The National Organization of Women and the Hounding of Larry Summers

On January 14, 2005, Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers made certain remarks at a Science and Engineering Workforce Project conference at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Those remarks provoked enormous debate. This post sketches out the situation, for its own merits and also for mention in a subsequent post.

The agenda for that 2005 conference identified four core questions for discussion. One of those questions was, “What forces have facilitated/impeded [the] progress” of “women and underrepresented minorities” in increasing “their share of S&E [i.e., science and engineering] degrees in the past two decades”?

Summers presented the gist of his remarks as follows:

There are three broad hypotheses about the sources of the very substantial disparities that this conference’s papers document and have been documented before with respect to the presence of women in high-end scientific professions. One is what I would call the — I’ll explain each of these in a few moments and comment on how important I think they are — the first is what I call the high-powered job hypothesis. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and the third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search. And in my own view, their importance probably ranks in exactly the order that I just described.

In other words, Summers suggested that three different factors might explain why, as of 2005, there continued to be a large difference between the numbers of men and women in leading scientific positions. As summarized by Steven Pinker (2005), the first of those reasons was that “women make up only 20 percent of the workforce in science, engineering, and technology development” because “child-rearing, still disproportionately shouldered by women, does not easily co-exist with professions that demand Herculean commitments of time.” The second reason had to do with “gender disparities.” The third, in Pinker’s words, was “the persistence of discrimination, discouragement, and other barriers.”

The ensuing firestorm was focused on Summers’s “gender disparities” remarks, regarding the second of those three factors. Women’s groups (at Harvard and elsewhere) were outraged. Their outrage is commonly cited as one of the key factors contributing to the early termination of Summers’s career as president of Harvard.

What did Summers say to deserve that outrage? Here is how Diana Furchtgott-Roth develops the “gender disparities” point (which the reader can check against the fourth paragraph of Summers’s verbatim remarks):

It may be politically incorrect to say so at a conference with female professors in attendance, but yes, there are innate biological differences between men and women. Not just the usual visible differences, but there’s a substantial literature showing that men are concentrated at the ends of statistical distributions. We see more male Nobel prize winners, and more men in jail or on drugs.

It’s common knowledge that males generally score higher on quantitative tests. The 2012 data from the College Board regarding SAT scores show boys averaged higher on the SAT math portion, scoring an average of 532 versus 499. Girls averaged higher on the writing portion, with a score of 494 compared to 481 for males.

A similar pattern was evident in Graduate Record Examinations score data for men and women. In 2012 men performed better on quantitative reasoning, with an average of 154 versus 149. Women scored better on writing.

These latest data fit in with a series of studies by the Educational Testing Service, which collects decades of data on male and female scores. ETS researchers Warren W. Willingham and Nancy Cole, in a book entitled Gender and Fair Assessment, published in 1997, found that girls had lower math and science scores than boys, especially at the highest fractions of the distribution.

Another ETS researcher, Richard J. Coley, produced similar results in a study entitled “Differences in the Gender Gap: Comparisons Across Racial/Ethnic Groups In Education and Work.” Coley found that in each ethnic category, namely White, Black, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American, males scored higher on Advanced Placement Biology and Calculus, SAT math, and the quantitative section of the GRE.

The key phrase in that quotation appears at the end of the penultimate paragraph: “especially at the highest fractions of the distribution.” Summers was speaking specifically about the top-end leaders: “physicists at a top twenty-five research university” who would be “three and a half, four standard deviations above the mean in the one in 5,000, one in 10,000 class.” In other words, if you are looking at the people who will be the next-generation leaders in physics at MIT, you will tend to be looking at males, because most of the people whose abilities make them first among 10,000 contestants in physics will be male.

Summers provoked a firestorm, not because he was saying anything false, discriminatory, or strange, but simply because, in the words of Furchtgott-Roth, “Feminists prefer to believe that discrimination holds women back,” whereas Summers characterized discrimination as the last and least of the three factors responsible for the scarcity of women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) professions.

So Summers did not say that women in general are inferior to men in math and science, as many claimed. As Furchtgott-Roth reports (above), women do not presently have higher mean or median math and science scores than men. But they could. Either way, that would be irrelevant to the point Summers was making. He was not talking about the average person. He was talking about the extreme cases — about the variability in the numbers, not about their central tendency. He referred, for example, to “being an aeronautical engineer at MIT or being a chemist at Berkeley” — not to simply “succeed[ing] in [generic] careers in science and mathematics,” as some clown at NBC phrased it. Ironically, some remarks by women who fed into the outrage suggested that they, personally, had no grasp of his elementary statistical reasoning. If they had understood it, they would have seen that that aspect of their complaint was foolish.

An article in the Harvard Crimson, following Summers’s presentation, contrasted the views of Claudia Goldin, a Harvard economist “whose own research has examined the progress of women in academia and professional life,” against those of MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins, whose research background has nothing to do with such matters. Goldin felt that Summers’s remarks displayed “utter brilliance” (see also the remarks by female Princeton graduate students and the Wikipedia summary) while Hopkins was widely reported to have stormed out of the room upon hearing Summers’s remarks, rather than stay and participate with others in the question-and-answer period that followed. The Crimson quoted Hopkins as saying, “He shouldn’t admit women to Harvard if he’s going to announce when they come that, hey, we don’t feel that you can make it to the top.” This was, again, a gross distortion of what Summers actually said.

Hopkins, and others like her, essentially engineered an ambush. According to the conference organizers, as reported in the Crimson piece, Summers was invited “to come and be provocative” because “he has an extremely powerful and interesting mind.” But then, when he accepted the invitation and dared to cite research for the propositions noted above, certain bigoted women seized upon the opportunity to falsify what he had said, exaggerate their own reactions, and create a scandal for the purpose of curtailing his career.

