Wednesday, February 2

Can Harvard Ever Play a Positive Role for Women in Higher Education?


Some 40 years ago, when I was applying to graduate schools for a Ph.D. in economics, I had an interview with a prominent Harvard University professor. Not more than two minutes into the interview, he asked me, "Are you normal?"

"What do you mean?" I asked, puzzled.

"Well, do you want to get married and have a child?"

"I'm already married."

"Well then, why would you want a Ph.D.?"

I don't remember much of what he said after that. I left feeling deflated and distressed. Although I applied to Harvard anyway, I was not surprised when a curt rejection letter appeared some months later.

Happily, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had a quite different reaction to my application. It not only accepted me, but also provided me with a full fellowship and a stipend, and I enrolled there the following fall. I was one of two women in my class of 35. There was not a single female faculty member in either the economics department or the Sloan School of Management, where I also took courses.

In my time as a student at MIT, I felt the lack of female companionship and advice, but never any discrimination, either from professors or from fellow students. And when it came time to find a faculty position, I got the same careful career counseling as all the other students. I've gone on to have both a family and a productive and satisfying academic career at Stanford University.

When I read that, at a recent conference on women and science, the current president of Harvard, Lawrence H. Summers, said that perhaps the dearth of women in science careers is explained by gender differences in math ability as well as by women's unwillingness to combine family with a demanding academic career, I thought back to his former colleague in the economics department whose comments had had such a chilling effect on me. How, I wondered, do female students at Harvard feel knowing that the leader of their institution sees them as lesser? And does Harvard still think that it is "abnormal" for women to want families and high-powered careers?

But the remarks of my interviewer and those of Mr. Summers differ significantly -- and not just because one spoke in private as an individual professor and the other in public, representing his institution. My interviewer 40 years ago was prejudiced, but not ill informed. His comments to me were made well before the burst of psychological and sociological studies that show that gender differences in performance on mathematics tests and women's achievements in highly male environments are greatly influenced by social factors, and that discrimination has ill effects on both aspirations and performance. Mr. Summers could and should have been better informed than my bygone interrogator.

In this day and age, it should be impossible for a leader of one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning to achieve that position without a clear understanding of the importance of social influences on women's aspirations and achievements. The Harvard community needs to ask itself some hard questions about its presidential-selection process. How did someone so ignorant of key findings concerning women in higher education become president? Was the selection process flawed, resulting in a failure to examine candidates' views about women? Were all candidates asked about their understanding of the reasons for the dearth of female faculty members, particularly in the hard sciences, and about the strategies they would use to increase their numbers? Were all of them asked to meet and talk seriously with faculty women, particularly in the sciences?

In thinking of Mr. Summers's remarks, I find it impossible not to contrast him with Charles M. Vest, MIT's most recent past president. In 1999, when faculty members at MIT sent a report to Mr. Vest showing how that university seriously disadvantaged its tenured female professors, he publicly admitted that MIT discriminated against women (yes, he actually used the D word), and promised to work hard to level the playing field. He didn't say that women couldn't hack the research-university schedule, or that they scored lower on math tests. Instead, he called a meeting of presidents of eight other elite universities, as well as a few senior women from those institutions, to examine how each institution might set in motion a process to increase the number of senior women in science on their faculties and ensure their fair treatment. I was at that meeting, and Mr. Vest's leadership, both practical and symbolic, was obvious throughout.

Not only did Mr. Vest put MIT at the forefront of the fight to increase the number of female faculty members in science and engineering and to ensure their fair treatment, but MIT's board of trustees also chose a female scientist, Susan Hockfield, to succeed Mr. Vest as the university's president.

Harvard and MIT are role models in higher education. In the same way that MIT has been a positive role model for women in science and engineering nationally, and indeed internationally, it is possible that Mr. Summers's remarks will have a negative effect. That is why his statement has created such a stir among female faculty members and administrators all over the world.

Mr. Summers reportedly was asked to be "provocative" at the conference. Will other college presidents seek to be equally "provocative," putting out their own poisonous sexism into the atmosphere? Will Mr. Summers's remarks lend credence to sexist speech? Will it become even more difficult for women who are already fighting an uphill battle for recognition of their talents? Will these women come to think that their fight is too difficult, or that they really are unworthy? We need every talented person possible to seek achievement in science and engineering. It would be sad, indeed, if Mr. Summers's remarks served to dissuade and discourage women or gave succor to those who wish to ensure their failure.

Since making his remarks at the conference, Mr. Summers has apologized and insisted that those comments have been misconstrued. He has an opportunity now to show that this is true. Economists are enthusiasts of human-capital renewal -- keeping up with new knowledge. A good deal of social-science literature exists that should be on Mr. Summers's desk. Moreover, Harvard should take action now.

Under Mr. Summers's administration, Harvard has lagged in hiring female faculty members. Recently he said that he sought to change that pattern. If Harvard were to become a leader in hiring women, particularly in the hard sciences, we might be more likely to think that Mr. Summers indeed meant something other than what he is reported to have said. Or perhaps we would think that he had done some new reading since his remarks.

As for me, I can't help noticing that Harvard and MIT seem to be as different today as they were 40 years ago.

Myra H. Strober is a professor of education and business (by courtesy) at Stanford University.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 51, Issue 22, Page B14