BETTY ANN BOWSER: The buzz in the halls at this year's annual convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Science was about those remarks made last month by Harvard's Larry Summers.
While addressing an economic conference in Cambridge on diversity in science careers, and according to transcript released by Harvard, Summers said: "In the special case of science and engineering there are issues of intrinsic aptitude." And he went on to say that aptitude or ability might be a greater factor than: "socialization and continuing discrimination." Summers used that phrasing to offer a partial explanation of why fewer women become scientists, mathematicians, and engineers.
His remarks touched off a storm of controversy with critics labeling the comments sexist and scientifically ignorant. But some female scientists at the meeting in Washington over the weekend were glad the subject is now on the table.
SHIRLEY MALCOM, head of Education and Human Resources at the American Association for the Advancement of Science: Thank you, Larry Summers. Our issues had disappeared. Our problems were still there, but in terms of open discussion of the issues, that was not happening.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: University of Oklahoma chemist Donna Nelson presented a new study she's just completed, which found women widely underrepresented in 14 academic disciplines at the 50 top universities in the country.
DONNA NELSON: The women are also here too. The women appear after the decimal point. And so...
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Nelson said in chemistry alone, women account for nearly 50 percent of all graduates, but only 12 percent of professors. And she said it's the same in almost all fields she studied.
DONNA NELSON: There's a disparity in most of the disciplines. We need to rapidly speed things up. Perhaps this recent Larry Summers incident will do some of that for us.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Another point Summers made in his remarks was that women often find a hostility and "overt discrimination" in academic settings. That's something Princeton University sociologist Doug Massey says he's found in his own research on diversity.
DOUG MASSEY: A lot of times what happens is the environment is so hostile and unfriendly that women bag it and move on to something else rather than staying in an environment they find to be unsatisfying, both professionally and personally.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Summers also said women get discouraged in science careers because many disciplines require an 80-hour work week and time away from children and family.
That's what 69-year-old Betty Ivy found to be the case back in the 1950s when she was a student in the physics department at Harvard. Of the three women in her class, she was the only one who stuck it out.
BETTY IVY: I was told in graduate school, "I'm not going to spend any time helping you because you're married. You'll probably drop out to have children, and therefore you will not have a full career. Why should I spend time with you?"
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Does that still go on today?
BETTY IVY: Yes, it does. It still goes on today.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dr. Julie Gerberding, the federal government's top female scientist and the first woman ever to serve as director of the CDC, had a similar experience.
DR. JULIE GERBERDING: There was a point in my professional development when I was at a university where I really did feel almost like giving up because I was told by someone in a position of authority that the field that I was engaged in, epidemiology, was not really a science.
And that as a woman if I wanted to be eligible for tenure, I would need to find a different discipline because I would have two strikes against me. I was very discouraged and very, very tearful, and then I got mad. And then I got energized, and I said, "No, that's not right; I'm a competent scientist; I'm going to be the best that I can be."
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson is president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She believes the low numbers of women in science professions amounts to a waste of talent.
SHIRLEY ANN JACKSON: The demographics of this country are changing. Namely, if you count women and other underrepresented groups, you're talking about two-thirds of the population. So I ask you, how can we ignore 50 percent to two-thirds of the population and believe that we are accessing the complete talent pool?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Although President Summers eventually apologized for his remarks, controversy has continued. Today he met with faculty of the school of arts and sciences for the second time in recent weeks to discuss the issue.