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The Larry Summers saga - women’s scientific aptitude and the truth about choice

By Leslie Cannold - posted Thursday, 24 March 2005

Harvard’s outspoken President Larry Summers is in the poo.

Since the middle of January, when he theorised that an important reason for the shortage of tenured female scientists and engineers in American’s top universities and researcher institutions was women’s lack of “instrinsic aptitude”, calls for his resignation have been coming thick and fast. His defenders have fought back, insisting that Summers has been unfairly shouted down by a politically correct cadre of feminists.

A transcript of Summers’ remarks on the Harvard website show his speculation on the causes of female scientific and mathematical under-achievement was three-pronged. Discrimination plays a small part, Summers opined, but the rest of the problem could be slated home to women’s natural mediocrity (their under-representation in the left tail of a bell curve measuring scientific and mathematical IQ), and their unwillingness to work hard.


But while it has been his claims about female biology that have caused him so much grief, it was the Harvard President’s “high-powered job” thesis that really irked me.

Essentially, it re-badges institutional gender inequity as the morally neutral consequences of women’s work and family “choices”. High-powered jobs, says Summer, demand 80-hour-weeks, time flexibility, continuous and diligent effort throughout the lifecycle and a mind that is “always working on the problems that are in the job, even when the job is not taking place”. Married men, says Summers, have historically been more “prepared” to make this “commitment” than married women.

There’s no doubt that the thesis that women (bless their deep and karmically balanced souls) are “opting out” of the rat race and “redefining success” - rather than bashing their heads against iron ceilings - is extremely popular at the moment. A 2003 cover story in the New York Times Magazine put the case this way. Beneath a photo of a mother and baby cuddling at the foot of a ladder, it asked “Why don’t more women get to the top?” The answer: “They choose not to.”

Convenient? I’ll say. But the trouble is that there’s no evidence that when mothers have real choice, they dump their plans to have the same “all” as men have always enjoyed and sedately file home. Instead, what data there is suggests that when women do give up and accept life on the Mummy-track, a lack of real options to balance work and family is the cause.

The key to all this is the contrast between what choice looks like in the abstract, versus its appearance in the real world. In the abstract, unspoken and patently false presumptions about the full and fair context in which women make decisions about career and family lead to disinterested conclusions that women’s failure to achieve is the consequence of their work “choices”. In the real world, women know they can only make authentic choices consistent with their needs and values when there is an adequate range of high quality options available, and they are free to decide between them.

Here’s just some of what a 2004 US Government Accountability Office report found when it asked women science students and academics why they worked at smaller institutions, taught more, and more often on a part-time basis: behaviour that they all knew significantly reduced their odds of successfully competing against the men in their department for tenure.


First, most female PhD students said they intended to seek a position at a small college, where they’ll teach more and research less, in order to maintain a work family balance. Second, women said they worked part-time more often then men in order to juggle family life with a tenure track position. Third, they complained that because they shoulder the bulk of the second shift at home but their male colleagues don’t, gender-neutral university assistance programs to parents - like an extra year after a baby is born to publish before a tenure decision is made - does nothing more than further advantage their male colleagues in the tenure competition at their expense.

What all this, not to mention logic, suggests is that women “choose” their health, sanity and the well-being of their children and their marriage against their own career advancement in the same way animals caught in steel trap traps “choose” to gnaw off their legs.

And when women aren’t trapped? Anecdotal evidence (and that’s most of what’s around, given the dearth of high-quality family-friendly employment) suggests that they stay, excel, and achieve.

In fact, the only real chance of ever testing Summers’ thesis about the role biology plays in women’s work patterns is to eliminate the effect gender discrimination and bias has on them. Only when the playing field is truly level - both at home and at work - will we know whether men keep rising to the top because they really are the cream.

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First published in The Age on March 14, 2005.

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About the Author

Dr Leslie Cannold is a writer, columnist, ethicist and academic researcher. She is the author of the award-winning What, No Baby? and The Abortion Myth. Her historical novel The Book of Rachael was published in April by Text.

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