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Hockfield Comments On Women Scientists

By Kelley Rivoire


President Susan Hockfield issued a joint statement last Thursday with the presidents of Princeton and Stanford in an effort to shift the furor over remarks made by Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers ’75 last month into a more productive context.

Summers had cited “innate differences” as a possible reason for the low representation of females in science and engineering while speaking at a conference on women in science in January, causing angry reactions nationally.

Statement calls for policy changes

The three presidents, Hockfield, John Hennessy of Stanford, and Shirley Tilghman of Princeton, “absolutely did not want to criticize President Summers,” but “felt that the conversation was not moving the discussion forward,” Hockfield said. The statement appeared in the opinion section of The Boston Globe last Saturday and can be found on page 10 in this issue.

She said she hopes that the statement will lead others to “address these issues productively” and to “think about what we can really do and how we should be perceiving and addressing the issues.”

Hockfield declined to comment about specific policies at MIT regarding women at any level, but said she has found much at MIT that is very productive in addressing the issues facing female scientists and engineers.

The three presidents wrote the statement because they were “getting a lot of requests for statements from our campuses,” and “all feel that this is an incredibly important issue,” she said.

Encouragement of women stressed

Summers’ remarks, according to the joint statement, had the “untoward effect of shifting the focus of the debate to history rather than to the future... The question we must ask as a society is not ‘can women excel in math, science and engineering?’-- Marie Curie exploded that myth a century ago -- but ‘how can we encourage more women with exceptional abilities to pursue careers in these fields?’”

Hockfield said that she believes it is “important for us to raise our expectations” of women and minorities, because per the statement, “low expectations of women can be as destructive as overt discrimination.”

According to the statement, addressing societal and cultural factors that hamper women’s abilities to succeed in science and engineering is especially important at a time when international competition in these areas has increased dramatically.

The statement points to marked increases over the past forty years in the percentages of doctoral degrees awarded to women in engineering and agricultural and biological sciences, as recorded by the National Science Foundation, as evidence that women do not lack the natural abilities to succeed in science and engineering, but only the proper resources and encouragement.

Summers has apologized since making the controversial remarks, amid strong criticism and even calls for his resignation from across the country. Harvard has also created two task forces to study Harvard policies on female faculty and more generally, the challenges faced by women in engineering and science.

Hockfield said she does not anticipate that the remarks by Summers or her statement released last week will chill relations between Harvard and MIT.