The Washington Post Column

Missing The Point At Harvard

From a general, human-interest perspective, I suppose it is exciting when the Harvard faculty gangs up on the Harvard president, as the Harvard faculty ganged up on Larry Summers yesterday — illustrating again the old saw about the emotions in academic battles running so high precisely because the stakes are so low.

From a more esoteric perspective, I suppose it might be interesting to debate whether the tiny group of men with an innate genius for advanced mathematics outnumbers the tiny group of women with the same innate talent, as Summers recently suggested. Nevertheless, it seems odd that so much of the great Larry Summers flap, which has raised such passions in the blocks adjoining Harvard Square, has focused on the potential bars to female achievement that are the least relevant to the rest of us.

To be more precise, it’s puzzling that so much of the conversation about Summers left out the central point of his controversial presentation, focusing instead on only two of the three explanations he offered for the dearth of tenured female scientists at Harvard University: innate ability (or why more men, allegedly, are unusually good at math) and discrimination (of which Harvard science departments, allegedly, have a long history). These may or may not be important to the discussion of women in the hard sciences. But if we are talking about the other 99.9 percent of the female population, neither gets us very far at all.

In fact, leaving aside the infinitesimally small world of math geniuses, there isn’t any evidence that men are more intelligent than women, and no one seriously says so. Outside of a handful of institutions, the evidence of unthinking discrimination is slim too. It is true, of course, that men continue to earn more than women — approximately $1 for every 75 cents that women make. But economists such as June O’Neill or Harvard’s Claudia Goldin, who have accounted for different job choices, hours worked and time taken off for raising children, have concluded that it is these factors, not discrimination, that account for most of the difference.

And that is the point: Too often the missing component of the debate about the dearth of tenured female scientists, or female chief executive officers, or women in Congress, is the word “family.” But Summers did call the work-vs.-family choice the most important problem for women who want tenure: In academia, as in other professions, high-powered employers “expect a large number of hours in the office, they expect a flexibility of schedules to respond to contingency, they expect a continuity of effort through the life cycle, they expect . . . a level of commitment that a much higher fraction of married men have been historically prepared to make than of married women.” It isn’t ability or discrimination that hold women up most, in other words, but the impossibility of making a full-time commitment to work in a culture that demands 80-hour weeks, as well as to family in a society unusually obsessed with its children.

We all know this anecdotally, but research confirms it. A British sociologist, Catherine Hakim, recently concluded for example that out of 3,700 working-age women she surveyed, about a third were fully focused on their jobs, about a third were fully focused on their families, and about a third wanted a mix — meaning, invariably, that they took the sort of job that doesn’t lead to fast-track promotion. If these numbers hold there never will be a 50-50 split between men and women at the highest professional or managerial levels of anything: The ratio will always hover around 2 to 1.

Is this nature or nurture? I don’t see that it matters. What matters is that those women who want to become high achievers can do so, but those who want to stay home some of the time aren’t forced, by economics or social pressure, to take high-pressure jobs.

What also matters is that we shift this passionate debate from the fate of a few women at Harvard to the real needs of millions of women across the country. I’d feel a lot more sympathy for Summers’s current plight if he’d said how ridiculous it is to require academics, male or female, to work 80 hours a week to get tenure. I’d feel a lot more sympathy for Summers’s feminist opponents if they spent less time worrying about their academic peers, and more time worrying about the agonizing trade-offs between work and family, and how they can be better managed in the interests of women, children and co-workers.

But somehow or other, that subject — the one that matters to most people, but the one feminists and employers find hardest to discuss — never quite becomes the center of debate.