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Published: 4/20/2005

Fairness: It isn't rocket science

IRONICALLY, some good has emerged from Harvard President Lawrence Summers' controversial remarks about women and science. The debate has raised awareness that women are scandalously underrepresented in the math and science departments of most universities, and the controversy spurred by his boorish comments could lead to more gender fairness.

Mr. Summers' comment back in January that women fall behind in science and engineering because of "intrinsic aptitude" rightly sparked a fire storm. He spent the better part of the winter trying to undo the damage, with little success. The controversy led to a Harvard faculty lack of confidence vote in Mr. Summers last month.

The debate has cast important insight on just how poorly female scientists fare in academia. Although women now hold almost half the doctorates in biology and about a third in chemistry, their work and worth don't get the attention deserved.

At elite research universities, science and engineering faculty are still mostly male, and the women there largely remain at the junior faculty level. In natural sciences at Harvard alone, 149 men have tenure, but only 13 women do.

Mr. Summers should have done something about that long ago, but that's another subject. Unfortunately, Harvard is not alone in its shamefully slow progress of women scientists. Most universities' science faculty are primarily male and white.

Some institutions dutifully trying to fix the age-old problem of discrimination include Princeton, Stanford, MIT, and the Universities of Michigan, Washington, and Wisconsin. They are increasing awareness about unconscious bias, and teaching women how to negotiate salaries, research, and child-care money.

Most people - especially the white men running things - underestimate the extent of bias, and what Harvard and other institutions need to understand is that it doesn't primarily exist among graying white male professors, either.

The fact that Mr. Summers is barely 50 and was a cabinet secretary in the Clinton administration underscores a point made by Michigan mathematics Prof. Mel Hochster. "Everybody has gender bias," he said. "It shows up in every study."

That's why the problem must be consciously addressed, and one would expect the nation's premier universities to take the lead in this effort. The country's female scientists deserve to be treated fairly and to be fairly represented on university faculties.

Anything less isn't scientifically sound. It's also wasting a tremendously talented resource.

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