Adventures in Ethics and Science

There are some days I run into a piece of writing that just floors me. For instance this piece from The Cornell American, whose author, a freshman, proclaims:

I’ve got it made. As an attractive, professional female chemical engineer attempting to graduate a year early from Cornell, I find it hard to believe I couldn’t get a job or professor status before a good majority of males.

The point of her piece was to dismiss a report on the bias faced by female academics. Because, you know, a college freshman is much more in touch with the data than some panel charged with actually studying the data.

Since she hasn’t noticed discrimination, it must not exist.

But I am saved the trouble of formulating a methodical, point by point response to her article — or, worse, of muttering darkly about the youth of today — since Zuska has posted an apt reply to it.

It really does take a village.


  1. #1 Rob Knop
    November 18, 2006

    It really does take a village.

    …and every village has its idiot?

  2. #2 llewelly
    November 19, 2006

    Rob, are you being mean to someone who’s ignorant about sexism?

  3. #3 Ken C.
    November 21, 2006

    I’m sure Rachel Brenc is full of self-loathing, ignorance, and insecurity, that she thinks that those “stupid ladies who wrote that NSF report are castrating bitches who hate men”, and that “the memory of [gender bias] is kept alive by a group of ugly, aging feminists with hairy legs”, and that she has a “near-hysterical sense of denial”. I’m sure (really) that the Cornell American is generally a load of crap.

    However, the core of her piece is three fairly straightforward factual claims:

    1. The report fails to make the case that women faculty are promoted significantly more slowly; the time difference appears to be a little over a month.

    2. The report fails to make the case that women receive fewer honors, proportionally, than men, and in fact shows the opposite.

    3. The report gives no real data regarding the belief that women are subject to salary discrimination.

    In all the responses and commentary, I found no one who even mentioned these claims, much less attempted to rebut them. Instead, there are sneers, armchair psycho-analysis, and imputations of bad faith. While there is plenty of bad-faith argument around these days, maybe, if her claims are transparently nonsense for those in the know, such people could explain why they are nonsense.

    A major substantive problem, as pointed out by Larry Summers and as discussed in chapter 5 of the report, is that the academic tenure system makes little allowance for people who want to have kids and really be involved in those kids’ lives. This problem is particularly acute for women, due to the lowering of fertility with age, and due to societal expectations regarding childcare. However, the problem also applies to men, and it’s hard to see how it can be avoided: people who have a life outside of work will be always be at a career disadvantage relative to those who do not. So then what? Rachel Brenc’s attitude seems to be that you pays your money and you takes your choice. Linda Hirschman seems to agree. It’s not obvious to me that there is a correct feminist answer.

  4. #4 Zuska
    November 21, 2006

    First of all, Larry Summers never pointed out any major, substantive problem dealing with gender and science in his life. See for everything you need to know about what Larry Summers ever said about gender and science.

    You pays your money and you takes your chances – so what? So the system is fucked up, that’s so what. A “correct feminist answer” is not obvious to you because you have never looked for one or done any research on the topic. Get your head out of your ass and delve into the voluminous literature on this topic. There are only about a bazillion proposals for how to make life on a the tenure track more humane for everybody. And there are more kinds of family caretaking responsibilities than just childcare, you know. People have elderly parents, people have disabled spouses, people get ill themselves. Wake up and join the world.

    As for Rachel’s supposed killer points on the report itself:

