Harvard's women four years later

Abstract

559 Laurie H. Glimcher is in the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases, Harvard School of Public Health, and the Department of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, and Judy Lieberman is at the Immune Disease Institute, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, USA. e-mail: lieberman@idi.med.harvard.edu or lglimcher@hsph.harvard.edu way of coping with motherhood in the context of an every-third-night call schedule that amounted to approximately 110-hour work weeks, she was told that if she took a leave, she would not have a position to return to. In that context, the women of our generation who did stick with it, and succeeded in earning faculty positions, were unusually capable, hardworking and dedicated. Fortunately for today’s women students, the climate for women in science and medical research has vastly improved in the past 25 years. Although HMS was historically more hostile to women students than most medical schools and did not admit women until 1945, for some time now the graduate and medical school classes have been about equally divided between men and women students. When one of us was teaching a small group of medical students recently and mentioned discrimination against women at the medical school, the students looked quizzical; they did not feel that the terrain is in any way unequal. Overt discrimination, at least in its grossest manifestations, is largely a matter of history. However, women are still substantially under-represented among the highest faculty ranks at Harvard and other medical research institutions. At HMS, 12.6% of full professors, 24.6% of associate professors, 35.5% of assistant professors and 47.5% of instructors are women. Statistics at other American research universities are not that different. This inadequate representation of women at the top of the profession is partly historical, as the oldest full professors were hired when few women were in the pipeline. Immunology has always attracted more women than other biomedical research areas, and in the Harvard immunology program, women have fared relatively well; 20% of full professors are women, and several of these women have secured membership in a major university president carry substantial weight and need to be carefully thought out. That said, we supported Summers’ clearly articulated goal as president to advance and expand the basic sciences at Harvard, and we now hope that his remarkable talents will help mitigate the devastating course of the economic crisis. Women scientists have come a long way since the authors of this article entered college at Harvard in the late 1960s. At that time there were only two women professors in the entire university, and very few women science students. Like us, they mostly came out of unusual family constellations and subcultures that valued science and were ahead of their times in thinking that women could do anything that men could. Both of us are from families that had no sons, which might also have played a role in family expectations and opportunities. The rise of the women’s movement in the 1970s changed the landscape of what was possible for young women as more women entered graduate medicine and science programs and began to be hired onto the faculty at Harvard and elsewhere. By the time we enrolled in medical school at Harvard, about a quarter of the students were women. However, occasional lectures contained inappropriate sexual slurs, faculty sometimes made inappropriate sexual advances and some hospital physicians were still prejudiced against women. The attending surgeon supervising one of us (J.L.) remarked that there was nothing he disliked more than “a left-handed woman”. The Harvard Medical School (HMS) area, with its thousands of students, faculty and staff, contained no day care facility or other accommodations to the needs of women and families. Parental leave was unheard of; when one of us (J.L.) became pregnant as a medical intern in 1981 and asked for a leave of absence as a It has been four years since Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard (and now director of the National Economic Council), in a speech to the National Bureau of Economic Research on women scientists unleashed a maelstrom that eventually led to his resignation. In his talk, which followed a year in which only 4 of 32 tenure-track offers in the university were made to women, he speculated on the reasons for the underrepresentation of women in science and, in particular, in the upper ranks of science faculty. He suggested that the most important factor is that women, especially those with children, were reluctant to put in the necessary work hours. Summers proposed as the second most important factor—the one that provoked the outrage—a difference in natural ability between boys and girls that is caused by innate disparities rather than by differences in socialization or environment. According to Summers, this factor leads to fewer girls than boys in the ‘tails’ of bell-shaped curves depicting measures of native abilities, which are the presumed source of elite science faculty. Discrimination against women was ranked as a distant third among the postulated contributing factors. Essentially, Summers said what many others presumably think privately. Although we do not think that intellectual discourse in academia should be ruled by political correctness, the pronouncements of Harvard’s women four years later

DOI: 10.1038/ni0609-559

Cite this paper

@article{Glimcher2009HarvardsWF, title={Harvard's women four years later}, author={L. H. Glimcher and Judy Lieberman}, journal={Nature Immunology}, year={2009}, volume={10}, pages={559-561} }