Larry Summers: Two Women's Perspective

Over the past few weeks, we've read and heard a number of unfair and untrue attacks on Larry Summers. Because Larry cannot be discredited for his economic expertise, his political opponents have taken a comment he made eight years ago out of context to allege that he does not believe in the potential of women. Those of us who've actually worked with Larry know that nothing is further from the truth. As Supreme Court Justice Kagan once remarked, Larry has gotten a "bum rap" with regards to women, "as quite a few of us are women and have relished working with him." We are two such women, and given our personal experiences, we feel compelled to respond to these false attacks against Larry.

We both have worked for Larry at the NEC and at Harvard, so we've had the privilege of observing him firsthand in a variety of settings: as a top economist in the Obama Administration, handling a historic crisis; as a Professor in the classroom; and mentoring women and men, many at the earliest stages of their careers.

As women interested in economics and politics, we have found no greater advocate than Larry Summers, who constantly pushes us to think critically and develop our skills. What struck us most about Larry when we first met him at the NEC was his inclusive nature. He surrounds himself with people of different philosophies and perspectives, and always wants to hear from every person at the table, even back when we were interns with next to no experience with economic policy. The debates were always lively, and Larry pushed everyone hard, but he never failed to listen to our ideas or change his mind when he was wrong. When Larry hired one of us as a NEC policy advisor, he challenged and trusted us to lead the NEC's immigration portfolio, showing us how to develop policy recommendations by working across the Administration and pushing us to become the best policy-makers we could be. And when Larry hired one of us to be a research assistant at Harvard for him last spring, he spent all semester working with us on issues ranging from how employment policy can limit the instances of domestic violence to the best structure for federal family leave benefits.

One of the things we admire most about Larry is his unique ability to learn from everyone and be curious about everything. He will never judge anyone by any metric other than the merit of their thoughts. While at the NEC, Larry made education a priority issue, particularly education of young women. Both of us had the opportunity to work with Larry and his former deputy, Diana Farrell, who had studied similar issues as the Director of the McKinsey Global Institute. Since one of us is an Indian immigrant, and the other spent significant time in Africa, we had unique perspectives on the status of girls' education throughout the world. Larry was eager to engage us both -- his most junior staffers -- on these complicated questions in hopes our respective backgrounds could help inform policy choices.

Larry devotes a good deal of energy to encouraging the women who work for him and his female students to pursue careers in the field he has devoted his life to -- economics. This spring, Larry invited Secretary Geithner to speak at a seminar he was teaching. He arranged for a dinner with Secretary Geithner and Harvard's most prominent economists that evening, and he included one of us at the table, hoping it would inspire us to pursue a career in economics by demonstrating the potential of the field. That's the sign of a tremendous mentor, unlike any other we've come across either at the White House or at one of the nation's premier universities.

This is not our experience alone. Larry has consistently been a zealous advocate for women and has inspired leaders of our generation, women like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and former NEC Chief of Staff Marne Levine, to achieve professional success. He never tires of telling us that he knew Sheryl was special back when she first researched with him in college, and that her stewardship made him a better Treasury Secretary because she understands people in a way that few do. In the weeks following the publication of Lean In, Larry discussed the book over lunch with his students and reiterated one of Sheryl's messages - that to be successful, they need to demand a seat at the table and make their voice heard.

Larry has typified his support of women not only in his professional life by mentoring women like us, but in his personal life as well. At home, Larry is surrounded by strong and powerful women -- his wife and his daughters -- and we've witnessed firsthand his warm and unwavering support for their many accomplishments.

Everyone knows Larry is brilliant, but what we've come to learn over years of working with him is how invested he is in the success of those around him, including women. He cares deeply about women's issues, be they equal pay or maternity leave. And as two women interested in economics and politics, we can assure you that there is no stronger advocate for our potential than Larry Summers.

Natasha Sarin is currently pursuing a J.D. at Harvard Law School. She first met Professor Summers as an intern at the NEC in 2010 and currently works as his research assistant and teaching fellow.

Sarah Cannon is pursuing a joint degree at Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She first met Professor Summers as an intern at the NEC in 2009 and worked for him as a Policy Advisor in 2010. She has continued to work with him at Harvard.