President Summers Gave a Speech

Email Print

Lawrence Summers,
the president of Harvard University — so far — got himself
in a potful of trouble recently by giving a speech in which he commented
on the relative intellectual inability of women to do higher-level
mathematics and sciences that rely heavily on mathematics.

So, Dr. Summers
got a series of double-barreled verbal shotgun blasts from mathematically
challenged members of the Harvard faculty.

No one, especially
Dr. Summers, thought it relevant to mention the
list of Nobel Prize-winning female scientists
. Two have won
prizes in physics, three in chemistry. There were seven in medicine
and physiology. (Ten have won in literature.) No woman has won in
economics. In fact, there has been only one female economist in
history with a major reputation: Joan Robinson of Cambridge University,
a Keynesian.

No one thought
to look at winners of international mathematics awards for exceptional
genius. Women seldom if ever rarely win these awards

Among chess
Grand Masters, there are two women (the Polgar sisters).

You know this.
I know this. Surely, Fred
Reed knows this
. But those faculty members at Harvard University
who also know this are discreet enough (not, be it noted, discrete
enough) to keep their mouths shut.

As a mathematically
challenged non-winner of any Nobel Prize, let me assert my fundamental
right to comment on Dr. Summers. Dr. Summers has the history of
science on his side. But he does not have verbal skills on his side
— an area in which women consistently outperform men on the standardized


The speech
in which Dr. Summers made his gaffe has received almost no attention
by the media. This is understandable. It was a speech to the National
Bureau of Economic Research, or NBER.

The NBER was
founded two generations ago by Wesley C. Mitchell, a statistician-economist
who wanted the organization to provide statistical information on
the economy and reports based on lots of statistics. Those of us
who are familiar with NBER publications are well aware of the fact
that no one should ever read one while smoking in bed.

Dr. Summers
has decided to post a transcript of his speech on his very own Harvard
University Web page
(so far). That he would allow one of his
speeches to be published on his site is an indication of poor judgment.
I mean, people who never went to Harvard and who therefore may still
be impressed by the place can actually read what the head of the
institution has said in public. That it would be an NBER speech
is even more astonishing.

as members of their profession are not generally known for their
ability to communicate verbally. In this respect, free market economists
have an advantage. They do, on occasion, speak at common people,
and they have been forced to learn how to communicate in the vernacular.
This ability is much less common among Keynesians — a tradition
begun by Keynes himself, after he became a Keynesian, though not
before, when he was quite persuasive verbally. (Compare his Essays
in Persuasion
with The
General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money

Dr. Summers
is an economist. He is not a free market economist. Hence, he has
problems with the English language. His speech is a testimony to
his training in what might best be described as the Dwight D. Eisenhower
School of Communications.

The speech
began with what he hoped would be regarded as a disclaimer.

so we have agreed that I am speaking unofficially and not using
this as an occasion to lay out the many things we’re doing at Harvard
to promote the crucial objective of diversity.

That he was
naïve enough to imagine that this disclaimer would protect
him from the furies of the distaff side of the faculty indicates
that his career is evidence (however anecdotal) supporting the Peter
Principle: "Every employee rises to his level of incompetence."
(Professor Peter, over three decades ago, was wise enough to use
"his" rather than "his/her.") Immediately he
launched into his speech — or perhaps "slogged" is a better

going to confine myself to addressing one portion of the problem,
or of the challenge we’re discussing, which is the issue of women’s
representation in tenured positions in science and engineering at
top universities and research institutions, not because that’s necessarily
the most important problem or the most interesting problem, but
because it’s the only one of these problems that I’ve made an effort
to think in a very serious way about. The other prefatory comment
that I would make is that I am going to, until most of the way through,
attempt to adopt an entirely positive, rather than normative approach,
and just try to think about and offer some hypotheses as to why
we observe what we observe without seeing this through the kind
of judgmental tendency that inevitably is connected with all our
common goals of equality.

