Every few years the old canard about how women can't do math and science raises its ugly head. The most recent incarnation is due to Larry Summers, the president of Harvard. He could have looked at the atmosphere for women at his particular institution, which is comparatively unpleasant even in the elite old boy company it keeps. Down the street at MIT, for example, a woman is president. Instead he decided to raise such questions as whether women are less suited to these professions than men.
I doubt that his own mother -- she was an economist and presumably quite comfortable in the world of mathematics -- would be pleased by his musing. Certainly we are not pleased. George Will and others have written columns accusing Summers' critics of political correctness run amok, but no, it is not that Summers has offended our sensibilities. He is just plain wrong.
Some of Summers' defenders have interpreted his remarks as calling for more research and accused his critics of squelching serious intellectual inquiry. But research into gender difference by its nature can not settle such questions as: Are women better suited to mathematics than men?
A lot of research into gender differences already exists, and a typical finding is that the activity of one clump of brain cells as opposed to another tends to differ by gender. Scientists who do such studies have stated clearly that no broad conclusions about ability can be drawn. There are incalculably many ways to do mathematics, science, gardening, poetry, baseball ... and nobody knows the effect, if any, of which clump of brain cells does the task. Summers' remarks simply expose his ignorance of existing research.
Summers also said that women, being women, are less willing than men to work 80 hours a week in the lab when they have young children. One wonders how, as a father himself, he can be so apparently blind to the frustrations and difficulties of men caught between a demanding job and the needs of small children. Surely a look at how the scientific workplace is organized would be a more fruitful response, allowing more talent from both genders to do science. The medical profession looked at this issue years ago and reduced its hours for interns and residents with no loss in quality of care.
Here's what we know: Women most definitely can do mathematics and science, including at the highest levels. We know this because they are doing it. And they are doing it in greater and greater numbers. Right now, at the beginning of the 21st century, about half of all U.S. math majors are women, and about a third of all American citizens receiving math Ph.D.s are women. Here in Lawrence, Kan., nearly 20 percent of the math professors at KU are women, over five times as many as 25 years ago.
Similar figures are true in nearly every science department at KU, and in many, perhaps most, universities, as well as in many, perhaps most, employers of scientists and mathematicians in government and industry.
So let's put Larry Summers where he belongs -- Comedy Central, anyone? -- and let's continue to encourage talented women to go where they belong in whatever profession they choose.
-- Judy Roitman and Margaret Bayer are professors of mathematics and Milena Stanislavova is an assistant professor of mathematics at Kansas University.