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Women and Science: A Look at Harvard Pres. Larry Summers

StoryJanuary 25, 2005
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Harvard University president Lawrence Summers created a firestorm earlier this month for claiming that women have less innate scientific ability than men. We speak with the Nancy Hopkins, the MIT professor who walked out of Summers’ speech as well as Dave Targan, the Dean of Science Programs at Brown University. [includes rush transcript]

Harvard University president and former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers created a firestorm earlier this month for suggesting that women have less innate scientific ability than men.

Summers initially defended his comments, maintaining he was merely suggesting that the role of discrimination and innate abilities of women and men in the sciences need further research and apologized only for a “misunderstanding.”

However, after a flood of commentary and condemnation in the media and the academic community, Summers reversed course last week in an open-letter saying “I did not say, and I do not believe, that girls are intellectually less able than boys, or that women lack the ability to succeed at the highest levels of science. As the careers of a great many distinguished women scientists make plain, the human potential to excel in science is not somehow the province of one gender or another.”

Summers is also now developing a set of initiatives to bolster the status of women within Harvard where they continue to face a greater challenge getting tenured positions.

  • Nancy Hopkins, Professor of Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She walked out in protest of Larry Summers speech.
  • David Targan, Dean of Science Programs at Brown University in Rhode Island.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by the professor who walked out on his speech. Nancy Hopkins is a biology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And we’re joined by the Dean of Science programs at Brown University, Dave Targan. He also runs the Women in Science and Engineering program there. We begin with Professor Hopkins. Where did Professor — or President Summers say this, and what happened when he did?

NANCY HOPKINS: Well, he said this at a meeting, the subject of which was how to address the under-representation of women and minorities in the science and engineering profession. And, so, there were many talks about the numbers, and then about what to do about the numbers, programs, and policies. And this was a conference held at an affiliate, I guess, of Harvard’s at — in Harvard Square here. So, he came in as a lunchtime speaker, and made these remarks.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did you do?

NANCY HOPKINS: What did I do?


NANCY HOPKINS: Well, he made these remarks, and I should say this was really a prepared address. These weren’t sort of casual remarks. He had certainly thought them out. And I certainly was convinced that they were his beliefs. And after he said — you know, he gave three reasons that he felt explained the small number of women that we see at the top of science and engineering, and the first one was, they have babies, and the second one was these aptitude differences. And I really found it so inappropriate, in coming from the President of Harvard University, that I felt I should leave, so I did.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, were these comments off the record? Were they supposed to be?

NANCY HOPKINS: I had no indication that they were off the record. I’d never been to an academic conference that was off the record. I don’t know what that means, really. I’m not sure what it would mean. I can’t imagine it, actually; nor can I imagine, you know, the thoughts of the President of Harvard University on such an important topic for the nation, really, being off the record. So, no, I think the answer is no.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the state of women in science in this country, Professor Nancy Hopkins?

NANCY HOPKINS: Well, there’s been a tremendous increase in the number of women and minorities — well, less minorities, this is a problem — but certainly an increase in the number of women getting PhD’s in science and engineering; and what people have been concerned about is the lag in the number of women reaching the highest levels, say, as professors at the leading research universities, for example, in spite of this tremendous increase in the pipeline.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Dean Targan, you’re Associate Professor of physics at Brown University and you are Dean of Science Programs, working in a program, Women in Science and Engineering. What is your response to President Summers’ comments?

DAVID TARGAN: Well, I have a lot of thoughts. I know that in his apology, he, from what I gather, he said that we need to do more research on this, clearly. And the odd thing about it is that, if he had talked to members of his own faculty, if he had talked to people right next to him at M.I.T., there’s so much research that has been done on — that can be acted upon right now on — if we need to do more research on gender differences, on — that’s fine, but we know that so much of the variance in between — in terms of the difference between the numbers of men and women at the faculty levels can easily be accounted for by social factors, that — that he and other people have tended to minimize that if we just take some simple measures that are well-known and easy to do, relatively, we can make great strides. And the fact that he didn’t seem to know this is rather striking.

AMY GOODMAN: This weekend it was — the whole controversy was discussion on the Sunday talk shows, and I was quite astounded to see “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” on ABC in discussion at the end of the conversation with George Will, Claire Shipman, others; and they were in agreement that this is about being p.c. on campus, that you’re not allowed to raise truths, basically, that we all know that there are differences between women and men. Professor Hopkins, your response?

NANCY HOPKINS: Yes, I think this is deeply concerning, and I hope we can correct this, because this is terribly important. This is not about academic freedom and this is not about political correctness at all. This is, as the dean just said, this is about flying in face of all the evidence (of which there’s massive evidence) and just giving your own personal opinion in spite of that evidence, when your opinion is actually very damaging, and you’re a leader the education world. That’s what this is about, and if Summers would release the tape of his talk, I think this could help a lot to make it clear that what he said was not appropriate.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what is the percentage of women at M.I.T., also professors of color at M.I.T.?

NANCY HOPKINS: Well, the percent of women faculty, you have to always look at particular fields, of course. So, you have to look at science versus engineering. You have — you know, and so forth. And these numbers vary a lot depending on the field you’re talking about. So, overall, at M.I.T. the percent of women on the science faculty, that’s six departments of science, is about 14%, and the same percent in engineering.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you know the figures of professors of color in these fields?

NANCY HOPKINS: The percent of minority faculty is about 4%. So, it’s very small. And what you see is, if you look the data, with women, you see that you train a lot of women and they gradually leak from the pipeline. With the minorities, you see that there’s a drop after college, so that they’re not enough getting PhD’s.

AMY GOODMAN: What are you demanding right now, Professor Hopkins?

NANCY HOPKINS: Demanding? Well, I’m delighted that President Summers has, you know, changed his position and made these wonderful advances that claimed he’s going to make for women. This is wonderful. However, I think it’s imperative that he come forward to explain why this is not about academic freedom or political correctness. It definitely is not. And I think that he has a great opportunity to really educate the nation on this incredibly important issue.

AMY GOODMAN: Dean Targan, what would you say to young women who are interested in science right now?

DAVID TARGAN: Well, you know, actually, I think at this moment, it’s a time for teachers and at all levels to really emphasize their support for women in science. They’re — it’s really difficult when you have the president, the leader of one of the lead institutions in the country questioning their own abilities; and at that — when that happens, I think it’s important for all of us faculty members to really reach out and engage our students and make sure that we’re making it clear that we support them and that we expect to engage them in our classrooms, in our labs, and we fully expect them to be successful.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Brown Dean, Dave Targan, associate professor of physics, and M.I.T. professor, Nancy Hopkins who walked out on the speech of Harvard President, Lawrence Summers.

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