I’ve lived through decades of prejudice against women, and have been a feminist all of my life. Still, over the years, as I learned to live with sexism, I became less easily shocked.
Back in 2005, however, one experience set me off with a surprisingly fresh anger. Larry Summers, the then President of Harvard University, stated that women might be innately less able than men in the area of science and engineering. He was making a speech at a Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce sponsored by the National Bureau of Economic Research. In his speech, Summers suggested three reasons why women were underrepresented in top-tier engineering and science positions. He acknowledged that employers wanted high-power performers, and women were often distracted by family concerns; he recognized that searches were often laden with discriminatory practices, and that being well socialized, women simply didn’t apply. Both true, if unfortunate. But in that speech, Summers also floated a third reason. He said it was possible that women were naturally less endowed with scientific minds. Biologically, he was suggesting, women were more stupid than men in the fields of science.
What enraged me wasn’t just the arrogance, the disdain or even the sneering way in which he introduced the theory: he called it “an attempt at provocation” (not even entirely owning the statement). Certain men (or even women), when in power, can use their privileged position to be condescending. (Charlie Baker’s recent treatment of MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott comes to mind…)
What enraged me then, thinking of Summers’ comment, was that deep inside, he really believed it. Worse still, although plenty of women and men reacted negatively to Summers’ speech, and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted to censure him, many individuals, television shows, and editorials supported him. The majority of students at Harvard supported him. Prominent female professors rallied to his side, accepting the legitimacy of his claim. Even a dear friend of mine who worked at MIT in admissions, someone who fought hard to diversify the student body by recruiting students of color, even he guessed that Summers might have a point.
What shocked me the most was that, at least momentarily, I also wondered whether Summers might just might be right. “I’d like to be proven wrong on this one,” Summers had taunted, and, I feared secretly, that the proof might not be there. My own experience didn’t help. I had stopped my own science education at high school Biology; the last Mathematics I covered was Algebra 2. In the late sixties, that was acceptable: I was female, and “naturally” gifted in English, History and the Arts. Later in my career, although responsible for a half-million dollar budget, I still sweated over my spreadsheets. Working around economists, I was mystified by regression analyses. Several years ago, taking a course in diesel engines, I was lost at basic electronics.
Maybe, I feared, there was some truth to the notion that – for whatever reason – women were inferior in the fields of higher Mathematics or Science. Politically, my instincts told me that this was rubbish, but….
I’ve learned since that I was simply a victim of a phenomenon called “stereotype threat”. Since the late ‘90’s, plenty of studies have been done on this phenomenon, proving that groups subject to prejudice, internalize the prejudice, and perform less well because of it. It’s an unconscious reaction, precisely because discrimination is so insidious.
So, if you, like me, are ever prone to believing the worst about yourself because of what hostile social forces repeat about your group, here are a few tips:
- Surround yourself with positive, mind-changing models (much like Hazel Bright did when she worked with a group of other smart Black students who loved Math and were determined not to fail)
- Work to change the mindset, then recognize how much you’ve learned (as I did when I studied Excel’s Pivot Tables, took courses in Financial Management, and asked many questions of our firm’s best financial analysts).
- Ease off on that group identity: Yes, I’m certainly a woman, but that truth doesn’t totally define me. Unlike the stereotype, I’m not flightly, flirty, weak, or dependent. (Hint: Most of us aren’t.)
- And, if you’re interested in learning about your own hidden biases, take an online test run by Harvard University’s Project Implicit. It’s free, it’s fun, and you’ll be surprised at exactly how much you’ve been socialized. Once you know, you can work to overcome.
 “The Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard approved a resolution on Tuesday expressing a lack of confidence in the leadership of the university’s president, Lawrence H. Summers, citing longstanding dissatisfaction with his management style and, to a lesser extent, his remarks in January about women in math and science. The vote was 218 in favor and 185 opposed, with 18 abstentions”. Rimer, Sarah, “Professors, in Close Vote, Censure Harvard Leader”, New York Times, March 16, 2005.
 “By a three-to-one margin, undergraduates do not think that Lawrence H. Summers should resign his post as University president, according to a poll conducted by The Crimson this weekend.” Javier C. Hernandez and Daniel J.T. Schuker, “Poll: Students Say Summers Should Stay”, The Harvard Crimson, February 20, 2006.
 But Lee Professor of Economics Claudia Goldin, whose own research has examined the progress of women in academia and professional life, said she “was pretty flummoxed” by the negative response to Summers’ speech, which—in her view—displayed “utter brilliance.” Hemel, Daniel J. “Summers’ Comments on Women and Science Draw Ire Remarks at private conference stir criticism, media frenzy”,The Harvard Crimson, January 14, 2005
 Artze-Vega, Isis, “Wanted: Inclusive Teaching Practices”, NEA Higher Education Advocate , January 2015. (An article on how professors can help their students overcome the phenomenon of “stereotype threat”.)