    Well, Rachel is a freshman, and so perhaps she has not yet had a lot of experience with complicated graphics. Her analysis of Figure 3.6 on page 105 of the report is mistaken. Nowhere on the figure is there a three-year differential between men and women in age at assistant professor in any category. Data are for all faculty, married, single or parents. I could find nothing in the discussion of Figure 3.6 that attributes the difference in age at assistant professor to childbirth. In all STEM fields, average age at assistant professor is 34 for women, 32 for men. This might more likely reflect a longer time in the postdoc pool for women – but whatever, let’s ignore the age difference. How long till from assistant to associate? Average time is 5.5 years for women compared to 4.7 years for men. Then, time to full professor: 5.6 years for women, 5 years for men. Time to full professor step 6: 8.9 years for women, 8 years for men. From the time they become assistant professors, it takes women on average 2.3 extra years to traverse the entire tenure pathway. This has nothing to do with them starting the tenure pathway two years older on average than men. Rachel has taken 2.3 years, subtracted “1-3 years”, and gotten “.1 years”. I hope she did okay on her engineering math tests. Rachel also does not mention that Figure 3.6 is comprised of data from one institution, UC Berkeley, though the report notes that similar patterns were shown at other universities including Duke and MIT.

    Regarding the CAREER and PECASE awards: Rachel laments that she cannot find out about these awards because of links in the report that don’t work, and castigates the incompetent women for leaving her ignorant. If Rachel had actually read the report, she would have found a description of both awards in the paragraph preceding Figure 3.2 which she purports to discuss. There she would also have found the authors stating that it is “notable that the proportion of women CAREER and PECASE awardees in the last 10 years meets or exceeds the proportion of women in the PhD pool (Figure 3.2).” The authors refer to these awards in the context of a discussion as to whether or not early prestigious career awards have a differential effect on career outcome. Not, as Rachel would have it, to demonstrate that women receive fewer awards than men do. So once again, Rachel merely shows herself incapable of interpreting a graph AND written material correctly. Or is it Rachel who is taking a figure and interpreting it selectively for her own purposes, as she accuses the report’s authors of doing?

    As for the salary issue, Rachel sets up a straw woman and then declares that there is no existing information that could convince her otherwise than her stated position. Even if I produced a man and a woman who were paid differently, I’m not sure that Rachel would agree that they were equally qualified because the woman, after all, would have ovaries and lack a penis. Salary discrepancies cannot be proven or disproven on individual bases; it takes statistical studies and patterns over time to look at what is happening, especially in fields like STEM where women are so sparsely represented. If a woman is the only member of her department, it can be argued that she is “unique” and that she cannot be directly compared to her colleagues in the department. Statistical studies will often tell a different story than individual comparisons. Which is why they are used in lawsuits.

    Nevertheless, look at the example of the MIT report,, where it was shown that women faculty at MIT received less lab space and other types of research support than men faculty – and these were senior research faculty women. Salary is not the only, or even, perhaps, the most important, resource issue that matters in science.

    Rachel still has an awful lot to learn, the least of which is how to read and interpret figures and text. I wish her luck on the painful journey in front of her.

  5. #5 Ken C.
    November 21, 2006

    Well, two quick preliminary comments:

    Thanks for actually addressing, finally, the substance of her piece.


    “A “correct feminist answer” is not obvious to you because you have never looked for one or done any research on the topic….[and the remaining drivel in this paragraph] ”

    Been there. Done that. Fuck off.

  6. #6 Renee
    November 21, 2006

    This is what I posted over on Zuska’s blog as well:
    With regards to Rachel’s alleged inability to subtract, I believe you are wrong. If you take the white bars in the category “all science” which represent the period of time to get from “full professor” to “full professor step 6,” you’ll notice that 8.5-8.4 = .1, which is exactly what she said. I’m guessing she did just fine on her math prelims.

    Does the context of the awards matter? Isn’t it simply an issue of women getting more than their fair share? Maybe she wanted to find out more about the awards than the little 5 sentence blurb that came before the chart?

    For an interesting table, check out Table 3-4 on page 82, “reasons for switching to non-SEM major.” It says a lot right there, especially with the high proportion of women listing “rejection of SEM careers and associated lifestyles.” Also notice that 26% of men listed “morale undermined by competition” when only 4% of women listed it as a reason for leaving the field.

  7. #7 Helen
    November 21, 2006

    You’d be amazed how hard it is to type when you can’t pick yourself up off the floor for laughing. Wow, I haven’t had a belly laugh like that in days.

