Harvard Pledges to Fix Gender Gap

Still smarting from a controversy over the role of women in science, Harvard University President Larry Summers today gave his thumbs up to a plan which would pump $50 million over the next decade into creating a more diverse academic community at the campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "Our aspiration is that Harvard would be a leader in this sphere," he told reporters upon release of two reports he commissioned in February to examine the matter.

Harvard has long lagged behind many other major research universities in the diversity of its faculty in some disciplines. Last year, for example, four women and 28 men at Harvard received tenure offers. The long-simmering issue came to a head in January, when Summers made remarks questioning the innate ability of women in the sciences (Science, 28 January 2005, p. 492). The resulting outcry prompted a national debate, an apology by Summers, and a vote of no confidence by the Harvard faculty.

What makes the Harvard plan unique, according task force members who produced the reports, is its attempt to deal with all aspects of gender and minority issues, from the safety of women working late at night at research labs to the need for a high-level advocate for diversity in the Harvard administration. Among its recommendations, the task force on women faculty called for the appointment of a senior provost who would work closely with Harvard deans to promote gender and ethnic equity. It also urged funding for women and minority faculty to set up labs and conduct research. Furthermore, the task force recommended the university enhance maternity leave practices, child-care support, and adjust the tenure clock to account for families with children. "Women need to see careers in science as desirable and realistic life choices," says computer scientist Barbara Grosz, who chaired the task force. "We can't afford to continue losing talent to obstacles that we have the means to overcome."

Means will not be a problem, Summers assured reporters. He noted that to succeed, the university must overcome "issues of culture" within a university created "by men for men." Women researchers and university officials around the country will be watching closely to see how well Harvard succeeds in transforming that culture in the coming years.

Posted in Education, Scientific Community