Harvard president claims that women and science don't mix

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Larry Summers, the outspoken president of Harvard University, has stirred up controversy by suggesting there are innate differences between the sexes that prevent more women from rising to the top in science and mathematics.

Larry Summers, the outspoken president of Harvard University, has stirred up controversy by suggesting there are innate differences between the sexes that prevent more women from rising to the top in science and mathematics.

Dr Summers, who was Treasury Secretary in the closing stages of the Clinton administration, made his remarks in a speech to an invitation-only economic conference last Friday in which he also questioned the role of discrimination in keeping female scientists and engineers from advancing at top colleges and universities.

Dr Summers, whose tenure at Harvard has been marked by controversy, including clashes with African-American staff and complaints about the lack of women being hired, made a three-hour speech in which he said one reason for the shortage of women in senior posts were to do with the reluctance of women to work long hours because of their child-minding responsibilities.

He then argued that boys outperform girls on maths and science due to genetic difference rather than socialisation. He gave the conference an example from his own experience: a story of giving his daughter two trucks, which she treated like dolls, calling them mummy and daddy trucks.

According to the Boston Globe yesterday, one member of the audience, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology biologist - and Harvard graduate - Nancy Hopkins, was so incensed that she walked out. "It is so upsetting that all these brilliant young women [at Harvard] are being led by a man who views them this way," she said.

Later, Dr Summers told the newspaper he was discussing hypotheses, based on works assembled for the conference, and was not expressing his own views. He declined to make available a tape recording or transcript of his speech.

Organisers of the conference, attended by some 50 economists from across the US, said the Harvard president had been asked to be provocative, and that he was invited as a top economist, not as a representative of the university. The subject of the conference was the position of women and minorities in science and engineering.

Mr Summers admitted to the Globe that that it was possible he had referred to innate differences between the sexes. People, he said, "would prefer to believe" that the differences in performance between the sexes are due to social factors, "but these are things that need to be studied".

But Ms Denton was furious: "Here was this economist lecturing pompously [to] this room full of the country's most accomplished scholars on women's issues in science and engineering, and he kept saying things we had refuted in the first half of the day," she said.

During Dr Summers' time as president the number of tenured jobs offered to women has fallen sharply and last year only four of 32 tenured jobs were offered to women candidates.

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