Larry Summers, the Harvard University president and former Treasury secretary, has never been mistaken for a diplomat. So when you combine someone of Summers's compulsively impolitic instincts with a topic as volatile as gender differences, the ensuing explosion doesn't come as a huge surprise.
Precisely what Summers said about the underrepresentation of women in top academic posts in the sciences isn't certain; his luncheon address to an academic conference was taped, but no transcript has been released. But everyone, Summers included, seems to agree that he at least raised the question of whether "innate differences" between the sexes could account in part for the paucity of women in such jobs. Summers also tagged, as the leading cause of women's scarcity in the hard sciences, the demanding, 80-hour-a-week nature of such careers and the unwillingness of many women with children to make the necessary sacrifices.
"I'm here to provoke you," Summers is reported to have said -- and so he did.
"I felt I was going to be sick," said MIT biology professor Nancy Hopkins, who had led an investigation into hiring practices there. She walked out during Summers's remarks. "My heart was pounding and my breath was shallow," she said. "I was extremely upset." Was there a feminist around -- myself included -- who didn't wince at this bring-out-the-smelling-salts statement?
As might have been expected, some who weren't present took the reported remarks and inflated them, as if Summers had said biological differences were both irrefutably established and the sole cause of the shortfall. Summers has since issued three increasingly lengthy -- and increasingly groveling -- explanation-apologies.
Even a cursory look at the statistics suggests that something is amiss at the intersection of women, science and academia. From chemistry to computer science, from math to mechanical engineering, women are enrolled in doctoral programs in shares that have grown in recent years but that still represent a disturbingly small sliver of their proportion of the population. Yet there is another, even more worrisome drop-off after that; as underrepresented as women are in the PhD ranks, they are even more scarce among the cadre of assistant professors.
Why this is happening seems to be a complex stew whose precise ingredients are unknown. The likely culprits include the absence of female role models and mentors among the tenured faculty; persistent cultural stereotyping; discrimination, perhaps more subtle and unconscious than in the past but nonetheless taking a pernicious toll; and an unwillingness, perhaps in contrast to competing private-sector employers, to adopt flexible, family-friendly policies.
Is it so heretical, though, so irredeemably oafish, to consider whether gender differences also play some role? As the daughter of two scientists and the mother of two daughters, I think not. After all, scientists are reporting day by day about their breakthroughs in understanding the genetic basis of diseases or personality traits. Brain studies of men and women show that the two genders use different parts of their brain to process language. (Men tend to be left-siders, women both-lobers.)
Summers drew fire for relating the story of how he bought a set of trucks for his daughter, only to find her naming them "Daddy Truck" and "Baby Truck." A clumsy and ill-advised anecdote perhaps, but one that resonated with legions of would-be gender-neutral parents of girls. I, for one, have a basement full of Brio train tracks, as pristine as they were pricey. We use the train table to fold our laundry.
Biology may not be destiny, but as we Brio-buyers and truck-swaddlers have discovered, its effects also can't be discounted.
Many of the same people denouncing Summers, I'd venture, believe fervently that homosexuality, for example, is a matter of biology rather than of choice or childhood experience. Many would demand that medical studies be structured to consider differences between men and women in metabolizing drugs, say, or responding to a particular disease. And many who find Summers's remarks offensive seem perfectly happy to trumpet the supposed attributes that women bring to the workplace -- that they are more intuitive, or more empathetic or some such. If that is so -- and I've always rather cringed at such assertions -- why is it impermissible to suggest that there might be some downside differences as well?
Summers (even in his earlier, unexpurgated form) wasn't saying that no individual woman could be a stellar scientist, or mathematician, or engineer, only that overall one gender might be more inclined in that direction than the other. Indeed, if that did prove to be the case, it would be all the more important for educators at every level to nurture and encourage girls and women with scientific promise, and it would make those who achieve at the highest levels all the more valuable in a modern university, or any modern workforce conscious of the cost of gender disparities.
The Summers storm might have been easy to forecast. But it says less, in the end, about the Harvard president than it does about the unwillingness of the modern academy to tolerate the kind of freewheeling inquiry that academics and intellectuals above all ought to prize rather than revile.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.