In the words of one of the conference organizers, “If I disagree with you, I should tell you why I disagree with you and what the evidence for my point is. It shouldn’t be that I leave the room and call up a reporter and complain there.” Hopkins did not only contact a female reporter at the Boston Globe; she also parlayed her opportunity into interviews with national media, including ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

According to a chronology assembled by staffers at the Anita Borg Institute, the National Organization of Women (NOW) promptly issued a statement calling for Summers’s resignation. At the location cited by that chronology, however, the NOW statement is no longer available. Searches of the NOW website, both internally and via Google, offer no trace of that statement. That seems odd, given NOW’s continuing attention to Summers over the years.

Fortunately, I found a copy of NOW’s 2005 statement in archives at the University of Wisconsin, linked to from a collection of links related to Summers’s remarks. The statement contains numerous quotes from NOW’s then-president Kim Gandy. It does not contain a single quote from Summers. It rants at length about his “sexism and ignorance” and essentially rejects his apology. Its only explanation of precisely what was wrong about his remarks was this:

In Summers’ Jan. 14 remarks, he proposed that innate genetic differences between the sexes may be one explanation for why fewer women succeed in math and science careers. . . . “The notion that women are innately inferior to men is simply archaic,” said Gandy.

As noted above, that is not what Summers proposed — and in any event, what Gandy says is wrong: the notion she describes is not archaic. As Furchtgott-Roth (above) said, research and common sense had made clear by 2005, and have made even more clear by 2014, that in fact there are many tasks in which women are innately inferior to men, and many others in which men are innately inferior to women. To quote Pinker again,

[M]en are, on average, better at mental rotation and mathematical word problems; women are better at remembering locations and at mathematical calculation. Women match shapes more quickly, are better at reading faces, are better spellers, retrieve words more fluently, and have a better memory for verbal material. Men take greater risks and place a higher premium on status; women are more solicitous to their children.

To suggest that the sexes are equal in abilities across the board is nonsense. There is an enormous quantity of material, some utilized by feminists themselves, discussing various ways in which men and women enjoy divergent advantages. What is archaic — what has been disproved by trends in women’s preferences and noted by people like Summers, in that same presentation — is the 1970s feminist fiction that women are, or that they even want to be, like men across the board.

One wishes this were all just ancient history, just one more dismal report from the worst years of the gender wars. Sadly, that is not the case. Some of the women who were misrepresenting male words and deeds in prior decades, who evidently take pleasure in destroying men’s careers, are still around. I know this from personal experience, and I saw it in the response, last year, to the news that Larry Summers was being considered for the position of Federal Reserve chair. In August 2013, NOW’s president was prepared to carry on in her predecessor’s footsteps, opposing the appointment of this brilliant economist to that important national position on grounds that “He’s a sexist who isn’t that good at his job.” (It was not clear which job she was alluding to. Summers had made millions since leaving Harvard.)

So here we were, eight years later, still being treated to NOW’s same old unsupported claim of sexism, while NOW simultaneously advanced its own prejudicial agenda, seeking appointment of a woman (Janet Yellen) to the job because of her sex. It was just one more installment in NOW’s continuing pattern of irresponsible attacks on Summers, made without any apparent consideration of what advocacy for Janet Yellen might do to the nation’s economy. It’s not that Yellen was unsuited; it’s not that I would prefer Summers. The point here is that NOW’s support was based on blatant sex discrimination, not on a careful analysis of relevant qualifications.

This is the sort of behavior that leads many men and women to distrust organizations like NOW. The leaders of such organizations — all too often, holdovers from the bad old days — still prioritize their personal anger and self-righteousness over the best interests of those who look to them for reliable guidance. Consider these words from Christine Hoff Sommers in 2008:

In my view, the noble cause of women’s emancipation is being damaged in at least three ways by the contemporary women’s movement. First, today’s movement takes a very dim view of men; second, it wildly overstates the victim status of American women; and third, it is dogmatically attached to the view that men and women are essentially the same. . . . [In my book, Who Stole Feminism?] I showed how feminism was being hijacked by gender war eccentrics in the universities. And when I say eccentric I mean it. . . .

[F]alse assertions, hyperbole and crying wolf undermine the credibility and effectiveness of feminism in general. The world badly needs a sober, responsible and reality-based women’s movement. But groups of American women, captive to the illusion that they themselves are still being oppressed, are not going to be helpful in building that movement. . . .

[A]s a philosophy professor and as someone who respects rationality, objective scholarship, and intellectual integrity, I continue to be appalled to find distinguished university professors and prestigious publishers disseminating falsehoods. It is shameful.

In the end, the Larry Summers episodes tell a terrible tale about female faculty in American universities. They ganged up on him. They never forgave; they did not even try to understand. They saw an opportunity, and they took it. In many instances, the most educated of them were, dismayingly, among the worst, using their positions and their abilities to distort and disparage. Eight years later, they were still at it, still purveying the same nonsense about him. If they could do it to the president of Harvard, they could surely do it to me too — and, as I say, they did.

There are signs that some of this may be changing. This post provides, from two female scholars, lengthy quotes that did not exist or were just being written when I was going through my ordeal at the Indiana University School of Social Work. Those quotes demonstrate that there are some women, within some universities, who do not brook the incoherent groupthink of organizations like NOW.

Unfortunately, universities change slowly. For purposes of men like Larry Summers and me, it is not clear when, or if, there will ever be a critical mass of truthful, independent-thinking female university professors, sufficient to seek diligent reversal of the abuses committed by the sisterhood of what Sommers calls the “eccentrics” — frankly, the flakes — who preceded them.


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