Harvard speech sparks gender debate in sciences

MU faculty members look at the line between provoking debate and breeding sexism.
Monday, February 28, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:17 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 12, 2008

Think about how your life would change if you woke up tomorrow as a member of the opposite sex.

Virginia Peterson, an associate biochemistry professor at MU, does this exercise in diversity with students. It’s meant to get people thinking and talking about how gender shapes our world.

Higher-education institutions are structured as places of discovery and sanctuary for discussing complicated issues such as the influences of gender.

However, the continuing furor surrounding the comments of Harvard President Lawrence Summers last month shows an academic setting doesn’t necessarily sanction easy academic discourse.

Summers spoke about women and minorities in the science and engineering fields at a conference on Jan. 14. He posed theories about how the underrepresentation of women in science and math careers, especially in high-level academic roles, might be linked to gender-based “intrinsic aptitude.”

A flurry of media reports quickly made Summers’ remarks infamous. In the six weeks after his speech, he released the transcripts amid pressure, made numerous public apologies and saw the faculty and students of Harvard divide between supporting him and panning him for both his remarks and the impact they could have on Harvard’s reputation. At a faculty meeting last week, he apologized for his remarks and his management style.

Angela Speck, an assistant professor of physics at MU, first heard about the remarks on National Public Radio.

“My initial reaction was that it was outrageous and dangerous,” Speck said. “Dangerous because when you tell someone they can’t do something — especially someone young and impressionable — they will think that they really can’t do it.”

But she said she knew that she had to read for herself what happened. After reading the transcripts, she saw that the comments often referred to weren’t as big a part of the speech as reported. She sees the attention to the issue as positive.

“Bringing it up so it can be debated is a good thing,” Speck said. “I don’t have a problem with him playing devil’s advocate, or even that people got offended. Because it provoked such a reaction, things can be discussed.”

Peterson said Summers was “putting out a discussion point but wasn’t thinking as a speaker. He could have framed it in a different way. He made people too angry to have a rational discussion.”

According to a transcript of the speech, Summers had “three broad hypotheses.” One was that women hesitate to pursue a high-powered profession that would require long and intense hours because it would conflict with family desires.

The second was that there are differences between men and women in “intrinsic aptitude.” It was these remarks on the variability between men and women in mathematical ability and scientific ability that caused one biologist from MIT to walk out and others to later say they were offended.

The third was “lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination.” Summers proved one point: Provocative comments can get the debate started.

“He told the audience he was posing theories instead of stating truth,” said Wendy Libby, president of Stephens College, whose undergraduate degree is in biology. “In higher education, we like to believe that people can advance theories that are disturbing, that are unpopular, and still get a fair hearing.

“I guess the question really is if offending people is permitted in academic discourse.”

Gordon Christensen, a professor of internal medicine and chairman of the MU Faculty Council, said academicians need to be careful when crossing the line between discussion and offensive remarks.

“I think when people in high-powered positions who oversee the performance of other people — such as a university president, a person teaching a class or a coach — they need to avoid making statements indicating a bias,” he said. “They shouldn’t even have a bias. People who hold power over others need to stay away from perpetuating issues of undeserved disadvantage due to gender, race, religious beliefs, et cetera.”

Kristin Kuttenkuler, an MU junior and engineering major, recently found out the importance of examining women’s involvement in the sciences. She has been the peer adviser for the Women in Engineering Freshman Interest Group for the past two years — but learned recently that the group won’t be continued next year because of lack of numbers. Female engineering students can join the co-ed engineering FIG, but Kuttenkuler said the experience isn’t the same because those FIGs are predominantly male, like MU engineering classes.

“I totally understand why it got cut — I would be tired, too, after trying so hard to recruit for five years and not getting anywhere,” Kuttenkuler said. “It makes me sad, because it really set up a good support system.”

If Speck had been at Summers’ speech, she speculated that she would have stayed after to refute his ideas.

“I would have told him that he has a very naïve and old-fashioned view,” she said. “There are so many factors contributing to this problem, most of all the different ways men and women approach things and what we expect from our lives.”

Peterson said the answers she gets to her waking-up-as-the-opposite-sex scenario give a clue to how differently men and women view gender in society.

“When women envision how their lives would change if they were a man, they often think their lives will be better — they would have more opportunities and freedom,” she said. “Men think it would be terrible — they say they would have to think more about how they look and have more constrictive societal expectations.”

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