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