He was just
getting warmed up. He was still in the first paragraph — actually,
only about two-thirds through it. His next sentence should have
sent out a Code Yellow warning to his audience.

is after all not the case that the role of women in science is the
only example of a group that is significantly under-represented
in an important activity and whose under-representation contributes
to a shortage of role models for others who are considering being
in that group.

There was no immediate reference to the well-known institutional
discrimination by the male-dominated, bourgeois, academic culture
(despite, somehow, three decades of successful lawsuits by female
academics, not to mention the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission).

He went on
to offer three hypotheses: (1) the "high-powered job"
hypothesis; (2) the "different availability of aptitude at
the high end" (Code Red!!! Code Red!!!); and (3) "different
socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search."
Women are under-represented in science and industry and the professions.
Furthermore, there appears to be a pattern here.

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.

Talk to? One
does not speak at the NBER about people talked to. One speaks about
patterns within a statistically relevant sample.

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

As an economist,
the man can put 2 and 2 together. Successful people work long hours.
But he had uttered a dangerous phrase — dangerous at the NBER, anyway:
"this is harder to measure." Anyone who says this in front
of the NBER had better have a pile of preliminary statistical results
of these hard-to-measure patterns. Summers had no such data. He
was in a big pile from that point on.

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. That’s not a judgment about
how it should be, not a judgment about what they should expect.

No moral judgments,
of course — not from a value-free economist and Harvard president
(so far). "Just the facts, ‘mam." ("’Mam"? What
would the script writers have Joe Friday say today?)

Although he
did not mention this, men who are in these highest ranking places
are married and do have children, though possibly by an older, earlier
wife. Problem: the NBER is alert to any attempt to explain statistical
patterns like this one by means of anecdotal evidence, such as "all
the men I have spoken with say they never did plan to stay at home
with the kids." So, Summers wisely avoided this particular
mine field. He had others to march through, however.

it seems to me that it is very hard to look at the data and escape
the conclusion that that expectation is meeting with the choices
that people make and is contributing substantially to the outcomes
that we observe. One can put it differently.

One had darned
sure better put it differently if one wants to be understood. Another
way to put the point is to say, what fraction of young women in
their mid-twenties make a decision that they don’t want to have
a job that they think about eighty hours a week.

My guess —
not based on an NBER-certified sample — is "a whole lot of

fraction of young men make a decision that they’re unwilling to
have a job that they think about eighty hours a week, and to observe
what the difference is.

The number
will be just about the same as the previous number. Of course, I’m
guessing. But, then again, I’m not speaking at the NBER.


At this point,
he got to hypothesis #2: "different availability of aptitude
at the high end."

does appear that on many, many different human attributes — height,
weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability,
scientific ability — 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.

He had only
one way out, only one possible opportunity to avoid the attack of
the furies. Incredibly, he closed the escape hatch in his next sentence.

that is true with respect to attributes that are and are not plausibly,
culturally determined.

not culturally determined? You mean — could a president of Harvard
possibly mean — innate? All across the audience, men with
Ph.D.s began to faint.

it’s talking about people who are three and a half, four standard
deviations above the mean in the one in 5,000, one in 10,000 class.
Even small differences in the standard deviation will translate
into very large differences in the available pool substantially

differences in the standard deviation." As soon as I read that,
another phrase leaped to my mind, a phrase that, anecdotally speaking,
indicates that I am a culturally determined male chauvinist pig
of the late 1950s: "Itsy-bitsy, teeny-weenie…." (If
you can complete this phrase, then you too are a culturally determined
male chauvinist pig, or possibly a female who wore, or at least
wanted to be able to wear, one of the items in question.)

you look at those — they’re all over the map, depends on which test,
whether it’s math, or science, and so forth — but 50% [of] women,
one woman for every two men, would be a high-end estimate from their
estimates. From that, you can back out a difference in the implied
standard deviations that works out to be about 20%. And from that,
you can work out the difference out several standard deviations.
If you do that calculation — and I have no reason to think that
it couldn’t be refined in a hundred ways — you get five to one,
at the high end.

