Sociology Lecture for Summers

The American Sociological Association reviews research on women and science -- and faults Harvard's president.
March 9, 2005

The American Sociological Association has become the latest group to take on Harvard's president -- releasing a statement Tuesday stating that there "is substantial research that provides clear and compelling evidence that women, like men, flourish in science, just as in other occupational pursuits, when they are given the opportunity and a supportive environment."

Lawrence H. Summers, Harvard's president, set off a huge debate in January when he speculated on the reasons for the scarcity of women in senior positions in science. He has since apologized for his statements, which suggested that gender differences rather than discrimination accounted for the gender gap.

Summers and his supporters have called for more research on these issues. The sociologists' statement said that it was designed to answer the Harvard president's suggestion that "there is no overwhelming body of serious scholarship that informs this topic."

In fact, the statement says that "the most compelling patterns shown by research are that people's abilities, as measured by job outcomes, are shaped by and interact with social influences.

"For example, objectively assessed math and scientific ability differences between males and females have changed substantially over the past three decades. In the United States they have become non-significant and in some other countries, the United Kingdom, for example, girls' performance exceeds that of boys at all levels of schooling," the sociologists said. "That gender differences in these abilities have shifted so substantially over such a short period of time makes it impossible for biological changes to have been influential. This period, however, was one in which girls' access to school courses, counselor encouragement, career opportunities, and role models changed (and improved) significantly -- but not their biology."

The statement concludes with a suggested reading list on the topic.

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