Although Summers' original comments were made in closed sessions to an academic group -- and are therefore not available for public scrutiny -- critics were quick to take to the barricades. For example, Hopkins later told the Boston Globe, "It is so upsetting that all these brilliant young women [at Harvard] are being led by a man who views them this way." She went on to describe studies that, according to the Globe, "indicate that women score higher on math tests if there are fewer men in the room while they are taking the test." Perhaps the Globe misrepresented Hopkins' statement; Hopkins is an accomplished scientist who should know better than to attribute a cause-and-effect relationship to such specious data.
But Hopkins is also an outspoken feminist. She made a name for herself in the mid-1990s by charging that MIT discriminated against female scientists, allotting them less lab space and giving them fewer plum assignments. Hopkins later led a university-appointed group to study her own charges, which -- surprise, surprise -- found gender discrimination at MIT "subtle but pervasive," even though the group's report fell short of offering evidence of such discrimination in differential salaries, for example. The report nonetheless concluded that gender bias "stems largely from unconscious ways of thinking that have been socialized into all of us, men and women alike."
Summers, an economist, would have trouble accepting that kind of explanation. As he explained to the NBER conferees, if a school practiced that kind of discrimination against women, another school would gain an advantage by hiring them away. Since there is no evidence that is happening, Summer told the Globe "the real issue is the overall size of the pool, and it's less clear how much the size of the pool was held down by discrimination."
He may not have won any friends among the women-as-perennial-victims set, but Summers deserves high marks for opening up for debate some of the shibboleths of academe.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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