Arnold Kling  

The Summers Speech

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There has been a lot of controversy over Harvard President Lawrence Summers' talk at an NBER conference about gender differences in faculty in science and engineering. Harvard has posted a transcript of the talk. One excerpt:


The second problem is the one that Gary Becker very powerfully pointed out in addressing racial discrimination many years ago. 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. 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. I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong

For Discussion. Could there be discrimination against women in science and engineering without generating profit opportunities for departments that seek out women?


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Boonton writes:

I remember I read Richard Wright's Black Boy in High School. One of the episodes that happens is that he has a job working for a optician. The optician, a Jew from the northeast, wants to give him the chance at a good career and instructs one of his employees to train him on how to grind lenses. When the owner is away though, the employee tells him that he will not train him and he better not raise a fuss.

In an environment of serious discrimination the economics can work against the person who tries to defy the common will. The optician may have found that he would have lost numerous customers if he had persisted in training a black to grind lenses. In an alternate universe where there was serious discrimination against women in science a university that assembled a 'math dream team' might find itself boycotted by alumni donars and the mathematical journals refusing to publish the papers of their team (or digging thru their published work with a fine tooth comb looking to discredit them).

Today though I do not think there is serious academic discrimination against women in science. That's a good thing but it implies you can't assemble a dream team on the cheap.

Ann writes:

The problem with assembling a dream team of women, IF there is discrimination, is that it would be harder for them to publish and to get their work taken seriously. If people have already written a group off, then it might not be possible to overcome that discrimination, because I believe that there is some subjective judgment involved in academic success and respect.

I've heard people argue that Red Auerbach and the Boston Celtics did well, years ago, because Red realized that African Americans had been underestimated and thus were a bargain. The strategy worked in that case because winning basketball games is a relatively objective measure of success.

Lawrance George Lux writes:

The Profit generated remains with the individual Women, not Organizations. Discrimination against Women in one area leads to domination of Women in another area; bringing higher Salaries, Positional roles, and greater determination of Hiring practice. Discrimination in Labor practice is like Tariffs in Trade with both Benefits and Disadvantages. lgl

James writes:

The problem is, you can't limit your scope of examination to the hiring process. You have to go back in time, looking at the root of the problem: education. The question, and I ask this as something that should really be researched, is whether there were women who had the innate aptitude to excel, but were steered into other fields because of their sex. So the question becomes whether educators could descriminate against women without creating a profit opportunity elsewhere, and I think that (because of the way our public school system works) the answer is "yes". Primary school educators will get paid exactly the same whether they push women into Physics or Home Ec. And without a firm grounding at a young age, women are at a disadvantage in what is largely a learned (vice intrinsic) professional ability. I'm not saying this still happens routinely, but it could, and if it does, I'd say it's more likely to be the root cause of the difference than systemic problems in the collegiate system that lead to preference of males when two candidates for a position are otherwise equally matched. Of course, that's just a SWAG (Scientific Wild-Assed Guess), and research would need to be done, but I think it answers the posed question.

Sherwood writes:

Could there be discrimination against women in science and engineering without generating profit opportunities for departments that seek out women?

Of course. The academic "market" is not a market in the sense that there is a market for goods and services provided by private firms that consumers purchase. The whole idea of the tenure system is to insulate professors from market forces.

So yes, there could be discrimination and it would not necessarily harm departments that practice is it unless women are overwhelmingly represented in the engineering fields.

Shank writes:

If only he hadn't mentioned the degrading story about the little girls playing with the mommy truck and the daddy truck, his speech would have been listened to with more of an open mind. Judging from the tone of the questions, the attendees appeared to be livid.

It depends on how much students care if they get their education from a man or a woman. If students don't care, universities should hire the best professors regardless of gender in order to maximize profit. If nobody wants to take classes from even a very talented woman professor, then the profit-maximizing position would be to not hire women. If students want to get their education from the person with the most talent, then there is absolutely room for profit to be made if the leadership of the university doesn't hire women. If they can get a better education elsewhere, they will send their education dollars to another school. Money will flow to the universities that hire the best professors. But if there is no economic incentive to hire women due to discrimination in society as a whole rather than discrimination among the hiring powers of a university, there is little to be done without the courts stepping in and forcing schools to hire X number of women....

Becker's model works a little bit better when the buyer doesn't have direct interaction with the laborer. In other words, if a manufacturer of widgets hires only men to make widgets, another manufacturer can absorb the talented overlooked women to make better widgets. The second manufacturer has an economic incentive to do so -- cheaper labor and a better final product. The buyer only sees the better widget, and has no idea that a woman made it. Profits increase for the second manufacturer. However, if the buyers had direct knowledge that a woman made it (because everyone knows women CAN'T make widgets) they might not be so excited about the better widget, and may simply boycott the new widget on principle.

Randy writes:

Shank,

Agreed that if the students don't care, and also that their parents don't care, then there is no market. Then again, a university might be able to create a market.

As for the mommy trucks and daddy trucks, my daughters did this too. Nothing to get upset about.It is also hard to convince them that will need to be responsible for themselves in this new world. They understand this at the surface, but deep down, they still have Prince Charming syndrome. Why? I don't know. I just know that they do.

dsquared writes:

The answer to the question is yes, obviously. As long as there are economies of scale in the development of high-end engineers and scientists, then there is going to be an equilibrium in which there are highly talented women who don't get breaks because any institution which wanted to bring them on would have to bear the entire burden of doing so itself, rather than being able to rely on the network.

Becker himself doesn't hold this view of discrimination any more IIRC.

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