Acing the Summers Debate

By Coach Kathy Kemper

Published on 6/22/2005
USA Today

Not so long ago, I can remember a national controversy erupting when a prominent male figure suggested that women were inherently inferior to men.

Yet, unlike last month’s debate over Larry Summers’ comments about women’s under-representation in the fields of science and engineering, this controversy took place far from academia. And instead of being settled in the court of public opinion, it was simply settled on the courts.

The year was 1973, and tennis great Billie Jean King had already rocked professional tennis and stunned the world by smashing every last glass ceiling with her powerful serve and tireless crusade for women’s equality. She already had twenty titles at Wimbledon under her belt and was responsible for organizing the Women’s Tennis Association, a union that gave women players more bargaining power.

But all those accomplishments just weren’t good enough for tennis champ Bobby Riggs, who claimed that he could easily beat King in a match simply because men were inherently superior to women.

So what was King’s response? Did she challenge Riggs’ rights to make such remarks? Did she try to get him kicked out of tennis for his comments? Did she cause a stir in the media over the whole debacle?

Nope. All Billie Jean King did was offer one response:

“Game on.”

And after three straight 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 set victories, she proved without a doubt that Bobby Riggs was dead wrong.

Now that the heated Summers debate has simmered to a low boil, I’ve been thinking a lot about the King-Riggs matchup in the context of the larger conversation we should be having about how to help more of today’s young women become tomorrow’s doctors, scientists, and engineers.

Larry Summers is a friend and former tennis student of mine, but as a longtime activist for gender equality in sports, the founder of Washington DC’s Institute for Education, and a mother of two daughters, I have to say that I believe his serve is much more accurate than his hypothesis that women are under-represented in the fields of science and engineering because of genetic differences.

Yet, I am even more surprised and dismayed by the reaction of many in the women’s movement to Summers’ speech. Aside from the fact that he warned the audience he was going to be purposely provocative at the beginning of the speech, aside from the fact that academic freedom should allow these controversies to flourish at places like Harvard, and aside from the fact that Summers himself questioned the value of a society that allows such under-representation, what really bothered me was that the uproar over his remarks focused on what he said about the problem as opposed to what should be done about the problem. People were asking “what’s appropriate” instead of asking “what’s next?” And too many in the women’s community were crying “Foul” when they should have been saying “Game On.”

Now, not for a second do I think that solving gender inequality in math and science is as easy as picking up a racket and accepting Bobby Riggs’ challenge. There is clearly structural discrimination and larger social forces at work here. But we need to start competing, we need to encourage more young women to start competing, and we need to develop fresh new ideas and real-life policies to start tipping the balance. For two months, all we heard was bickering that led to little progress and few solutions. Today, we hear silence.

As a tennis coach and player who’s been competing all her life, I’m not ready to give up on this debate – but I think it’s time to move it in a new and better direction. For years now, Title IX of the Education Act has given millions of young women the chance to compete in school sports that had been previously been off-limits to them. Yet, as Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has recently pointed out, Title IX does not just apply to sports – it requires any institution receiving Federal funds to provide equal treatment to women.

Just imagine what we could achieve if Title IX was applied more effectively to math and science education. When he discussed this on the Senate floor recently, Sen. Wyden demonstrated that before Title IX, one in seventeen girls in school played sports. Today, the number is one in 2.5 – 40%. If we saw the same kind of progress in math and science, the 20% of science undergraduates who are women would climb to 40 or 50%. And the 6% of engineering professors who are women would climb to 40%.

Admittedly, we’re a long way from this kind of progress – but we must make strides in this direction. If we work with our government and our schools to provide women with more opportunities and larger incentives to compete, women won’t have to complain that they’re just as capable in math and science as men, they’ll be able to prove it.

Bille Jean King once said that “Ever since that day when I was 11 years old, and I wasn’t allowed in a photo because I wasn’t wearing a tennis skirt, I knew that I wanted to change the sport.”

When it comes to education in math and science, it’s time for all women to join together and change the way things are.

Game on.

Coach Kathy Kemper is the Founder and CEO of the Institute for Education. Previously, she was an international competitor on the Women’s Professional Tennis Tour and Head Coach of the Georgetown University Women’s Tennis team. She lives in Washington, DC and Rancho Sante Fe, California with her husband and two daughters.

About the author

Coach Kathy Kemper, known as “Coach” to many, is Founder and CEO of the Institute for Education, a non-profit foundation that recognizes and promotes leadership, civility, and finding common ground, locally, nationally, and in the world community.

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