Admit it: You
cannot follow his logic. But one thing is clear: Summers came up
with five to one. Worse, to add insult to injury, he meant four
to one. That is, for every four men at the high end of these possibly
itsy-bitsy, teeny-weenie statistical deviations, there is only one
woman — unmarried and childless who, I would be willing to
give five-to-one odds on, did not at age 17 have the courage to
be seen in public in one of those itsy-bitsy, teeny-weenie aforementioned

He should have
sat down at this point. But he didn’t. He went on. And on. And on.
He added dashes and ellipses and qualifications and "woe is
me, I just don’t have enough facts" to make his point loud,
though not all that clear.

it’s pointed out by one of the papers at this conference that these
tests are not a very good measure and are not highly predictive
with respect to people’s ability to do that. And that’s absolutely
right. But I don’t think that resolves the issue at all. Because
if my reading of the data is right — it’s something people can argue
about — that there are some systematic differences in variability
in different populations, then whatever the set of attributes are
that are precisely defined to correlate with being an aeronautical
engineer at MIT or being a chemist at Berkeley, those are probably
different in their standard deviations as well. So my sense is that
the unfortunate truth — I would far prefer to believe something
else, because it would be easier to address what is surely a serious
social problem if something else were true — is that the combination
of the high-powered job hypothesis and the differing variances probably
explains a fair amount of this problem.

variances. These are the words — so academic, so camouflaged
in verbiage — that would soon come to bite him where males
so hate to be bitten.

Then, for one
bright moment, he inserted clarity into his speech. It appeared
as the second half of a sentence that introduced it by laying down
a carpet of academic qualifications:

may also be elements, by the way, of differing, there is some, particularly
in some attributes, that bear on engineering, there is reasonably
strong evidence of taste differences between little girls and little
boys that are not easy to attribute to socialization.

Taste differences?
Choosing to major in English rather than engineering is a matter
of taste? Does he mean like Hillary Clinton’s distaste for baking
cookies? He stepped into the worst of both possible worlds: taste
differences that are not cultural.

Then he did
it. Not forecasting the fury that would soon be at the gates, he
invoked this bit of anecdotal evidence:

I think, while I would prefer to believe otherwise, I guess my experience
with my two and a half year old twin daughters who were not given
dolls and who were given trucks, and found themselves saying to
each other, look, daddy truck is carrying the baby truck, tells
me something. And I think it’s just something that you probably
have to recognize.

The wrath was
about to descend from those "one out of five" possessors
of differing variances. He was about to be run over a mommy truck:
one really big mother of a truck. A dump truck. Then the other four
out of five possessors of differing variances at Harvard joined
their distaff peers.


Dr. Summers
cannot distinguish between terrific and terrifying.
Anyway, he couldn’t on January 14, when he delivered his speech.
He probably can today.

second empirical problem is that girls are persisting longer and
longer. When there were no girls majoring in chemistry, when there
were no girls majoring in biology, it was much easier to blame parental
socialization. Then, as we are increasingly finding today, the problem
is what’s happening when people are twenty, or when people are twenty-five,
in terms of their patterns, with which they drop out. Again, to
the extent it can be addressed, it’s a terrific thing to address.

But he addressed
it. Had he better understood terror, he would have turned down this
speaking invitation. But he thought it was a terrific opportunity.

Only then did
he get to the question of discrimination in hiring, meaning discrimination
not based on skills and actual performance of assigned tasks. (No,
no, you snickering sexist pig: not those skills and performance!)
He then did a risky thing. He quoted an economist who invoked the
profit motive in dismissing the job discrimination hypothesis with
respect to hiring policies in the top universities. All of a sudden,
Summers grew clear. In making things clear, he armed his critics.
The statistically corroborated absence of women in top positions
in science and mathematics is unlikely to based on job discrimination,
he said.

it was really the case that everybody was discriminating, there
would be very substantial opportunities for a limited number of
people who were not prepared to discriminate to assemble remarkable
departments of high quality people at relatively limited cost simply
by the act of their not discriminating, because of what it would
mean for the pool that was available. 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.

