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What Larry Summers Got Right

5 minute read
Emily Yellin

I was all set to have my regular chat on the phone last week with my 19-year-old niece Chloe, a sophomore at Harvard, when I got an e-mail from her asking if we could reschedule. She was so busy with schoolwork, she said in her message, that she couldn’t spare any time to talk with her dear aunt for the rest of the week.

A few days later came the full transcript of the notorious remarks by the president of her university, Lawrence Summers, who evidently has no shortage of theories about women and achievement. The document confirmed what Summers had reportedly said a month earlier in a closed-door session in which he gave his ideas about genetics and gender. “In the special case of science and engineering,” he said, “there are issues of intrinsic aptitude.” He did allow for the fact that he might be wrong. But he wasn’t finished drawing new battle lines in the gender wars. He went on to speculate that women, especially when they have families, aren’t willing to put in the hours necessary to get ahead. I guess he doesn’t know Chloe. Because that seems to be just what his university is teaching her to do.

Summers asked, “Who wants to do high-powered, intense work?” The answer, he implied, is mostly men. It’s easy to see why his remarks would offend women who have made great sacrifices to succeed. But maybe this is where Summers has a good point. If women react to his theory by declaring their commitment to work 80-hour weeks, they’re making the same mistake that many men do. By contorting to fit the current system, they’re missing an opportunity to reshape it according to their needs. Indeed, Summers also asked if it is right for our society to have family arrangements that require women to make these hard choices more than men. He said he would get back to that point later. He never did.

In one of his apologies last week to faculty members, Summers acknowledged what Chloe and her female professors must experience every day. “Universities like ours,” he said, “were originally designed by men and for men.” He said he had come to see how that “sometimes hidden fact” shapes everything from career paths to the standards used to evaluate faculty and student performance. He even called for a rethinking of the assumptions that set that up. Whether he follows through is another question, but in his ham-handed way, Summers reminded everyone that we still have a work culture in America that ignores the real-life needs of all its workers to juggle careers and family.

Are 80-hour workweeks the only model of success? Isn’t there a better way that doesn’t leave women who want children–and men who want to see their children–with all-or-nothing propositions? This is not a new problem. The era of World War II, when women were vital to war production, was the first time married women outnumbered single women in the American workplace. It was also one of the first times the issue of child care for working women became part of the public debate. FORTUNE magazine, in 1943, recognized the double duty that women were being asked to perform and suggested that something had to give. “If the present makeshift conditions are not cleared up, the effects can easily be imagined: a rise in absenteeism, worry, lowered morale–all of which means less production–not to mention permanent scars on the bodies and minds of American children.” That was in 1943. You’d think we would have arrived at better solutions by 2005.

Now that Summers has stumbled onto the problem, his university could lead the way out. Just listening to some of its own graduates would be a good start. Joan Williams, head of the Program on WorkLife Law at American University, wrote in a Harvard Law School alumni bulletin, “Defining your ‘ideal worker’ as someone who works 60 hours a week is not good business. You are choosing whom to keep based on the schedule they can keep, not based on the quality of their work.” Some solutions to this aren’t exactly new ideas: flextime, for example, and restructuring career tracks to accommodate instead of punish parenthood and caregiving to elderly family members. But actually getting society to embrace those as acceptable for both genders is where the challenge lies.

Chloe has told me she wants to run her own film-production company some day. I look forward to hearing all about it when we can resume our Sunday chats on the phone. I just hope Larry Summers waits until she leaves Harvard (or he does) before he questions whether genetics explains why most heads of film-production companies are men.

Emily Yellin is the author of Our Mothers’ War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II

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