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Unless you've been living under a rock or in an ivory tower, or been under a rock in an ivory tower, you've probably heard something about the brouhaha surrounding this speech, given last month by Larry Summers, the president of Harvard University. In it, he makes some controversial speculations about why women have not been as successful in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), particularly in graduate programs. I'll comment more on the crux of the controversy later, but if you have only heard paraphrasings of the speech, please do glance over it and this letter, posted by Summers on his website six days ago, for yourself. Wordy as it is, there's nothing like the source material, as I averred to dragnflye in a later discussion.

On a tangentially related note: Topics such as the above are difficult in the extreme to convince any other human being about, unless they already agree with you somewhat, but I was very gratified today to have masaga come up after I presented Kevin Knight's survey "What's New in Statistical Machine Translation" and tell me that he's interested in pursuing MT as an M.S. thesis topic! Most exciting.

Kevin's was an invited talk delivered in August, 2003 at UAI-2003 in Acapulco. (Apropos de rien: Kevin knows about Corbin of Ember's cameo in my last of three chapters in The Lord of the... Whatever, a parody of The Lord of the Rings. I told him about my homage right after he gave this talk, in fact.)



( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 24th, 2005 07:59 pm (UTC)
Sans doute!

What did you think?

Feb. 25th, 2005 08:39 pm (UTC)
The Harvard Mess
Actually, this has turned out to be a bit overblown. It did make waves in Cambridge, Massachusetts, mostly with women who graduated from MIT. Summers has apologized repeadedly (there was at least one apology a day in the Boston Globe for a week). I think he only raised it as a possibility to be tested, not a certain belief about women in his organization. Also, it rubbed the Harvard and MIT communities wrong because he has not been the most approachable president of Harvard. Still, the whole thing is really overblown. Incidentally, during the first week after he said it, I was asked about this at least twice a day by friends and acquaintances. While I don't agree with him, I do think he had a right to say it and he has apologized.
Feb. 25th, 2005 09:03 pm (UTC)
The right to remain silent - or not
Thanks for the perspective, lurkinglaurie; I was aware that he had apologized once before his letter, but not that he had been doing so for some time. By all means, he had a right to say it, not to mention the privilege of the pulpit. It is rather the latter that makes the comment less than responsible.

I do think the error in judgement he made thereby should have blown over by now, and I do agree that it brings an important topic to light; but while I don't think he ought to resign, I also don't think the people who are calling for him to should be waved of as PC fascists either. (To be sure, some are, and some are not.)

BTW, Newsweek reported that Summers is popular among Harvard students and alumni because they consider him accessible. Is it just that the previous ones were worse, or is this an example of Newsweek's whatever-leaning bias?

Feb. 27th, 2005 04:45 pm (UTC)
Re: The right to remain silent - or not
I feel like the dreadful cold that I have translated to the keyboard. I just noticed that several letter 't's turned into letter 'd's while I was typing earlier.

Having spoken with several staff members of Harvard University and Harvard Med School, I haven't heard that he is particularly approachable. Of course, all of my direct experience is with MIT presidents and I was lucky enough to study when Paul Gray was president. He was (and is) extremely approachable and a genuinely delightful person.

I think the question this brings to light is why there are fewer women in science, math and engineering. For myself, I suspect it is a combination of factors. First off, in the high school that I went attended, it was very socially unacceptable to be into science and math and have the grades for someplace like MIT. I know that I finally decided that I really didn't care what my fellow students thought. My interests were so different anyway that I gleefully pursued science and history. Once I was at MIT, it was a genuine relief to be around other people with similar interests. MIT accepts about 30% women right now so there are definitely women pursuing science and technology and succeeding. It just takes the sort of woman who really doesn't care what others think.

The second problem is combining work and family once school is complete. Once women have children, they usually have to find some sort of compromise that allows them to work and care for children. In any sort of science or engineering job, the hours tend to be long (including research positions). That said, I have seen a number of really inventive solutions to the problem. Arguably, it is women who have pioneered flex time and doing technology jobs from home. I am still doing an engineering job while raising my son and I can actually juggle the two. Granted, I was lucky enough to have Matthew in a genuinely excellent school district that has made my job easier.

Finally, I have been approached by several girls who are intrigued that I do computers. They are genuinely fascinated by the fact that I program professionally and have gotten into the profession. Several of them have asked how I got to where I am and how they can do it.

I think we may see more women in the next generation as they see how each generation that preceeds them manages.

Anyway, this is a bit long winded but I have spent a bit of time reflecting on this.
Feb. 24th, 2005 05:30 pm (UTC)
Yes, you may delete this after making the corrections
Convincable -> convincible

stray carriage return after "brouhaha surrounding"

missing "by" in front of first reference to "Larry Summers"
Feb. 24th, 2005 07:58 pm (UTC)
Dragons and editing
Hrm, so I see now that you mention it. Thanks. (My days of winning spelling bees, or coming in third as the case may be, are long past.)

stray carriage return after "brouhaha surrounding"
Noticed taht myelf.

missing "by" in front of first reference to "Larry Summers"

Wot would I do without my faithful draconic reader-editor?
(Hrm, you know, in latter days of tanelos, there was an adage among the Terionach that a sky-drake could never read without editing.)

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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