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Women in science — this week’s headlines

Posted by Melissa on February 11, 2011

This week brought quite a variety of headlines about women in science to the websites that I frequent:

“Women in Science: No Discrimination, Says Cornell Study” — Science 2.0 February 7

“Sexual discrimination against women in science may be institutional” — The Guardian February 8

“The Real Barriers for Women in Science” — Inside Higher Ed Quick Takes February 9

It’s notable that all these headlines are referring to a single paper by Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams that appeared in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday. This paper has also generated some buzz in the blogosphere, including posts by Charles Day, Female Science Professor, and Amy Slaton. Additionally, it was mentioned in a New York Times article by John Tierney:

[T]he taboo against discussing sex differences was reinforced, so universities and the National Science Foundation went on spending tens of millions of dollars on research and programs based on the assumption that female scientists faced discrimination and various forms of unconscious bias. But that assumption has been repeatedly contradicted, most recently in a study published Monday in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by two Cornell psychologists, Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams.

You may recall that I’ve commented before on John Tierney’s unhelpful approach to addressing the question of women in science, and I also mentioned in that post, and a related post, that I thought the book, The Mathematics of Sex, by Ceci and Williams did a good job of addressing the complexity of the issues surrounding the under-representation of women in mathematically-intensive science fields. What do I make of this latest paper by Ceci and Williams? The answer is complicated, but my take on the paper is more in line with the headline from the Guardian than the headline from Science 2.0.

This winter I’ve been digging into The Mathematics of Sex because, with my colleague Joel Weisberg, I’m co-facilitating a book group on it through Carleton’s Learning and Teaching Center.  The book group participants include faculty and staff from departments and offices ranging from biology, math, and physics to educational studies, English, and alumnae relations, and we’ve had some great discussions. At our last meeting, some members of the group noted that Ceci and Williams have a narrow definition of discrimination. In Chapter 5, they present studies that could be interpreted as providing evidence of discrimination in hiring. In particular, they discuss a 1999 study by Steinpreis et al. where identical CVs, some with male names and some with female names, were sent to hiring committees for assistant professor positions. The male CVs were consistently rated more favorably by search committees than the female CVs. The summary discussion of this study (pg. 132) is revealing:

[I]t might be argued that basing hiring decisions on the sex of applicant [sic] is not rooted in a desire to avoid women per se, but rather that sex is a proxy for other things that both male and female employers believe to be important. We can ask “what might applicant sex be a proxy for?”. Does it signal to employers statistical associations between sex and work, such as a concern that a young female applicant might have children which, according to surveys described earlier, will reduce the number of hours she devotes to the job, lower her satisfaction with work, etc.? None of this normative statistical information is, of course, fair to those female applicants who are as careerist and work-centered as their male counterparts. Statistically, however, more women than men reduce their hours at work when they have children. In principle, no one endorses treating applicants as members of groups as opposed to as individuals. However, even though every person deserves to be treated as an individual, independent of their sex, it is understandable how statistical information about work patterns of mothers and fathers can influence employers implicitly, and still not reflect prejudice against women per se, but rather against mothers. Some may argue that there is no difference in this distinction because both possibilities reflect bias against women. However, we believe there is merit in distinguishing between employers who discriminate on the basis of  the sex of an applicant outright, and those who use sex as a proxy for the likelihood that the applicant will be unable to work as many hours or as unidimensionally and dedicatedly as someone with no children.

As members of our book group noted, this sort of rhetorical hair-splitting may allow one to claim the absence of discrimination, but it certainly doesn’t suggest the presence of equity. Lack of equity is a problem, and one that requires remediation. Much of what Ceci and Williams find, even if they are not willing to call it discrimination, is institutional and societal structures that disadvantage women and constrain women’s choices, without having a similar impact on men.

In their book, Ceci and Williams clearly state, “Although we come down on the side that thinks claims of overt discrimination are overblown, we nevertheless recognize that even a tiny degree of discrimination or unconscious barriers can be deleterious for women’s progress in the academy. ” The current PNAS paper seems to be an attempt to tamp down what Ceci and Williams believe are overblown claims of discrimination, but the paper also acknowledges that much remains to be done to improve the range of choices available to women interested in pursuing a career in the sciences. The one aspect of the recent paper, and the surrounding internet discussion, that I find potentially troublesome is the question of career preference, and the extent to which girls freely choose the paths they take. Figuring out to what extent choices are influenced by societal pressures and expectations is challenging, but important for those of us who are interested in supporting the development of the next generation of scientists.

If anything, the publicity surrounding the publication of the Ceci and Williams paper has me even more excited than usual to return to the book group to see what my colleagues have to say.


3 Responses to “Women in science — this week’s headlines”

  1. At our last meeting, some members of the group noted that Ceci and Williams have a narrow definition of discrimination.

    The problem is not that theirs is too narrow, it is rather precise. It is instead the overuse of the word for emotional effect, which both disparages previous generations who did suffer discrimination and generates noise so that actual discrimination is hard to take seriously. The data does not just agree with the authors of this study in one isolated instanced, virtually every study by every organization shows that scores are the same, PhDs now have more women, and hiring is the same.

    Yes, there is still inequality because a lot of men were not immediately fired to make way for women, but in new hiring there is no discrimination. Instead, there is inequality but science is not about equality, it is about excellence, so men who are doing quality work should not suddenly be fired because they are on the wrong side of a quota. And quotas are what virtually every proponent of continued discrimination claims is advocating.

    They make a fine point; the money spent on outreach, discrimination workshops and what not is better spent on making it easier for the gender that gives birth to get on with their careers afterward. Academia needs to learn something from the private sector.

    • Melissa said

      You are correct that the relative numbers of men and women in many STEM fields are skewed because at the senior ranks there are many more men; I don’t think anyone would propose that men be fired to make way for women. I also agree that some people cry discrimination when it is not warranted. In physics, the numbers show that women are hired in approximately the same percentage as would be expected based on PhD production which is good news. And I certainly agree with Ceci and Williams that there should be a focus on making academia more accommodating for women who give birth.

      However, when Ceci and Williams discuss making hiring decisions using sex as a proxy for the possibility that the employee will become a mother–that is evidence of a problem. The very definition of discrimination is “treatment or consideration of, or making a distinction in favor of or against, a person or thing based on the group, class, or category to which that person or thing belongs rather than on individual merit”. Considering that someone might become a mother and letting that impact hiring decisions is by definition discriminatory, even if Ceci and Williams aren’t willing to call it that.

  2. Katharine said

    Christina Hoff Sommers discusses sexism and science on NRO:

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