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President Summers' remarks offer global 'teachable moment'

By Denice Denton

Forty leading scholars attended the National Bureau of Economic Research conference entitled “Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce: Women, Underrepresented Minorities and Their S&E Careers” and I was privileged to be among them. Dr. Lawrence Summers, the President of Harvard, presented a talk at this meeting entitled “Women and Minority Faculty.” President Summers indicated that he was not speaking as the president of Harvard and that he hoped to be provocative. It appears that he failed in reaching the first objective, but has achieved great success in the second. As has been widely reported, President Summers stated that there is an absence of women from high-powered jobs in the sciences. There is evidence to the contrary.

In fact, myriad women are at the top in their fields. Examples: the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine this year went to Dr. Linda Buck of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington; as of next month, four of the ten campuses of the University of California system will be led by women scientists.

Many of the related articles and commentaries that have appeared in the past two weeks have focused on the wrong issues: the question of whether there are “innate differences” between men and women and the defense of academic freedom. Yes, there are biological differences between women and men, and, yes, freedom of speech and academic freedom are core values for all of us. However, what really matters here is that we must actively tap all the talent among our population to successfully address the major global challenges that we face.

The key point is that the United States is facing a crisis of global economic competitiveness. It is essential that we draw on all the human capital in this country. We simply cannot afford to shut out more than half the population from the kind of work that will power California's -- and our country's -- economy and enhance our competitive edge. To this end, presidents of our most highly respected universities have a responsibility to provide leadership nationally at this critical time. And Harvard has a special responsibility to lead, because of its unique place in higher education. All of us dedicated to equal opportunity would expect no less.

Finally, in the spirit of free intellectual exchange, I hope to shed light on the nature of the reaction by academics to President Summers at the meeting. In short, he did not present rigorous and supportable hypotheses. First, he proposed that women's unwillingness or inability to work 80-hour weeks precludes us from reaching the most prestigious positions in our society. Second, he hypothesized that the reasons for differences in ability and interest among men and women cannot be ascribed to sex-role socialization. And third, he posited that discrimination in the science and engineering workplace may not exist.

Some of us at the meeting challenged President Summers' hypotheses on the following grounds. The notion that plum positions require an 80-hour workweek, and that many women are unwilling or unable to commit to this for a variety of reasons, is an outdated mythology that is unsubstantiated. The hypothesis that nature trumps nurture every time is supported neither by the research reported at the conference nor by many of the results that have been reported in the popular press in the last two weeks. President Summers' hypothesis, based on economic models, that discrimination in the science and engineering workplace may no longer exist is unequivocally refuted by research and by my own actual experiences and those of numerous others.

The good news is that the international reaction to President Summers' statements represents a global “teachable moment.” Individuals and organizations around the world are revisiting the issue of equal representation of women and minorities in science and engineering. Many are learning more about and doing more in this important arena. For example, President Summers and the Harvard faculty are developing plans to address the recruitment and retention of women faculty. I applaud the promise by President Summers to reverse the precipitous drop in offers of tenure to women in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and wish him and my colleagues at Harvard every success in this endeavor. The whole world is watching to see how this story unfolds.

Denice Denton is currently dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Washington. On February 14, she will become the ninth chancellor of the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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