The Power of Words: Lawrence Summers' 2005 Speech on Inequality Essay

The Power of Words: Lawrence Summers' 2005 Speech on Inequality Essay

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Words can be powerful, especially when those words are spoken by the president of a top university. In a 2005 speech by Lawrence Summers, he put forth the hypothesis that there are more men than women in the most high end positions due to a different set of measurable attributes, rather than it being caused by pervasive sexism or discrimination. To make it to the top of highly demanding fields, one has to be of exceptional quality and these are “people who are three and a half, four standard deviations above the mean in the one in 5,000, one in 10,000 class” (Summers, 2005). Summers is making the point that we should analyze the dataset that produces this type of result, rather than saying it’s all because of discrimination. Summers does not deny that discrimination exists, but he argues it cannot explain every difference. While there are more women in science and math based majors than ever before, fewer of them are in the top research positions that require the most demanding work and longest hours. Summers was strongly criticized and forced to resign as president of Harvard.
The forced resignation of Summers was unjust. It’s easy to say that Summers is being sexist in his remarks, because his comments can be construed as promoting inequality among the sexes. But he prefaced his marks by saying that he was making observations based on data and not trying to be political. Summers points to other examples, such as white men being underrepresented in the National Basketball Association (NBA) and Jews not having enough representation in farming and agriculture. Does that mean those groups are discriminated against, or is it that they don’t possess the characteristics, or even a natural desire, to excel in those fields?
Summers h...

... middle of paper ... be a bad thing.
The final conclusion of the hypothesis put forth by Summers is still up in the air. While he has not presented mountains of data, he has made an empirical case through his own observations that seem to support what scientists already believe. That there is a different mental capacity between men and women, but the exact influences on those capacities are unknown. Summers was definitely unfairly criticized for talking about his observations. The outrage sparked by his speech speaks to a socially constructed view that the ways in which men and women are different should not be discussed in the open.

Works Cited

Summers, L. H. (2005, January 14). Remarks at NBER Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce. In The Office of the President. Retrieved July 17, 2011, from

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