How Information Quickly Reduced Prejudice in a For-Profit Firm
Economist Anita Summers died on Sunday, October 22. She was the mother of Larry Summers, Kenneth Arrow’s sister, and Paul Samuelson’s sister-in-law. I had a brief but pleasant phone conversation with her in, I think, the late 1980s. I had heard that Larry was very sick. He and I had been colleagues at the Council of Economic Advisers and we always got along. So I called her to see if he was alright and to express my concern.
James Poterba and Claudia Goldin did a recent interview of her to learn about her early experiences as a researcher with the National Bureau of Economic Research. It’s fascinating throughout. HT2 Tyler Cowen.
She was clearly a very careful numbers person and the first 8 minutes or so are about that. Later she worked for Standard Oil of New Jersey and was given an important question on Friday to answer by Monday. That part starts at about the 28:00 point.
She spent virtually the whole weekend researching it and had her answer. It was about whether Standard Oil, if it invested in a refinery in South Africa, would be able to take the dollars out later.
Here’s the transcript of the conversation, cleaned up for the “uhs” etc.
I got all the examples of other things that were were gotten and looked for the evidence of where dollar shortages were eased and so on and made a conclusion that the answer was yes, they would be able to get their dollars out by then and so I had the report by the end of Monday. Then my immediate boss looked at it and then the head of the department looked at it and it went to–what’s his name–Emilio Collado, who had been head of the IMF [DRH: actually, the World Bank], you know, before he came there. He was Chief Financial Officer of Standard Oil of New Jersey. He was the person.
So the next day, Tuesday, it was to be discussed with him, and my immediate boss said to me when I came in at nine o’clock in the morning, “I’m sorry, Anita, that he won’t have a woman in his office except as secretary, so I’m going down. So stay next to your phone.” All morning every 10 minutes the phone would ring. I would answer the question. The phone would ring and I began to really feel angry. But the interesting thing is that I was angry that I had done all the work and he was the one transmitting it. That was idiotic. I was less focused on because it was a female. It was the idiocy of it. So at lunchtime when he came back and it was still to continue, I said, “I just want you to know that of course I’m going to see this through appropriately, but I will never do this again. You can decide to fire me or you can decide to see that I never do a job for him again but the one thing I will never do is this again.”
So then he and the head of the department decided they would both take me down in the afternoon unannounced in advance.
We walked in the office and he said, “Who is she?” and they answered and he started by asking them the answer [question] but within five minutes, I was answering and that was the end of the problem. From then on it was not a problem but I really felt the notion that I had worked and, particularly, I think because I’d worked 20 hours a day, you know, and doing all this and the idiocy of that arrangement was so offensive. But that was the end of the problem. He was courteous.