Turnaround for Women at Harvard

University pledges at least $50 million, creates new position and vows to consider numerous policy changes to aid female scientists.
May 17, 2005

Four months after Lawrence H. Summers infuriated women with his comments on female scientists, he pledged at least $50 million to support the kinds of programs that he once suggested would have little impact.

Harvard University on Monday released the reports of two committees created in the wake of the Summers talk in January, which questioned whether women face discrimination in the sciences and suggested that women may be less talent than men in the field. The reports, which Summers praised, outlined a series of failings at Harvard that hold back female faculty members, especially in the sciences.

The recommendations in the reports are similar to the kinds of programs already in place at many other universities and that experts say are needed to encourage female scientists. The reports call for new mentoring programs, efforts to identify and encourage undergraduates in the sciences, more flexibility about the tenure clock and better balance of work and family life.

Summers did not endorse every element of the plans, saying that they needed study and input from many at the university. But he said that this study should be speedy and that he was willing to find funds on top of the $50 million as needed to support the efforts. He also said he would start a search now to fill a new position that was recommended by one of the committees: senior vice provost for diversity and faculty development. This new position will be part of Harvard's central administration and will work with the president and provost to oversee faculty appointments throughout Harvard and to find ways to promote gender, racial and ethnic equity on the faculty.

The new position was recommended by the task force charged with looking at conditions for women on Harvard's faculty. The other task force focused on women in science and engineering. The latter panel specifically rejected the idea from the January Summers talk that women in science no longer face discrimination.

"Unfortunately, in some departments, women graduate students and postdoctoral fellows report hearing disrespectful criticisms of their abilities from male colleagues and a lack of a supportive environment," the report said. "Although some female students and postdoctoral fellows of all disciplines face these problems, the problem is especially acute in certain departments, where women are rare, isolated, and sometimes poorly supported."

The following are some of the recommendations of the panel on women on the faculty:

  • Creating a fund to support the hiring of faculty members who would add to the diversity of the faculty.
  • Improving university-wide data collection on faculty demographics and the use of surveys to measure attitudes of members of certain groups about how they are treated by the university.
  • Starting new "dual career" programs to help find professional opportunities for the partners of faculty members.
  • Changing policies to promote a healthy work and family balance. Specifically, the committee urged Harvard to look at policies related to the "tenure clock" and support for family leaves.

The following are some of the recommendations of the panel on women and science:

  • Creating summer research programs and study centers to encourage undergraduate women in the sciences.
  • Adding formal mentoring roles for senior faculty to help develop new scientific talent -- from the undergraduate to junior faculty levels.
  • Providing special research support to scientists who have added responsibilities of child care.
  • Creating programs on diversity for department chairs.


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