White People Can’t Do Chemistry

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This article was prepared for the March 9, 2005 issue of U.S. 1

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Between The Lines

A female scientist responded to Richard K. Rein’s February 9 column

that discussed the storm around remarks made by Lawrence Summers,

Harvard University president. At the time of Mary Jo Egbert’s letter,

Harvard University faculty members were threatening to take a vote of

no confidence at the next faculty meeting. As it happened, the vote

did not take place, but some did threaten to call for a vote at the

next faculty meeting, scheduled for March 15.

Egbert, a chemist at a pharmaceutical company, is past vice president

of the New Jersey Association for Women in Science and this year’s

leader of the Youth Association for Women In Science. Egbert’s op-ed

piece follows:

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White People Can’t Do Chemistry

Faculty members at Harvard will be taking an historic vote of

no-confidence against their president, Lawrence Summers, this week –

and Summers is trying to delay the vote. No wonder. Here is what

scientists know that the general public does not: Summers’ reasoning


In his now-famous remarks, Summers placed female defects in "natural

aptitude" second in his list of three reasons that, he posited, cause

women to be underrepresented in math and science. The ensuing furor

among nonscientists has shown cluelessness on both sides. The left has

suggested that Summers should never have "gone there" – not addressed

in public the obvious discrepancies in achievement in women in the

math and science fields in relation to men; and the right has argued

that Summers is being punished for "politically incorrect" remarks

about a taboo subject. Both are wrong. The reason that Lawrence

Summers should lose his job this week is simple: sloppy thinking.

Academic rigor means that if you throw out a hypothesis, you had

better be able to consider data about it. The data, as Summers’

better-informed faculty knows well, is famous in the world of science,

and it badly undercuts his thesis. A major study’s data, by Kuck,

Marzabadi, Buckner and Nolan of Seton Hall, was published in the

March, 2004, Issue of Journal of Chemical Science. It was titled

"Achieving Gender Equity in Chemistry." In other words, Summers shot

his opinion out to an audience that knew that this major study was

recently published in one of the country’s premiere journals of


The study is the culmination of 15 years of research following 1,950

top women and men PhDs in science into their careers. It categorically

proved that women are less likely than their equally capable male

peers to advance in the sciences for two clear reasons: first, male

mentors promote male students to good jobs and female students, just

as qualified, go unsupported; and second, women in the sciences leave

the field midcareer because of a combination of family demands,

unequal pay, discrimination, and conditions of stagnated promotion in

"a climate that is chilling and isolating."

Does early support matter? In science, yes. Kuck found that men were

twice as likely as women to have had their faculty or thesis advisor

land them their first job. With that unequal academic start, the rest

of the results became clearer: women chemists later had, according to

the American Chemical Society’s salary data base, a wage gap at all

levels compared with men.

Finally, respondents mentioned discrimination as a discouraging

factor. I was vice president of the New Jersey Association for Women

and Science, and a chemist at the leading cosmetic company. Despite my

credentials, a senior engineer told me – on the job -, "If you don’t

want to go with me – there are plenty of other ‘hoes’ in this


The outcome over time, for women scientists? Not surprising: it is

hardly a brain drain – more like a stroke: 36 percent of women

surveyed became so disgusted with the combination of discrimination

and sexual harassment that they left the field of chemistry


Two parallel science careers show how this missed first step plays out

– at the same for-profit research company: A young woman I knew

graduated from Rutgers University with a B.S. in biochemistry.

Unsupported by a male advisor, her best job offer was to become an

in-house chemist at a soup company. There is no room for creativity in

this kind of work; she works crazy hours, often at breakneck speed.

There is no time for discussion with colleagues; rarely does she have

a chance to leave the lab. She comes home tired and depressed,

thinking about leaving the field, uncertain she can ever start a

family, and wondering why she needed a bachelor of science-level

degree in order to perform high-school-science level tests on soup all


Another scientist whom I will call Ken Jones holds the same

credentials. With his advisor’s help, he got a job as a status-heavy

research and development chemist. He creates new soups – or develops a

better way to cook an old formula for soup. He is in a visible

leadership role, which encourages creativity. Ken can work 9 to 5, or

even choose his own hours – allowing him to have a career and a family

at the same time. He has the opportunity to meet with key

decision-makers at his company on a weekly basis. The very nature of

his work enables him to establish new contacts outside the company.

Ken is going to stay in biochemistry; Tina, unsurprisingly, is going

to quit.

What is the biggest problem of the woman chemist? Not her wiring. It

is people like Larry Summers being in positions of power at the start

of her career.

I am sure Summers has heard by now from the outraged Harvard alums who

are "Catholic stockbrokers" and "Jewish farmers," both groups he

identified as lacking aptitude for their professions. I am surprised

he left out invective against the natural aptitude for science of

white people, since over 50 percent of chemistry PhDs are now

foreign-born students of color.

But Summers’ biggest gaffe is not polemical: it is academic. Larry

Summers should lose his job not because he said the unsayable – all

premises should be open to an investigation in an academic context.

Rather, he should lose his job for an academically classic reason: his

demonstration of shockingly substandard thinking.

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