He actually
invoked the profit motive! You can imagine how impressed the Harvard
faculty is with that argument.

Thomas Sowell has remarked that expecting college professors to
understand the price system is like expecting six-year-olds to understand
where babies come from.

And then, the
self-inflicted coup de grâce:

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.

It provoked
them, all right. How it provoked them!


That was what
Lenin asked, and it is what Summers asked. Lenin, most people can
understand, even in translation. Summers needs a translator.

to be done? And what further questions should one know the answers
to? Let me take a second, first to just remark on a few questions
that it seems to me are ripe for research, and for all I know, some
of them have been researched. First, it would be very useful to
know, with hard data, what the quality of marginal hires are when
major diversity efforts are mounted. When major diversity efforts
are mounted, and consciousness is raised, and special efforts are
made, and you look five years later at the quality of the people
who have been hired during that period, how many are there who have
turned out to be much better than the institutional norm who wouldn’t
have been found without a greater search.

This is Dr.
Passive Voice. I have this obscene vision of major diversity efforts
being mounted. But I digress. He is still hoping that consciousness
will soon be raised. Within days, it was raised with a vengeance
by the Harvard faculty. Special efforts were made to get him dismissed
— not in five years but five days or less. (Yes, yes: I really
mean "fewer.")

He offered
an answer to his question about what is to be done. It is an answer
so quintessentially academic that it did him proud. He recommended
a statistical search of footnotes. How many women are cited vs.
how many men?

and by the way, I think a more systematic effort to look at citation
records of male and female scholars in disciplines where citations
are relatively well-correlated with academic rank and with people’s
judgments of quality would be very valuable.

Now here was
an approved NBER strategy if there ever was one. The only question
is: What institution in its right collective mind would fund a study
of this kind? What if the results conformed to Pareto’s law: 80-20
in favor of men? Who would want to sign that research paper?
What editor of which academic journal would publish it? Summers
suspected as much. Or did he? I had difficulty parsing his words.

course, most of the critiques of citations go to reasons why they
should not be useful in judging an individual scholar. Most of them
are not reasons why they would not be useful in comparing two large
groups of scholars and so there is significant potential, it seems
to me, for citation analysis in this regard.

Follow his
verbs. He is like one of those guys at the county fair who has a
pea under one of three shells.

the third kind of question is, what do we know about search procedures
in universities? Is it the case that more systematic comprehensive
search processes lead to minority group members who otherwise would
have not been noticed being noticed? Or does fetishizing the search
procedure make it very difficult to pursue the targets of opportunity
that are often available arising out of particular family situations
or particular moments, and does fetishizing and formalizing search
procedures further actually work to the disadvantage of minority
group members. Again, everybody’s got an opinion; I don’t think
anybody actually has a clue as to what the answer is.

I haven’t a
clue as to what the question is, let alone the answer.


it or not, I am only about halfway through his presentatioon. There
was a question-and-answer session.

I have a memory
of the scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, where Ben Stein
(the son of Herb Stein, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors
under Nixon) is dutifully lecturing to high school students on economics.
The glazed looks in their eyes, the guy with his head on the desk,
saliva drooling across its top — it’s an NBER attendee with

Be thankful
that you are not expected to attend evening lectures of the NBER.

Be even more
thankful that you are not Lawrence Summers, who did not turn down
his invitation to speak.

The speech
is on-line, for all the world to read. It reveals something about
the screening process in academia that the man hired to raise money
for Harvard University needs to take a for-credit class in English
as a second language.

22, 2005

North [send him mail] is the
author of Mises
on Money
. Visit

North Archives

Email Print