President Summers Gave a Speech

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 exams.


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.

Economists 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.

And 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 word.

I’m 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.

It 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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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. 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.

But 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 them.”

What 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.”

It 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.

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

Attributes 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.

But 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 out.

“Small 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.)

If 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 items.

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.

Now, 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.

Differing 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:

There 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:

So, 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.

The 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.

If 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.

Aside: 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:

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.

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.

What’s 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?

Second, 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.

Of 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.

Third, 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.


Believe 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 hormones.

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.

March 22, 2005

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

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