Academia's Glass Ceiling: IHEs Must Work Harder to Reverse Prejudiced Beliefs about the Male/female Achievement Gap

Article excerpt

Harvard president Lawrence Summers created a firestorm of controversy when he rashly speculated that the under-representation of women faculty in science and engineering may result from innate biological differences between the genders. He later said his remarks were misconstrued, but he should have known better.

Every university faculty member and student should be free to express his or her opinions and ideas. That concept is fundamental to the idea of a university. We cannot defend academic freedom only for those with whom we agree. Nonetheless, there are three reasons Summers's statements are disturbing:

* His statements fly in the face of the latest scientific research.

* Summers is a distinguished economist, but he is not a psychologist or biologist. Thus, his credentials to address the topic are shaky.

* Sadly, he may have contributed significantly to the very problem he was addressing.

Many young girls encounter teachers or counselors who believe they lack the ability to succeed in science or mathematics. Those negative beliefs affect the student's choices, self-concept, and aspirations as well as how the adults interpret the questions she asks and the work she produces.

Young women who are told by authority figures that they are not smart enough to master or excel in mathematics and science are less likely to pursue careers in those fields--except for those who are unusually resilient and self-confident. Many young women, including the best and the brightest, have been persuaded that they are inferior.

In a 1994 study of the science pipeline funded by the National Science Foundation, I examined a national sample of college students who were asked to rate their own ability in mathematics twice--as first-year students and again three years later. I studied only those students who were in the top 10 percent, based on their score on the quantitative portion of the SAT. Though they had been told their score and their percentile rank by the College Board, only about a quarter of the women who actually were in the top 10 percent believed that they were in both questionnaires.

Imagine the impact on, say, a 12-year-old girl of learning that the president of the world's leading university has suggested that women may be innately inferior.

Programs to confront these negative expectations and prejudiced beliefs have dramatically reversed the male/female achievement gap as well as the White/minority achievement gap. …