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Tuesday, February 8, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sex and science: the Harvard gaffe

HARVARD University President Lawrence Summers made the best of a gaffe in which he suggested that innate sex differences might explain the scarcity of women in math and science careers.

As odd and embarrassing as the comment was coming from the president of such a prestigious school, Summers is trying to make lemonade from lemons by offering new ways to improve the status and working environment for women at Harvard. That's not a bad end result. Anybody can make a gaffe. Not everyone is willing to turn their unfortunate words into something positive.

Summers last week appointed two task forces: one on women in the faculty, another to explore women in science and engineering. Both are asked to craft recommendations to increase recruiting and promotion of women.

In a perfect world, boosting the presence and status of women would be an ongoing goal of the school president because it is the right thing to do, not because he goofed and owes women an apology. But whatever it takes.

As might be expected, the president's unfortunate comments did not occur in a vacuum. It turns out Harvard already had issues with women faculty. The New York Times reports that 50 female professors presented proposals last October to Harvard administrators seeking to improve the number and status of women on the faculty.

The female professors had a point, if at the moment of embarrassment and acknowledging a mistake, the president decided to do some of what they have been seeking for months.

Summers is taking the right steps, albeit belatedly. If it takes mopping up a mess of his own creation, he is at least getting something positive out of an unfortunate blunder.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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