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Remarks at the National Symposium for the Advancement of Women in Science

Maxwell Dworkin, Cambridge, Mass.

Thank you very much for that kind introduction and thank you very much to the members of the WISHR group for the opportunity to be here, to talk a little bit about what I think are a vitally important set of subjects for the University. I suppose I’ve done my part over the last several months to increase interest in these topics. I wish that interest in these topics had been increased in a somewhat different fashion. But I believe that with the focus that now exists on these topics we have an opportunity to do some things at Harvard that are truly important.

And before I say anything else, I just want to thank some of the people who have been working very hard on this, Mariangela, the meeting we had with the WISHR group, with you and your colleagues, was something that was very very helpful for me and gave me a number of very good ideas. Barbara Grosz, we are very grateful to you for the second time and (I promise you) the last time to be chairing a task force on Women in Science at Harvard and doing such an energetic job of doing that. Margo [Seltzer], that was a splendid presentation we just heard, if the metaphor for your life is a circus, I’ve been thinking a little bit about what the right metaphor for my life is, but I think I probably will choose not to speculate publicly on that particular question.

I see a number of other members of the faculty here and a number of other students who have really been leaders for creating opportunity at the University. While we’re going to talk about programs and policies, we should never lose sight of the fact that it’s individual experiences, one at a time, that probably ultimately make the greatest difference. There are really five things that I want to say here tonight.

First, advancing women in science is an issue of great importance to the University and to our country. Why do I say that? It’s crucial to our University because we will only attract the best students, the best scientists that we possibly can – as undergraduates, as graduate students, as post-docs, as junior faculty, as staff scientists, as senior faculty – we will only attract the best scientists we possibly can if we are searching in the widest possible way, in the largest possible pool. It is a truism that when you fish, if you fish in a larger lake, you will fish more successfully. And in just the same way as we recruit at every level, we need, if we are to meet our standards of excellence, to be certain that we are searching across the entirety of our population. This has always been important, but it is especially important now because we are alive at a time when there is probably more potential for more scientific advancement with direct benefit to humanity than at any time in all of human history.

Whether it is the potential of the life sciences to conquer disease, or of the physical sciences to understand the first millisecond of the cosmos, or of the nanosciences to create new materials that will create potential for individuals and industries to do things they have never done before, there has never been a moment when the potential contribution of science was so great and therefore when the potential contribution of every possible scientist to science has been more important.

And at the same time, speaking as an American and an American who at one point had some responsibility for the performance of our national economy, the training of American scientists and American engineers is something that is of great importance to our future prosperity and of great importance to the standard of living to all of our fellow citizens at a time when we are facing competition on a global scale. And that makes it especially important that no one be left behind as we think about preparing people for scientific careers. So my first proposition: the advancement of women in science is profoundly important for our university and our country and has never been more important.

My second proposition: This means everyone looking within themselves and thinking about their attitudes and their judgments as they go about their work. Take a sphere that is removed from science, the sphere of instrumental music. There was a time when if you looked at those who performed in orchestras the vast proportion of the performers were male. And if you looked at those who played big brass instruments the proportion who were male was even higher; and if you asked the reason why, the explanation that was given was really quite clear, it was that men just practice harder, they just somehow have more intensity and ability and with respect to the big brass instruments they have more wind-power and because they have more wind-power they are better able to play those instruments.

And then, something happened: research, an empirical experiment. They started doing auditions in exactly the same way with just one difference: that one difference was that there was a big screen between the people who were listening to the music. All of a sudden, not in ten years, not in five years, not in three years, all of a sudden, the people who were making the judgments, all of whom were certain that bias was something that happens to somebody else, all of a sudden were making different choices. Now all of a sudden, the fraction of the people who were selected who were women went up. This is not something that is unique to the world of symphony orchestras.

