Geek Feminism Wiki

Lawrence Summers is currently the Charles W. Eliot University Professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. He was the Director of the White House's National Economic Council until November 2010, and from 2001 until 2006, was the President of Harvard University. In 2011, he joined the Board of Directors of Square.[1]

Sexist statements regarding women in science[]

Summers was invited to speak at the 2005 National Bureau of Economic Research Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce. In his remarks, he addressed "the issue of women's representation in tenured positions in science and engineering at top universities and research institutions", He opened his speech by framing the remarks to follow as the asking of questions and "attempts at provocation", and stated that he was attempting to adopt an "entirely positive, rather than normative approach".

Summers stated that there existed "three broad hypotheses" as to why women are underrepresented in tenured science and engineering positions, and that, in order of importance, these hypotheses were:

  1. the "high-powered job hypothesis": that women are underrepresented in tenured science & engineering positions because these positions require a near-total commitment to one's job, "a large number of hours in the office", etc, and that fewer women than men are prepared to make this commitment;
  2. the "different availability of aptitude at the high end" hypothesis: that women are underrepresented because they have, on the whole, less intrinsic aptitude in science and engineering, and further that a small difference in aptitude would make a large difference in the overall numbers of women performing at a high enough level to assume a tenured position;
  3. the "socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search" hypothesis: that women are underrepresented in tenured science & engineering positions because they are socialized so as to discourage pursuit of science and engineering careers, and because search committees discriminate against women, either overtly or passively.

He further says that his "sense is that the unfortunate truth" is that the combination of hypotheses #1 and #2 "probably explains a fair amount" of the problem of womens' underrepresentation in tenured science and engineering positions.

He issued a letter of apology five days later, saying that he "was wrong to have spoken in a way that has resulted in an unintended signal of discouragement to talented girls and women".


Considerable media attention was given to the story.

Numerous academics and academic institutions responded to Summers' remarks, many of whom pointed out extensive research, ignored by Summers, that contradicts his two favoured hypotheses and supports the one he weights the least:

  • WISELI: "women who do put in 80-hour weeks do not reap the same rewards as men." [2]
  • WISELI: "Summers glosses over a vast body of research on gender differences in science and math tests, including recent studies indicating that gender differences in performance on mathematical tests are small and decreasing and that a variety of complex and as yet not fully understood factors, including expectations and stereotype threat, influence performance" [3]
  • American Sociological Association: "Summers' 'call for more research' suggests that there is no overwhelming body of serious scholarship that informs this topic. Yet there is substantial research that provides clear and compelling evidence that women, like men, flourish in science, just as in other occupational pursuits, when they are given the opportunity and a supportive environment." [4]
  • American Sociological Association: "Measures of gender differences in such areas as verbal, mathematical, and spatial abilities have changed over time showing virtually no differences at the present time." [5]
  • American Sociological Association: "Studies show that social and cultural assumptions and stereotypes about differences in women's and men's abilities are the cause of noticeable differences in their interests and performance. Not surprisingly, therefore, such assumptions also have a larger impact on judgments about people's potential job performance and success....Sociological research provides ample empirical evidence of the importance of social phenomena in creating the gender gap in science and math achievement at the highest levels and, therefore, why it is a social problem." [6]