    Ken comes in saying he wants claims addressed with facts and corrections if need be. Zuska obliges very nicely. Zuska also perhaps gets an aside fact about Ken wrong, so Ken responds with “fuck off”. So Ken’s point seems to be, “address what’s being said, except for me when I’m annoyed, in which case snits are fine”.

    Or maybe it’s just another round of “when you speak to the master…”

  8. #8 Ken C.
    November 21, 2006

    In more detail:

    “Rachel has taken 2.3 years, subtracted “1-3 years”, and gotten “.1 years”. ”

    I agree that she got this wrong, but I’m not sure what she did. As Renee points out, maybe she looked at time to full professor, all sciences, which is 8.5 years for women, 8.4 for men; she probably interpreted this as time from PhD to full prof., not time from associate to full, as it seems to be.

    As to the awards, I agree that the nearby discussion doesn’t have a claim that women get fewer.

    As to income claims: indeed, if the study has no claims about differential incomes, then there doesn’t really need to be any data about differential incomes. But, I didn’t look too carefully.

    So, yes, I would agree that this college freshman doesn’t seem to have much of a case.

    As to Larry Summers: your “synopsis” looks pretty much like pointless sneering; taking the radical step of actually looking (again) at what he had to say, indeed one issue he discusses is the “high-powered job hypothesis”: some careers, like tenured professor at a top university, currently require a near-total commitment of time and energy. Moreover, if you devote all your time to work, and I don’t, then you will have a better shot at publishing more papers, being on more committees, having more visibility, etc., etc. This is true whether you have children (that you pay someone to take care of), or not. No step that tries to make the process more humane is going to remove that difference. So what then?

    Actually, since the number of people at top places is tiny, data regarding them is not very relevant to most academics, or most people.

    As to the MIT report: I couldn’t find anything via the link that *showed* anything; I found a few brief general *claims*. But maybe you looked more thoroughly.

    Helen: Of course, I wasn’t annoyed at any errors in that paragraph, I was annoyed at “get your head out of your ass”, “wake up and join the world”, the claim that I must never have thought about these issues, etc., etc. I don’t think such little shitstorms (from her or from you, for that matter) are justified by anything I’ve written here. But, I’m glad you’re entertained.

  9. #9 JG
    November 22, 2006

    Whenever I see reports on how women are discriminated against or the like, after seeing all the acrobatics and gyrations that have gone on in many other reports of that nature to come to the “right answer”, I’m starting to equate them with a “check up” report from an insurance agent (to see whether you have enough insurance or not).

    Gosh, I wonder how it’s going to come out. Maybe the insurance agent will tell me I already have enough insurance. And maybe a report will not find discrimination against women in some area.

  10. #10 Helen
    November 22, 2006

    ROFL. “I don’t think such little shitstorms (from her or from you, for that matter) are justified by anything I’ve written here.” But Ken’s “little shitstorm” of “Fuck off.” (note this qualifies more as a “shitstorm” than anything I had to say) is perfectly fine.

    I love a good laugh early in the morning.

  11. #11 jokerine
    November 22, 2006

    well maybe JG you have too little insurance and maybe the situation for women has not improved, because you havn’t done a whit to improve it. but instead, insit to have a “same old story attitude”, that will surely make us go away and shut up, twat.


  12. #12 Pinko Punko
    November 22, 2006

    What a delightful thread.

  13. #14 PW
    April 19, 2010

    Hmm. Seemed like a shitstorm to me, full of ad hominem, vague and not-so-vague insinuation about Rachel or Ken’s intelligence or world experience, etc. On balance I’d say “fuck off” was by comparison a fairly tame rejoinder.

    As a general rule of rhetoric, I’d suggest that attacks like that – especially all the nasty and vicious things said about Rachel here – only serve to help make the other side’s case. Simply put, it makes you look catty and hysterical. That’s fine if all you want to do is roll around in collective self-pity, but not such a good strategy if you’re actually trying to persuade people of the merits of your case.