The experiment has been done now in a number of different fields with peer-reviewed journals. You send the same paper to the journal, you send it with the name John, you send it with the name Jane. The fraction of the time that the paper is revised and resubmitted changes. The experiment’s been done in a different way. You send the papers out with individuals’ names – or, when it’s possible in some fields, you send the papers out for anonymous review where you don’t know who wrote the paper – and all of a sudden, women do better. By the way, these biases, the best available research suggests, are not the unique preserve of men. When women make the judgments, there are similar biases.

Anyone who has not done so and wants to learn some things about themselves that they may, or may not, like learning, should go to Professor Mahzarin Banaji in the Psychology Department website and take her tests and see what you learn about your own attitudes. I found it instructive, and I suspect many of you would find it instructive as well. Now, we can recognize these biases, we can point up and point out these biases, we can exhort with respect to these biases, but we also need to think structurally about how to counteract these biases. Some of the members of the faculty will have seen the provocative and challenging paper that Michelle Lamont circulated at the December FAS meeting. It reviewed a number of different literatures that looked at hiring practices and looked at experiences to shed light on these questions. But the second thing that I want to say is that if a lawyer who defends himself has a fool for a client, any of us who think that we can for ourselves judge whether we are biased or not are probably making a serious mistake. So we all need to think about what we can learn from data about our own unconscious biases and think structurally about what to do about those biases.

The third observation that I would make is this, and it’s something that Margot touched on in many ways. Science is team play, it is a social activity, and the young are impressionable. I am a professional economist today in small part probably because of my family background, and in larger part because of an experience I had working as a research assistant for Professor Feldstein when I was a sophomore in college. I devoted a substantial part of my career to concerns of the developing world, and economic development and growth in the developing world, because of an experience that I was provided with in my time in graduate school when I was invited to spend a month in Indonesia.

Some of my earlier aspirations to go into other fields I didn’t pursue in part because of the very positive and exciting opportunities I had in economics, but in part because of experiences where I lagged slightly and was made to feel inadequate because of the ways in which I lagged and therefore became discouraged and lagged further. My physics career ended the day that I as a freshman in physics was asked to answer a question involving the placement of a charge near a very large sphere, and one was supposed to work out certain properties of that, and if any of you who have studied this will recognize what I somehow managed to fail to recognize at the time, which was the idea was that if the charge was very close to a very large sphere you could think of it as being a charge like near a very large plane, and you could use what the textbook had taught you about a charge near a very large plane, and that it wasn’t really a very hard question. I, however, decided that very near was touching the sphere and tried to answer the question in terms of a charged sphere.

And the person who saw my answer looked on with a certain stunned belief that I could be so stupid. And it really discouraged me. Now I kind of think actually looking at it thirty years later, the world is probably just as well off that I decided to become an economist rather than a physicist, but the experience was actually a very powerful one.

And so, the third thing I would say, is that we need to think very hard about the positive examples that we create – that’s why Barbara’s committee is looking so hard at research assistantship experiences, is looking so hard at networking experiences for women and for men who are interested in science, seems to me to be such a positive thing. But we also need to look at the avoidance of the negative kind of experience that I described. Now I’m a reasonably robust fellow and somehow have survived that particular experience, but it gives a sense of the kind of things that happen in classrooms every day. And as we think about the ways in which we train teaching fellows, as we think about the ways in which we train those of us who are on the senior faculty, we need to be very conscious of the practices, the ways – almost no one has ill intent, almost no one is trying to discourage people or trying to stereotype people or doing anything wrong – but we need to think very hard about helping people to avoid perpetuating those kinds of signals that just as a single experience can turn someone on to a career that is different than the career that they might have otherwise had, so a single experience can turn someone off to a career they might have had. It’s something we should think about at Harvard. That over half of students who enter Harvard enter saying they want to be scientists and roughly a quarter of students end up majoring in science, and I am told the attrition rate appears to be somewhat greater for women than it is for men, and that too should be a matter of concern.

