What Larry Summers and his critics got wrong.

Science, technology, and life.
Feb. 22 2005 3:14 PM

The Girls of Summers

What Harvard's president and his critics got wrong.

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William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

For more than a month, critics have accused Harvard President Larry Summers of using genetics to explain away sexism in society and academia. They've demanded that he release transcripts of the remarks in question, delivered at an academic conference on Jan. 14. On Thursday, facing calls for his resignation, Summers released the transcript. It shows his critics misconstrued or misrepresented him on numerous points. It also shows what he got wrong and why.

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Let's start with his caveats, which eyewitness accounts omitted.

1. He reaffirmed the need to address discrimination. The transcript shows him affirming Harvard's commitment to "the crucial objective of diversity" and urging his audience to address factors that cause women to drop out of academic career paths. Women are among the groups "significantly underrepresented" in an advanced field, he said, and their absence "contributes to a shortage of role models for others."

2. He questioned the rationality of work expectations that discriminate against women. Earlier accounts suggested that when Summers cited very long work hours as a standard women were less likely to accept, he was justifying that standard and its discriminatory result. The transcript shows him making the opposite point: "Is our society right to expect that level of effort from people who hold the most prominent jobs? Is our society right to have familial arrangements in which women are asked to make that choice and asked more to make that choice than men?"He worried about employers' defiance of "legitimate family desires" and suggested that they offer "different compensation packages that will attract the people who would otherwise have enormous difficulty with child care," as well as "extending tenure clocks" and considering other "family benefits."

3. When he said discrimination was the least of three factors in women's underrepresentation, he was talking about discrimination in academic hiring, not discrimination earlier in life. The transcript shows him describing the third factor as "different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search"—i.e., the search for a new faculty hire. Earlier accounts suggested he blew off discrimination as a factor on the grounds that there weren't enough qualified women to hire in the first place. But the transcript shows him drawing a different conclusion from the inadequate pool of female candidates: He and his audience should be "thinking about this as a national problem rather than an individual institutional problem."

4. When he spoke of differences between male and female test scores, he was confining his analysis to a tiny subset. "If one is talking about physicists at a top 25 research university," he argued, the population in question was "in the one-in-5,000, one-in-10,000 class. Even small differences in the standard deviation will translate into very large differences in the available pool." Summers explicitly said he wasn't talking about a difference in average scores.

5. He rejected socialization as the sole factor—not as one factor—in test score differences. Summers said there was "reasonably strong evidence" of differences "that are not easy to attribute to socialization." Afterward, when a critic suggested that the evidence supported an alternative explanation based on socialization, Summers replied, "I don't presume to have proved any view that I expressed here. But if you think there is proof for an alternative theory, I'd want you to be hesitant about that."

6. His story about his daughters was grossly misrepresented. Numerous reports of Summers' remarks noted damningly that he had mentioned his daughters as evidence of innate gender differences. And indeed he did cite "my experience with my two-and-a-half-year-old twin daughters who were not given dolls and who were given trucks, and found themselves saying to each other, 'Look, Daddy Truck is carrying the baby truck.'" But not one report mentioned that this was a minor anecdote appended to a more serious case study: the Israeli kibbutz movement, which, according to Summers, "started with an absolute commitment … that everybody was going to do the same jobs: Sometimes the women were going to fix the tractors, and the men were going to work in the nurseries." Despite this sex-neutral commitment, he said, individual choices "in a hundred different kibbutzes … all moved in the same direction"—toward traditional gender roles. Summers' point wasn't that nature accounted for everything, but that attempts to erase it as a factor had failed. The kibbutzim were the evidence; his daughters were an afterthought.

In short, Summers got a bum rap. So, was his analysis of biological and cultural factors sound? The transcript answers that question, too. The answer is no. Summers grossly overreached the evidence, and he made a couple of glaring logical blunders.

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