Why Sexist Larry Summers Shouldn't Get A Cabinet Slot

Illustration for article titled Why Sexist Larry Summers Shouldn't Get A Cabinet Slot

Larry Summers was a popular Treasury Secretary in the Clinton Administration who parlayed his intelligence, academic credentials and popularity into a post as the President of Harvard University. He then turned around and proved that maybe academia wasn't his forté when, in 2005 at a conference sponsored by the National Bureau of Economic Research, he said that biological differences between men and women might account for the relative lack of success of women in math and the sciences and questioned the role discrimination might play in the lack of success for some women.For that reason alone, I'm not particularly sad to hear today that, according to Politico, he's probably off the short list for Treasury Secretary. The National Review's Kathleen Parker, however, disagrees. Of course she does. Parker's thesis is, twofold: one, that of course women being innately bad at math and science is why they don't excel in math and science careers; and wo, that just because Summers once said a "dumb" thing that isn't really that off-the-mark should disqualify him for public office. Of course, Summers remarks were hardly off-the cuff, they were part of his prepared text for his speech that day, so they were something he thought about and concluded was a smart thing to say to a room full of economists. Check out how he prefaced his remarks about women in the sciences:

It is after all not the case that the role of women in science is the only example of a group that is significantly underrepresented in an important activity and whose underrepresentation contributes to a shortage of role models for others who are considering being in that group. To take a set of diverse examples, the data will, I am confident, reveal that Catholics are substantially underrepresented in investment banking, which is an enormously high-paying profession in our society; that white men are very substantially underrepresented in the National Basketball Association; and that Jews are very substantially underrepresented in farming and in agriculture.


These were not some sort of manifestation of foot-in-mouth syndrome, these remarks about women were part of his serious thinking about inequality in our society that included why there aren't more Jewish farmers. By the way, Summers also thinks that one of the major reasons women don't rise to the top of their professions is because they are insufficiently committed to their careers once married.

And the relatively few women who are in the highest ranking places are disproportionately either unmarried or without children, with the emphasis differing depending on just who you talk to. And that is a reality that is present and that one has exactly the same conversation in almost any high-powered profession. What does one make of that? I think it is hard-and again, I am speaking completely descriptively and non-normatively-to say that there are many professions and many activities, and the most prestigious activities in our society expect of people who are going to rise to leadership positions in their forties near total commitments to their work. They expect a large number of hours in the office, they expect a flexibility of schedules to respond to contingency, they expect a continuity of effort through the life cycle, and they expect-and this is harder to measure-but they expect that the mind is always working on the problems that are in the job, even when the job is not taking place. And it is a fact about our society that that is a level of commitment that a much higher fraction of married men have been historically prepared to make than of married women.

I mean, nothing in there about how married men are able to sufficiently commit to their careers because, in many cases, they have wives at home who are socially and otherwise encouraged to sacrifice similar career success in order to deal with the rest of their lives or anything, it's just because women are being selfish, expecting to have lives outside the office. I'm sure that won't bode poorly for any married women with children that would like top jobs in the Treasury Department. And then there are the other remarks for which he has been in my opinion, properly criticized, on women's intelligence and capacity for math and science:

It does appear that on many, many different human attributes-height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability [emphasis mine] -there is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference in means-which can be debated-there is a difference in the standard deviation, and variability of a male and a female population.

Because no one, ever, has shown their to be bias in IQ tests, standardized tests or grading systems, right? These would be things that the President of Harvard ought to know or have known. But, nope, it's obviously not a testing bias that's been thoroughly studied and proven, it's just because women are innately less intelligent and good at math and science than men. In the end, Larry Summers also dismissed the hypothesis that there is a large pool of high-achieving women (or minorities) out there in the world today being actively or passively passed over for jobs because, if there is — wait for it — the market would have solved it by now! Market forces would have caused some organization or institution to gather them all up and hire them (at, naturally, lower salaries than their white male counterparts, since they'd be in lower demand) and thus win out. No, for real, that's what he believes proves his point that it's not really discrimination! And so it's not discrimination or even socialized preference (in which girls are shunted to "girl" subjects") or discrimination, but the fact that women aren't as smart and they are really selfish about wanting to have personal lives.

And there are certainly examples of institutions that have focused on increasing their diversity to their substantial benefit, but if there was really a pervasive pattern of discrimination that was leaving an extraordinary number of high-quality potential candidates behind, one suspects that in the highly competitive academic marketplace, there would be more examples of institutions that succeeded substantially by working to fill the gap. And I think one sees relatively little evidence of that. So my best guess, to provoke you, of what's behind all of this is that the largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people's legitimate family desires and employers' current desire for high power and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination.


So, sure, Summers apologized and apologized and apologized for being a f'idiot, but let's not bullshit ourselves that he was speaking off the cuff or didn't mean it. Larry Summers believes that sexism doesn't play much of a role in women's status in the labor market — in or out of the sciences — and that it's basically our fault for not being as good as men and for wanting personal lives, and his evidence for that is that no one has snapped us all up (for less money, because that's how the market would work for his hypothesis to be correct). So I'm all for not hating on Larry Summers for the sake of hating on Larry Summers, but neither do I want a damn Cabinet Secretary who thinks that women and minorities are underrepresented in high-level jobs — the way that white guys in the NBA and Jews in farming are — because of innate mental differences. Because, really, that sort of innate stupidity in another old white guy is worth pitying, but it doesn't mean it should be promoted as part of a diversity initiative. Summers May Be Off Treasury Short-List [Politico] A Summers Break [National Review] Remarks at NBER Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce [Harvard University] Related: Sommers Remarks on Women Draw Fire [Boston Globe] Chronicle of a Controversy [Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology] Earlier: Would Someone Send This Woman To Thailand Already?



As a feminist and a scientist in a traditionally male-dominated discipline I don't take offense to most of Mr. Summers female-related comments.

People who choose to make family a priority will not succeed in the work world compared to people who choose to make work their only priority.

There are inherent differences and strengths for each of the sexes and to deny that is to make yourself blind to facts. No single (or multiple) test can determine if one sex is more intelligent than the other but I know that there are inherent strengths in each that many find it hard to accept.

It's a hard reality to face, the concept that we might not be JUST as good on average as men at certain things but how can we truly answer that question if we won't listen to a person who asks it?