Pity the president of Harvard. He's stuck at an institution of learning in the 21st century where to question innate "gender" differences risks the abuse that Galileo took in the 17th century, when he questioned the notion, politically correct for his day, that the earth was the center of the universe.
The cry, predictable enough, went up from the women of academe who regard themselves as the guardians of revealed truth: "Retract. Repent. Resign. The sun revolves around us."
Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard, was invited to speak at an off-the-record economic conference to consider why minorities and women are not more successful in careers in math and science at the nation's top research universities. He tried to be provocative by examining the various reasons suggested by the data compiled by those who study such topics. Silly man.
He first said what has long been obvious to many women, including feminists who observe the obvious - that fewer women than men want to put in the long hours it takes to struggle to the top. Women sometimes prefer allotting more time to family life, even including having babies. He stepped into something resembling a badly soiled diaper when he noted that some studies suggest there may be innate differences between the male and female of the human species.
He cited scores on standardized math and science tests that show more high school boys than girls at the highest and at the lowest levels of achievement in various disciplines. Some studies suggest that this may stem from biological differences.
"I felt like I was going to be sick," said Nancy Hopkins, a biology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She walked out in a state of shock, we hope to seek professional help. "My heart was pounding and my breath was shallow. I was extremely upset."
Could her reaction have been caused by an innate biological difference from the men in assembly, none of whom walked out? Had she left home without putting a vial of smelling salts in her purse? Other women and men present were more measured in their reactions. Quite a few expressed shock that anyone was shocked. Others felt the bluntness to be undiplomatic. Those most offended decried Larry Summers' use of personal anecdote. He told how his own daughter once received two toy trucks and spontaneously gave them personalities, calling one a "daddy truck" and the other a "baby truck." (He didn't say: "Isn't that just like a girl?")
Mr. Summers quickly adopted the defensive crouch so drearily familiar in our public life. He said his attempt at humor misfired and his desire to stimulate a debate over the interplay of innate and natural ability got lost in ideological assumptions. He was not stating an absolute position, but tossing out ideas that required more investigation: "I'm sorry for any misunderstanding but believe that raising questions, discussing multiple factors that may explain a difficult problem, and seeking to understand how they interrelate is vitally important." (He didn't say: "Get a life, ladies.")
It's obvious now to everyone that prejudice in the past held talented women back, that the powerful old-boy network jealously protected its own sex on the ladder to the top. But as women move toward the head of the class and break through glass ceiling after ceiling in a multiplicity of roles, it's clear to everyone but the sheltered denizens of the ivy towers, where no snub, harassment or obstacle goes unimagined, that discrimination against women has diminished radically.
Women themselves are making choices, to mix and match career and home life. Some women are leaving the workplace to savor the joys of hearth and home when their children are young. Women who choose a profession in math and science sometimes factor family life into their goals, too.
If Mother Nature is absolutely neutral in assigning preferences and abilities to men and women, what's the harm in asking how and why? The facts, after all, will out. Shooting the messenger may be more fun, but teaches us nothing except that some men - and women - shoot from the lip.
There's an abundance of anecdotal evidence of parents who were determined to create "gender equal" outcomes with their sons and daughters were later forced to admit that a little boy with the gift of a tiny teapot often turns it into a gun; a little girl who gets a truck often tries to use it as a cradle. If there are innate differences in certain intellectual abilities and talents, so what? So nothing, as long as society doesn't throw up arbitrary obstacles.
Lawrence Summers says Harvard is taking aggressive steps to increase "diversity" on campus. He might start in the faculty lounge.