Larry Summers’ True Record on Women

In the Huffington Post article Larry Summers’ True Record on Women, Sheryl Sandberg writes an otherwise glowing review of Lawrence Summers’ (former short-term Treasury Secretary and ex-Harvard president) record on women. There was one bit I had to take issue with, however:

To conclude that he communicated poorly — and even insensitively — is fair.

Having read a transcript of Summers’ statements at that conference, I’ll go one further and say that to conclude that he communicated poorly– much less insensitively– is unfair.

Summers raised some points of consideration with regard to why women and men choose certain careers disproportionately. He offered his opinions and personal insights in good faith, and suggested further study.

This inflamed the insecurities of certain people who hold fast to an ideological belief that, when it comes to education and careers, men and women must by necessity start out perfectly equal, and so any imbalance must be caused by social factors. That’s a fine theory to hold, but only if you can support it with evidence instead of ideology. Summers’ detractors on this point are afraid of any competing theories, perhaps because they know their own is on such shaky ground.

The fact is, if you really want to increase the representation of women in fields like math and science (or, conversely, the representation of men in the humanities), you need a firm and grounded understanding of what motivates them to enter certain fields. Social factors no doubt play a role, but if that’s all you focus on, I believe you’ll be sorely disappointed with your results.

Rather than being strung up, Summers should have been lauded for his willingness to enter into the conversation honestly and express points that most in academia seem too cowed to.

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