounts from those who attended the conference. Summers refused to release a transcript, saying he had been speaking off the record.
On Thursday, however, Summers changed course and released a transcript that shows him arguing that intrinsic differences between the sexes, along with family pressure and employer demands, probably play a bigger role than cultural factors and discrimination in explaining why fewer women than men have top science jobs.
He said in an accompanying letter posted on Harvard’s Web site that he released the document reluctantly, at the request of faculty members and in the hope of helping two committees he has appointed to explore gender issues get on with their work.
Fodder for critics or supporters?
What remains to be seen is whether releasing the remarks will provide more powerful fodder for critics or for supporters, who have maintained Summers has been treated unfairly and was simply raising a legitimate academic question.
The transcript appears to support Summers’ contention that he was discussing how, in the general population, men are more likely to have science and math test scores in the highest and lowest ranges, while women’s scores are more clustered in the middle.
But in explaining why fewer women scientists rise to the top, Summers said he was inclined to favor family pressure and biology as explanations over discrimination and social factors.
In his Jan. 14 remarks, Summers repeatedly emphasized that he was “guessing,” attempting to provoke and hoped to be proved wrong.
“So my best guess, to provoke you, of what’s behind all this is that the largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people’s legitimate family desires and employers’ current desire for high power and high intensity,” Summers said at a National Bureau of Economic Research conference in Cambridge.
“In the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination,” he said.
Summers, who has apologized repeatedly for the way in which he addressed biological factors, reiterated in his letter that “if I could turn back the clock, I would have spoken differently on matters so complex.”
Nancy Hopkins, the MIT biology professor whose complaints about the talk helped spark the current controversy, said she was pleased Summers had released the transcript and praised the accompanying letter.
“He understood he’d been wrong about the research,” she said. “He acknowledged he had changed his position and said why.”