The recent comments by Harvard president Lawrence Summers about “innate”
gender differences in the mathematical sciences may have caused outrage,
but they weren’t all that surprising. Like golf, Harvard and the “hard”
sciences have been the bastion of men for quite some time. It is only in
the past few decades that women have significantly entered into a zone
previously considered forbidden.
I entered Harvard graduate school in 1983 to pursue a PhD in chemical
physics. At the time, only a handful of female students formed the incoming
class of about 25. The only female faculty member in chemistry was an
assistant professor. Rumour had it that one big-name prof in organic
chemistry refused to take any female graduate students. In my six years
there, his research group remained an exclusive men’s club. He later went
on to win a Nobel Prize.
One of my classmates was a whiz, entering Harvard at 20 and leaving with a
PhD at 24. She was also an exceptional seamstress and baseball player. I
wonder where she would fit into Dr. Summers’s view of the world.
We never felt inferior — or superior — to our male counterparts. We just
loved science. Somewhere along the line, we had been inspired to pursue our
dreams, and given the opportunity to do so. And to use our God-given
inquisitiveness to explore the wonders of creation. The naysayers only
served to strengthen our resolve to seek knowledge…
In my case, the criticism also came from a few men of the Harvard Islamic
Society. “A good Muslim woman,” one male PhD candidate told me, “shouldn’t
study for a PhD.” He also occasionally gave the Friday sermon. As the only
woman in attendance for a number of years, I would hear, on one hand, how
Islam honoured women and, on the other, how we were created inferior to men.
At one point, I thought that, if my religion relegated me to second-class
status as a human being by virtue of the way I was created, then I wanted
no part of such an unjust view. Inherently, I knew God was just. After much
soul-searching and reading, I came to realize that the chauvinistic views
held by some Muslims were in direct conflict with the teachings of Islam
and the example of the first generation of Muslims, considered as the best