Monday, January 24, 2005

Harvard president walks out of emergency meeting

Harvard president Lawrence Summers stormed out of a closed-door emergency session on snow removal at the University on Sunday afternoon. While a transcript of the session is not available, it appears that a disagreement arose after Summers discovered that over 90% of those performing weekend snow removal at Harvard were male.

Summers calls for more women in Snow Jobs
When asked to explain the imbalance Jeffery Smith, Harvard’s Director of Facilities Maintenance, suggested that many factors might be involved. He offered three possible explanations, in declining order of importance, for the small number of women in snow removal positions. The first was the reluctance or inability of women who have children to work 18-hour shifts during snow emergencies when schools are cancelled.

His second point was that fewer girls than boys have high skills in operating power equipment. ''I said no one really understands why this is, and it's an area of ferment in social science," Smith said in an interview later. ''Research in behavioral genetics is showing that things people previously attributed to socialization weren't" due to socialization after all.

This was the point that most angered Summers. Several at the meeting reported that Smith said that women do not have the same ''innate ability" or ''natural ability" as men in some fields. Asked about this, Smith said, ''It's possible I made some reference to innate differences. . . I did say that you have to be careful in attributing things to socialization. . . That's what we would prefer to believe, but these are things that need to be studied."

Keep your hand on the snowplow
In his response, according to several participants, Smith also used as an example one of his daughters, who as a child was given two snowplows in an effort at gender-neutral parenting. Yet she treated them almost like dolls, naming one of them ''daddy plow," and one ''baby plow."

It was during his comments on ability that Summers, sitting only 10 feet from Smith, closed his computer, put on his coat, and walked out. Summers said later that if he hadn't left, ''I would've either blacked out or thrown up."

However, the problem of women in snow removal is one that Summers is confronting in his role as university president. The percentage of job offers made to women by the university's Maintenance Services has dropped dramatically since Summers took office. Summers has called last year's results, when only four of 32 job offers went to women, unacceptable and promised to work on the problem. However, some Harvard professors have questioned his commitment to diversity snow jobs.

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