Innovation Hub: 10 Years After the Larry Summers Controversy

Ten years ago, Harvard’s then-president, Larry Summers, wondered why women are so scarce in elite math and science departments. Is it because they’re less ambitious than men? Or, perhaps, they’re less inclined to be extremely smart? His comments caused a national furor, and Summers stepped down as president the following year.

Now, Professor Eileen Pollack, who teaches at the University of Michigan, revisits this Summers controversy. In her new book, The Only Woman in the Room, she submits that cultural differences are at the real root of the problem.

[This interview has been edited and condensed. For the full interview, go to innovationhub.org]

Kara Miller: What has research shown about the truth of any of the potential theories that Larry put out?

Eileen Pollack: In a strange way, Larry may have done a service for women in science by raising these questions and getting so many women so angry that they went out and did studies. The studies found that there are no genetic or gender-based differences to account for the disparity among elite college professors.

KM: Do you think in the last ten years things have gotten better or worse for women in the elite positions in math and science departments in different parts of the country?

EP: People are becoming more attuned to what’s going on. There’s starting to be programs for girls who like coding. There are some real changes that are starting to happen in academic departments and here at Michigan. There’s a lot of work on trying to cope with gender bias and racial bias in all fields, but especially in STEM fields.

KM: If you were walking down the street and bumped into Larry Summers and had a conversation about this, what do you think that conversation would be like?

EP: Well, I think that he was right. You need the studies because having the studies really bolster our case. It’s not genetic; it’s not gender-based. These differences are cultural. But I also think that having people tell their stories is really important because sharing stories helps women realize that it’s not them. When you don’t think you’re crazy, you can fight back, you can laugh it off, and take steps to change things.

Tricia Breton contributed to this write-up.

Kara Miller is the host of “Innovation Hub,” a national radio program that features the thinkers, researchers, and visionaries who are crafting the future. She is based at WGBH Radio in Boston. Follow @IHubRadio

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  • Terry Vance

    This is a dumbing down of what Larry Summers said. I am glad that Eileen Pollack zeroed in on the actual point of his comments, which was to ask what the evidence suggested was behind male/ female disparity in science. In no sense was Larry Summers wrong factually, but he was tone deaf to an audience intent on addressing very real structural bias in academic promotion of women.