The careless comments made by Harvard President Lawrence Summers have drawn considerable criticism, and rightfully so. The question of whether innate gender differences as to scientific and mathematical aptitude should be discussed is besides the point of Summers being the one to make the suggestion. Summers is not simply an academic-he is the chief official of the most prestigious university in the United States. A comment as careless as his can have a chilling effect-not just as to female students, but also as to female faculty and staff. Summers certainly has the right to say what he wants, but as an individual in a position of power, he has a responsibility to not say everything that comes to mind.
The comments from Summers are all the more concerning in light of the declining number of senior faculty offers being extended to female professors by the University. Summers must be careful that he does not end up creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby talented female academics become discouraged from applying to Harvard in the belief that they are unwelcome here.
The law school also has its own problem of resolving the gender disparity in the faculty. Despite a vastly greater number of male professors, the law school this year extended tenure offers to three men, zero women. As women are getting ever closer to making up over half of the legal profession (they currently make up over half of law students nationwide) it will become increasingly imperative for HLS to respond to the shift by hiring many of the talented female legal scholars who are becoming increasingly more common at other law schools.
The silver lining in Summers’ comments is that these issues have now come to the forefront and cannot be ignored any longer. Now would be a good time for a public discussion as to why female faculty are not being hired in the same numbers as men and what role academia plays in shaping expectations.
Such a discussion will certainly involve asking tough questions about biology, economics, socialization, etc. But as that discussion evolves, Summers and other institutional leaders should resist the urge to throw out unproven theories that can end up causing more harm than good in the struggle to achieve gender equality.