What Did Larry Summer’s Say About Women’s Ability to Succeed in the Sciences?

Last Thursday at our weekly discussion of specific works in economics, we discussed Backhouse and Bateman’s book, Keynes: Capitalist Revolutionary. At one point in our discussion, Professor Gerard asked which economist today might be viewed as Keynes was in his heyday.  One reasonable answer was Larry Summers who, as noted here, has held numerous positions including the presidency at Harvard University.  Are there other reasonable answers?  I think so.  Paul Krugman might be a good candidate for a “contemporary” Keynes.

Despite interest in who might be today’s Keynes, this posting addresses remarks that Summers made January 14, 2005 at the NBER Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce.  Asked to be provocative, Summers did not disappoint.  What did he say? I strongly encourage you to read the full speech (go here) which contains carefully constructed cautions and references. He posits, in order of strength, three reasons why women are less prominent in scientific fields.

1. Differences between men and women in terms of their willingness to make the incredible time commitments of high powered jobs.

2. Differences between men and women in “availability of aptitude at the high end”

3. Differences between men and women in terms of socialization and patterns of discrimination.

The controversy focuses on the second reason which he states more fully as follows:

It does appear that on many, many different human attributes-height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability-there is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference in means-which can be debated-there is a difference in the standard deviation, and variability of a male and a female population.

Stated differently, he presents some evidence for the claim that there are more males than females at both the high and low end of the distribution of mathematical and scientific ability.  This is a statement about variance, not about means. I believe, as does Claudia Goldin, “whose own research has examined the progress of women in academia and professional life” , that Summer’s arguments are constructive food for thought and deserve serious reflection.

My suspicion is that few people have read Summers’ remarks but have settled for the soundbites that have found their way into the popular media.  A liberal arts education should encourage you not to settle for these inflammatory simplifications.




One Response to “What Did Larry Summer’s Say About Women’s Ability to Succeed in the Sciences?”

  1. Tom says:

    A good conversation about differences between men and women can be found here: http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2011/11/baumeister_on_g.html