Why Larry Summers Is a Bad Choice for an Obama Administration


As President-elect Obama moves quickly to assemble his team, women leaders monitoring his choices have put up a red alert about a reported short-list choice as secretary of the Treasury. Veronica Arreola, an educator and advocate for women in the sciences, explains why.

I am the president of the Larry Summers fan club. As the director of the Women in Science and Engineering program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, you might find that odd.

After his infamous statement in 2005 that women and girls had an intrinsic handicap towards math, explaining my job was a moot point. Everyone in my circle of friends and around the country knew the importance of running an academic support program for women majoring in science and engineering at a Research I institution. Despite the fact that women are going to college in record numbers and increasingly majoring in sciences, there are still those out in the world who think women just can't hack it in the end. It also was an easier sell to donors and funders about the importance of the WISE office and our mission. So thank you, Larry for making my case so eloquently.

After his departure from the Harvard presidency he faded from the limelight. This week his name, along with New York Federal Reserve Chairman Timothy Geithner, has been bandied about as secretary of the treasury in the incoming Obama administration (can I just say how amazing it is to say that? The Obama administration!). Could the man who sold America on change seriously be considering appointing a man who suggested that Malia, Sasha and all of our daughters have a genetic disposition from not being able to math? Sadly yes.

As the head of the U.S. Treasury, Larry Summers would be in charge of advising on economic and tax policy in this country and abroad. This is a man who believes that women's inability to do math has MORE impact on the lack of women in science and engineering than discrimination. The lack of women in science and engineering is important to our economy in at least two ways. First, our country is sorely in need of scientists and engineers. The fact that women represent just 12 percent of the science and engineering workforce (cited from Obama's Change.gov website) means that we are underutilizing women's skills in this area--a fact that Summers just might take issue with because you know, we can't do math.

Second, science and engineering fields have some of the lowest wage gaps and engineering women earn 95 cents to a man's dollar. Equal pay was a cornerstone of the Obama campaign and is on his Women's Agenda. Discrimination has been reduced, but it is still a factor in why women only earn 77 cents to a man's dollar and as low as 52 cents for women of color. In order to turn this economy around and allow everyone to participate and benefit, we must have someone in charge of the economy who understands how women are affected in the market and work place.

Even without his appointment, Larry Summers is a top advisor to President-elect Obama and that is troubling in itself. When I think about who I want at the president-elect's ear on economic issues, I do not picture a person who scoffs at discrimination, who suggests that Africa is under-polluted, or says that using sweatshop labor in Asia is justified. Is that the type of change we want to see in the next administration? We don't want to feel as though we could have saved ourselves the heartbreak and voted for John "All women need is more training for fair pay" McCain.

President-elect Obama has a lot of work ahead to sell me and my colleagues on Summers.

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