So the third proposition I would want to leave you with is that science is a team sport, it is a social activity, and the environments that we create will have a very large impact on the choices that people make. And of course in that regard these points all relate because one very important part of the environment that is inevitably there is the set of role models and the question of critical mass that both Barbara and Margot referred to.

The fourth thing I would say is that these are everyone’s issues. There is a tendency to think of presentations like the one that Margot gave so ably as being presentations about women’s lives, trying to balance all of these many dimensions. And our society has a long way to go in terms of balancing taking care of parents or balancing taking care of children or balancing taking care of a household. But these issues of balancing self, balancing family and friends, balancing work, being able to say no, are issues that are issues in everyone’s life and affect everyone’s professional fulfillment and satisfaction.

My ability to balance to the extent I’ve been able to balance these last years, has depended upon making a decision that I was going to establish a schedule at the beginning of each year of the weekend and vacation and other times I was going to spend with my children and the answer in that time was “no” – no if there was a really important appointment to be had, no if a donor was coming to town, the answer was “no.” And you know what, the world still turns. My father said about somebody, something years ago that stuck with me. He said of this person, “He believes he’s indispensable, but he’s not willing to put the proposition to a test.” It’s a very powerful thought, and it’s one that we all should keep in mind.

You know, universities like ours were structured in their basic structure many years ago and it’s probably an exaggeration but not too much of one to say that they were designed by men for men. That affects the concept of what the career path is and what the most critical moments of the career path are, that affects the timing of when various meetings are scheduled to take place, that affects in some ways what the concepts of excellence are that are most valued. But many of the things that we will do to make universities – after all, university is a word that is a lot like universal – to make universities available for anyone, will make it more comfortable for the fathers who want to pick up their children, for the men who want to support their partners in extraordinarily demanding careers outside of the academy, for the families of faculty who want to live their lives in ways that they are role models who are attractive for students, both male and female. So we need to understand that this is everyone’s issue, it is everyone’s issue because expanding the pool of scientists and getting the best people we can in science is everyone’s issue, and it is everyone’s issue because the kind of changes that make this a better community are everyone’s issue.

I have a fifth and final observation. This is a challenge that requires effort that is both focused, intense, and, above all, sustained. The challenges that we’re describing, the issues here – at Harvard or any other major university, or at any major company – were not created in a day, a month, a year, a decade, or a century. And there is no single silver bullet of a program that is going to make them go away. There is no single announcement that is going to change the implicit biases or the inherited attitudes overnight or quickly. And so just as we need to focus on getting started with intensity, we need to focus intensely over time and we need to establish the mechanisms that assure that people are thinking about this not when it’s very much in the news as it has been for the last several months, but when it is no longer in the news but the challenge is still very much there.

There will come a day, I suspect, when Barbara will see what she wants to see and all the lectures at the science center will be given by women and no one will notice, but that day is sufficiently remote that I think we need as a University, but much more broadly, we as a society need to make sure that we are set up to sustain a very strong and focused effort on these critically important issues: sustaining the effort, it is everybody’s challenge, it is a team sport where our community matters, it starts with the attitudes that each of us have and this is really important. Those are the messages that I want to leave you with. This has, as you can imagine, been a period of substantial and rather intense immersion and education for me on the topics that I have just been discussing. And I hope I’ve learned a few things.

I know that there is one additional thing that I’ve learned and that is that what Harvard does and says has an enormous resonance that goes beyond zip code 02138. And so it is my hope that the steps that we as a community, building on recommendations that Barbara Grosz and Evelynn Hammonds, Drew Faust and many, many others are going to make, building on the ideas that the WISHR group is going to come up with, and the further explorations and surveys that we’re going to do over the next couple of years, it is my hope that just as in so many other areas from professional education to financial aid, where what Harvard has done has been able, over time, to have a much broader impact, that in this area, too, Harvard can be a positive and strong example.

Thank you very much.