UPDATE: After posting this entry, I found out that the paper I discussed here is not actually slated at this time to be published in a peer-reviewed journal; it is merely available as a preprint. Nevertheless, I hear that the folks at Nature have picked up on this and have interviewed the author; we may see something next week there about it.
Remember that famous line about how women need to be twice as good as men to be considered half as good? A new statistical study by Sherry Towers available on ArXiv.org shows just how true this is in the world of particle physics.
Here’s the scoop:
…the females in our cohort had to be on average 3 times more productive than their male peers in order to be awarded a conference presentation…if conference presentations were allocated by the administration of the experiment in a gender-blind fashion, we would expect that around 50% more of the females in our cohort would have moved on to faculty positions. The gender-biased allocation of conference presentations…appears to be an effective gate-keeping mechanism that chooses which females can move on to faculty positions and which cannot.
Towers presents a statistical analysis very similar to that of Wenneras and Wold
in their landmark paper in Science. (Wenneras and Wold, 1997, “Nepotism and Sexism in
Peer Review” Nature vol 337 pp 341) Wenneras and Wold, you’ll remember, found that females had to be 2.5 times more productive than males to receive a postdoctoral fellowship.
In particle physics experiments, conference presentations are a chance for postdocs to make themselves known to potential future employers. It’s a way to stand out in a world where publications can have as many as 700 coauthors. But you have to have permission from the experiment administrators to give a conference presentation, and this is where the bias enters in. Towers looked at productivity defined as number of internal papers (physics analysis papers and service papers) produced by a postdoc and found that the ratio of conference presentations to internal physics papers for females was about half that of males.
The analysis is more complicated than the brief description I’ve given here, but the paper reads very clearly and is easy to follow.
Disclosure: Towers thanks me at the end of the paper for “insightful discussions”. I don’t really know that I was more than a sounding board for her as she worked on this paper, so that was very kind of her.
I have also blogged previously (on the earlier version of this blog) about Towers’ personal experiences at Fermilab, in response to a Chronicle of Higher Education article about her. (subscription needed for the Chronicle piece.)