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American women’s rights advocates have long been adept at turning sex-based blunders into sex-based opportunities. A classic illustration was the attempt by Southern segregationists to increase opposition to the pending Civil Rights Act of 1964 by adding sex as one of the prohibited forms of discrimination. Women’s rights supporters seized the moment and joined forces with civil rights opponents to secure passage of the additional prohibition. A gaffe earlier this year by Harvard President Lawrence Summers has created another occasion for advancing gender equality. And again, women have taken advantage of the opportunity, as is clear from a recent release of reports by Harvard faculty task forces. The controversy began with remarks Summers offered during a conference of the National Bureau of Economic Research on Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce. He had agreed to come on the condition that he could speak “unofficially” and offer some “attempts at provocation. “He succeeded in that role well beyond expectations. To account for women’s underrepresentation in science and engineering, Summers ventured three explanations. Least important, he said, was gender “socialization”and discrimination. Most important was the “near total commitment to work” expected of those in elite professional positions. Second most important was women’s allegedly inferior mathematical and scientific ability at the “high end”of the performance range. Although he “would like nothing better than to be proved wrong,” Summers indicated that his reading of the data revealed sex differences in “intrinsic aptitude.” In support of his hypothesis, Summers referred specifically only to one study. It had found half as many female as male 12th graders who scored in the top five percent of mathematics and science aptitude tests. In a letter to Summers, Harvard’s Standing Committee on Women noted what should have been obvious: “The president of a university never speaks entirely as an individual.” Assertions about women’s intellectual inferiority raise questions about an administration’s professed commitment to diversity, a commitment that in Harvard’s case was in question. During Summers’ previous four years in office, the percentage of tenured positions in the arts and sciences going to women dropped from 37 percent to 11 percent. Once the controversy erupted, many conservative commentators leapt to Summers’defense. Many became at least temporary converts to the cause of academic freedom, with op-eds in The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal saying it was threatened by “gods of political correctness” and “hysterical” “uber-feminists.” Other, more liberal observers, such as Harvard professors Alan Dershowitz and Richard Freeman, applauded Summers for departing from the usual presidential “pablum” and “babble.” But provocation is not the only alternative to pablum. As Barbara Gorsz, chairwoman of Harvard’s task force on women in science and engineering, noted, the problem with was not that Summers’ comments were “politically incorrect, but that they were just plain incorrect.” His overgeneralization from selective data misrepresented gender research. Assertions about women’s intellectual inferiority have a long history. For centuries, an array of “scientific data” was assembled to justify women’s exclusion from higher education and elite professions. What Summers failed to acknowledge was that many studies show no significant persistent differences between male and female aptitudes for math. Nor is there evidence that small differences in scores at the top range of standardized aptitude tests predict success in math and science. Moreover, sex differences in test scores and academic performance vary considerably across time and culture and are influenced by social expectations. For example, Japanese girls score higher than American boys. And since the late 1960s, women’s representation among Ph.D.s has grown from below 1 percent to about 17 percent in engineering, from 2 percent to 18 percent in physics, and from 12 percent to 44 percent in biological and agricultural science. What has changed is not women’s “innate aptitude,” but social attitudes. So, too, a wealth of data reveals persistent biases that impede women’s advancement in male-dominated fields. Summers offered no evidence for his assumption that those biases were less important than differences in aptitude, which are more contested and less consistently documented. The saga at least had a silver lining; Harvard got two task forces on women and generated an unprecedented demand for accountability on gender issues. The task forces’ recently released recommendations include three central proposals: creation of a new senior vice provost position for diversity and faculty development; new funds to support appointments that would enhance faculty diversity; and a comprehensive system for collecting and reporting data on hiring, retention and quality of life issues. Summers has pledged $50 million in support of the proposed initiatives, and they can serve as a model for many institutions within and outside the academy. Deborah Rhode is the Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law at Stanford Law School.

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