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Harvard president’s comments inappropriate

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, January 27, 2005

When I returned to my room after class Wednesday I had a voicemail from my mom. She wanted me to read the society portion of the latest Newsweek – something about the president of Harvard, science and the inadequateness of women. What I read in that article blew my mind. Had the president of Harvard University really stated that women are not succeeding in the highest levels of math and science because they lack “innate ability?”

The article went on to point out that throughout the country, women account for nearly half the bachelor’s degrees earned in chemistry and math but only about 10 percent of the faculty. Or how about the fact that only four of 32 female faculty members were offered tenure last year?

I have seen similar studies in the Chicago Tribune conducted by Notre Dame faculty members indicating that Notre Dame also needed to strive for more women in tenure and administrative positions. This is nothing new, nothing I hadn’t heard before, but what really caught me off guard was that there are still highly educated people in positions of authority who might think there are innate differences in the ability of men and women to achieve academically.

Even scarier is that this man, Larry Summers, is supposed to represent the face of premier higher education in America. His statement made a clear mockery of every woman who has devoted her life to science and every woman and girl who aspires to do so. He used an excuse, a bad excuse, to explain why there are not more top-level female researchers and he dismissed the struggles that tenure-track female faculty inevitably face.

Every career-minded woman, in science and beyond, must deal with the issue of a demanding work schedule and the prospects of an adequate family life. However, I would like to suggest to Summers, and anyone who might secretly agree with him, that it is attitudes and society that are inadequate, not the scientific aptitude of women.

Even more disheartening is that women who are entering the doctorate programs are eventually finding themselves disillusioned with the environment, tired of searching for understanding mentors and are ultimately pursuing career options with the government or industry in order to avoid the struggle of climbing the faculty ladder.

The bottom line is that as a female college student navigating through the rigors of a science-based curriculum at a top university, I do not appreciate a former economist telling me what I am innately capable of doing in comparison to my male classmates. I think it is a hard curriculum and I think we’re all in the same boat.

His suggested theory of innate differences appears as a direct parallel to racism (might I add he earlier had a controversy with African-American Studies Harvard faculty), and worse still, his high rank almost lends itself to substantiating that myth as some kind of fact for anyone who wants to believe that women may be just a little bit dumber by nature.

Natalie Bennett


Howard Hall

Jan. 27