Harvard University President Larry Summers suggested last month (at a conference held at MIT) that innate differences between men and women might be a reason so few women reach the highest levels of academia in the science fields. A female MIT professor walked out of the room, disgusted by Summers’ remark; and Summers subsequently received such bad press and negative response that he issued several public apologies. Why did he apologize for doing what he was asked to do? He was asked to give possible reasons for the numerical disparity between the sexes in scientific fields at the nation’s top universities. He cited a study on innate differences in men’s and women’s aptitudes for math. He did not endorse the study or the view that men are naturally smarter in mathematics than women; he simply suggested a possible reason for the disparity. Instead of listening to what Summers had to say, exploring all of the possibilities, and working toward a better understanding of the topic, a professor walked out of the room, and Summers took a media beating. At the first hearing of an opinion she did not like, this professor left the room. Why not stay at the discussion table? Why not hear all of the possibilities and examine each one? It is just like those who are all for free speech, unless you say something they don’t like. If progress is ever to be made in any area, be it gender gaps or race relations or anything else, we cannot get mad at the first sign of an opinion contrary to our own and end the policy debate. So much good could have come out of this MIT conference; instead, all that has come about has been an assault on Summers. At the end of the day, nothing has been done to improve the representation of women in the sciences, which was the goal in the first place. The professor who walked out and all of those who have castigated Summers are doing what one of my professors calls “hurting the people you are trying to help.” Perhaps at the next conference, everyone can stay in the room and work toward a solution. If so, we can help the people we are trying to help.
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