APS News

CSWP Responds to Harvard University President's Comments

By Ernie Tretkoff

The APS Committee on the Status of Women in Physics has written a letter to the editor of The New York Times in response to Harvard University President Lawrence Summers' recent remarks suggesting that genetic differences may partly explain the low numbers of women in science.

Speaking at a January 14 meeting of the National Bureau of Economic Research, Summers reportedly suggested that the shortage of women scientists may stem in part from "innate" differences between men and women. He also mentioned other possible causes of the low numbers of women in science, including women's unwillingness or inability to work 80-hour weeks, and discrimination against women. Summers' statement that genetic differences might explain the underrepresentation of women was widely reported and sparked a controversy and a lot of criticism.

CSWP chair Aihua Xie said, "Basically we are outraged with Summers' statement. There is no scientific support for that statement. He is the leader of a top university, so people pay attention to what he said. He should do some research if he wants to make such statements."

Upon hearing a news report on Summers' comments, CSWP member Marc Sher alerted the rest of the committee. The CSWP then wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Times, which can be seen at the CSWP website.

In the letter, CSWP wrote that, "Leaders in academia wondering aloud if women may be genetically inferior in math/science skills perpetuate a self-fulfilling prophecy." The letter also stated that research is at odds with a genetic explanation for the underrepresentation of women in science, and that, "We expect leaders of elite academic institutions to do their research before lending their voices to such unsubstantiated prejudices."

The underrepresentation of women in physics can be attributed to factors such as social pressures and the lack of role models, said Xie. The situation is improving, she said. "More and more women get into physics now. This trend will continue, far from reaching a stable state. Therefore, it is inadequate to use genetics to explain the current gender differences in physics and other sciences. "

There is still discrimination against women, said Xie. "People don't give women the same opportunities and training that they give men," she said. In addition, many talented women lack the confidence in their abilities, and these women need more support, she said.

CSWP member Marc Sher pointed out that another reason for the shortage of women in physics is the "two-body problem." Many women scientists are married to men who are also scientists, often in the same or a closely related field, and it is difficult to find two academic jobs in the same field in the same geographic location at the same time, and many universities are reluctant to hire both spouses. In these cases, it is often the woman's career that suffers.

Sher said he has been gratified by the response to Summers' remarks. "To some degree it's a learning experience. There is a huge amount of data that shows he's wrong." The uproar over Summers' statements has brought that data to people's attention, said Sher.

In response to the criticism, Summers' has apologized several times, and has set up two task forces charged with making recommendations for improving the status of women faculty and women in science and engineering.

CSWP works to improve the status of women in physics through a variety of programs, including workshops for women held at the APS March and April meetings, and site visits to universities to evaluate their climate for women and help them improve it. "I would like to say that in physics there are lots of situations that can improve for women to succeed. Our committee works hard to improve the climate for women in physics," said Xie.


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