The issue of women in science has been writ large in the news recently. The president of Harvard University, Lawrence H. Summers, provoked an outcry after he was widely reported to have suggested that men outperform women in maths and sciences as a result of innate genetic differences. He added that he believes there are no longer any barriers to the careers of female academics. (It is notable, however, that the fraction of tenure offers to women has fallen from 36% to 13% at Harvard since Summers was appointed in 2001.) Summers made the incendiary remarks at a private conference on women and minorities in science and engineering at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He has since issued a statement claiming some of his words have been misrepresented and apologizes for not having weighed his comments more carefully. “I was wrong to have spoken in a way that has resulted in an unintended signal of discouragement to talented girls and women,” he writes. Summers received letters that “made vivid the very real barriers faced by women in pursuing scientific and other academic careers” and has now announced proactive measures at Harvard that will support women scholars.

The Association of Women in Science responded to Summers' speech by sending a letter signed by 25 eminent scientists to a number of newspapers. “If society, teachers, and leaders like President Summers expect (overtly or subconsciously) that girls and women will not perform as well as boys and men, there is a good chance many will not perform as well,” they write. They contrast the lack of progress in addressing female representation in science and technology with the way it has altered radically in medicine and the law. “We must continue to address the multitude of small and subtle ways in which people of all kinds are discouraged from pursuing interest in scientific and technical fields.”

At Harvard's neighbor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the new president Susan Hockfield has made much of the institute's positive record in recruiting and promoting female academics. Between 1990 and 2004, the number of women faculty increased from 96 (10%) to 178 (18%). These advances are the result of concerted efforts on behalf of the institute, and show what can be achieved with an enlightened response to the issue of gender underrepresentation.

If the research community is to be a true meritocracy with everyone's achievements valued appropriately, it is clear that such efforts must be made to challenge the status quo. The underrepresentation of women in senior positions is partly the result of a male-dominated culture. This includes having to deal with competitive rather than collaborative management styles, systems, or performance criteria set by men for men. The science community needs to examine whether its career progression path is guilty at an institutional level of not valuing properly the contribution of talented women.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(05)00719-4