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The Summers Affair: Has It Prompted an Effective Plan for Harvard?

AIBS Washington Watch, July 2005

Barton Reppert

In May, with his job on the line, Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers pledged $50 million over the next decade for initiatives to help recruit, support, and promote women and members of underrepresented ethnic groups on the university’s faculty. "We have to do better," Summers admitted; last year only 4 of 32 professors offered tenure on Harvard’s faculty of arts and sciences were women. He observed that "universities like Harvard were designed a long time ago, in many respects, by men and for men. To fully succeed on these issues we’re going to have to address issues of culture."

Several women leaders in the biological sciences say they are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward Harvard’s new diversity initiative and its possible repercussions at other US research universities. Even though women have nearly achieved parity with men in earning doctorates in the life sciences, at many prestigious universities they still lag far behind male colleagues in becoming full professors, department chairs, deans, and senior administrators.

"There is a subterranean prejudice now," says Rita Colwell, chair of Canon US Life Sciences. "No one is going to say, like they said to me when I was asking to go to graduate school, that they don’t waste fellowships on women. They don’t say that now. But there’s still discrimination."

Data from the National Science Foundation’s Division of Science Resources Statistics show that in 2001, women received 44.8 percent of the US doctoral degrees awarded in the biological sciences, compared with only 27.4 percent in mathematics, 24.6 percent in the physical sciences, and 16.8 percent in engineering. However, NSF data also show that in 2001, women accounted for only 3110 (15.8 percent) of the 19,670 doctorate holders employed as full professors in the life sciences at US universities and four-year colleges. For other fields, the figures were 980 women (8.3 percent) of 11,860 full professors in the physical sciences, 530 women (9.1 percent) of 5820 full professors in mathematics, and 250 women (2.7 percent) of 9,210 full professors in engineering.

Judith S. Weis, former AIBS president and a professor of biological sciences at Rutgers University, notes that "it’s not an education thing—women are flocking into biology. Our undergraduate bio majors here at Rutgers are more women than men, and in my lab, I’ve had mostly women graduate students for about a decade.... So it’s not a problem in terms of people getting doctorates." Weis contends that "if you look at where women are in the structure in the universities, the more prestigious the university, the fewer there are on the faculty. You find a structure where the women tend to be clustered near the bottom, in the assistant professor range, and very few women [are] full professors."

Harvard’s Summers ignited a firestorm after making what he thought were off-the-record remarks about whether "intrinsic aptitude" explains in part why women lag behind men in science and engineering. These remarks, offered at a conference held on 14 January, prompted calls for his resignation, and the faculty subsequently adopted a no-confidence motion against the president. In the wake of the controversy, Summers appointed two committees to make recommendations on how to increase the presence of women on the Harvard faculty. On 16 May, he endorsed their proposals, which include improving recruitment, subsidizing faculty salaries, mentoring junior faculty members, extending the time limits on tenure for professors who go on maternity or parental leave, and naming a new senior vice provost to focus on diversity issues.

Donna J. Dean, president-elect of the Association for Women in Science, says, "I have optimism that Harvard can, by some measure, continue to change its environment to be more female-friendly, by genuinely encouraging women to pursue all areas of science and technology, without any encumbrances." Dean and others will be watching to see if the recently announced initiatives make a difference at Harvard.

A biochemist by training, Dean says that however the situation may evolve at Harvard, the Summers affair has had a salutary effect. "I think it’s reinvigorated the dialogue," she says. "I think it has helped people frame things, to be comfortable with saying, ‘Well, we know there are psychological differences between males and females.... We know there are neurophysiological differences. We know that sometimes the brains work differently. But just because the brains work differently doesn’t mean you can’t do math and science.’"

Barton Reppert (e-mail: ) is a freelance writer who reports on science and technology policy issues from the nation’s capital.

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