Thus Spake Zuska

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.)

Comments

  1. #1 Sherry Towers
    April 17, 2008

    Oh Zuska, that link at the end to your old article brings back memories…it was my first taste of “Thus Spake Zuska” and my husband and I read that piece together and we laughed until we cried. We literally ended up lying on the floor trying to catch our breath…the deconstruction of McCarthy’s comments was priceless. I still laugh when I read it. That post came at a time when we really didn’t have much to laugh about.

    WRT to my acknowledgements at the end of the article, I meant every word I said. Your input was extremely helpful.

  2. #2 evgeny
    April 18, 2008

    Hmmm…. I really would like to see the Nature piece on this when it comes out. Maybe it’ll satisfy my Schadenfreude w.r.t. Fermilab. Maybe. Of course, many worse things can happen to them yet. Or not.

  3. #3 iltc
    April 18, 2008

    Awesome work by Towers. We need more of this. When one tries to write out a complaint in plain English, people just block it like it’s blah blah blah whining. But *numbers*, and on a decent sample size like that, now that changes everything. Naturally, we all know that change will never come from within Fermilab, given how solidified their ridiculous culture is. But stuff like this is a big step towards putting the screws to them from the outside and tightening.

  4. #4 Kadath
    April 18, 2008

    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.

    Holy crap! I’m glad I decided on engineering rather than physics. O_o

    Thanks for the link, I’ve got some throats to go ram it down.

  5. #5 steppen wolf
    April 18, 2008

    It is quite disheartening to read that Fermilab did not even consider the complain at all! What a world we live in…

  6. #6 Julianne
    April 18, 2008

    Traceback doesn’t seem to be picking it up, but I have a link to your post over at Cosmic Variance (click here).

  7. #7 Em
    April 20, 2008

    Curiosity, as a young busting-her-ass woman in science: I am fully prepared to believe that this is the long-studied and right answer, but another explanation has popped to mind:

    When you select someone to give a conference you select a confident, assertive person who is a good speaker and willing to claim the accomplishments they will be presenting as their own. Is it possible that impostor syndrome might therefore play a role in these biases? I’m imagining a situation where solidly productive women are convinced they’re slackers or not good enough, don’t put themselves up for a position as a speaker, and don’t carry themselves as confident scientists, whereas only the “superstar” women are able to override impostor syndrome (thanks to being encouraged by the sheer volume of their resume) and display the necessary persona? (I’ve also seen a few young male scientists who do solidly mediocre work but posture themselves as though they are god’s gift to science. And people notice them.)

    It’s another issue of gender effects, but maybe not quite the same as the issue addressed here? (I’m a physicist, not a student of feminist issues, so feel free to set me straight here!)

  8. #8 Sherry Towers
    April 21, 2008

    Hi Em,

    The Nature reporter asked me what I thought the source of the gender bias was. I told him “a bunch of white males sitting in closed door meetings allocating career advancement perks predominantly to people who they perceive to be most like themselves” was the root cause. The Nature reporter wasn’t happy with that answer…not in-depth enough I guess. He wanted to know why the allocators would favour males, and whether I thought the bias was intentional or unintentional.

    I said I wasn’t a mind reader (so couldn’t make definitive statements about the intent of the allocators), but I did say that I knew many of the people personally (and some of them are even friends of mine) and I didn’t *think* their bias was intentional. But who can say for sure. But what we do know from previous research is that there are extremely insidious things that infuse our culture that make it harder for the women to get career advancement perks. One is that our society (not just physics) views female self-promotion as a “negative” trait, and male self promotion as “positive”. I reference the studies in my paper. Thus, even if a female asks for a conference presentation to be allocated to her based on her work, her request might not be well received. And there are strong societal pressures for women not to make waves by asking in the first place.

    I told the reporter that I’ve been told about the nature of the closed door allocation meetings by a friend who used to serve on that board, and that person told me that allocations are primarily based on pressure from senior scientists to “get the right person” and/or give so and so a conference presentation because he or she (mostly he, apparently) needs to get a faculty position in the near future. No joke, that is actually what is apparently said. I couldn’t put that in the paper because it is heresay.

    I stressed to the Nature reporter that under no circumstances should he word the article to make it sound like it is the womens’ fault for not getting the conference presentations because they might not “self-promote” enough. Whatever the root cause for the gender bias, it sure as hell isn’t the womens’ fault. They are working their asses off to try to get ahead. I stand by my original statement in the first paragraph as the reason for the gender bias. Closed door meetings suck, and are just asking for cronyism and patronage to creep into the allocation process.

    And, as I’ve said, pretty much all particle physics experiments use similar procedures. It is “tradition” to do it this way.

    We’ll see how the Nature reporter writes it up. I’ve dealt with the press before, and one problem is that you never know how they are going to cast an issue. It makes for a stressful period right before the article runs. The article is supposed to run late Wednesday or early Thursday

  9. #9 Massimo
    April 21, 2008

    I have read Dr. Towers’ paper and am not convinced by her analysis. This is not to say that I dispute the existence of gender discrimination, I just do not think that it is so clearly shown by her data. I have tried to illustrate my own reasoning in a blog posting. If she, or anyone else, can explain to me where I am wrong, I’d greatly appreciate it.

  10. #10 DrugMonkey
    April 21, 2008

    The Nature reporter wasn’t happy with that answer…not in-depth enough I guess….I’ve dealt with the press before, and one problem is that you never know how they are going to cast an issue.

    My N=1. I had a Nature reporter talk to me for about 40 min on some minor controversy in my field. As did you, I got the impression quite strongly that the reporter “wasn’t happy with [the] answer” I was giving after the first five minutes. I heard a lot of leading questions that gave me the impression that the story was already written up in this guy’s mind and he was just looking for a supporting quote, not my actual opinion.

    What do you know? The least representative thing I said in the whole conversation is what made it into print.

    [I'll leave it for the home reader to decide if their scientific articles seek the standard of the least-representative-data-point or not]

  11. #11 L
    April 23, 2008

    Did you guys read Massimo’s thesis on the topic? I read her article too and thought it had more to do with the number of ‘productive’ women who were given conference presentations than who took faculty jobs (because that’s where the closed door decisions happened)? Maybe I just don’t understand?

  12. #12 Massimo
    April 23, 2008

    My reading of her paper is conference presentations is proposed as a plausible explanation for the fact that women landed fewer jobs than those to which they would have been entitled, based on their productivity.
    I question whether her data really show that, though, namely that women were hired in significantly smaller number than men. I really don’t think that’s true, or in any case i don’t think that the data presented in the paper really show that. It is possible that women may have been invited to give talks less often than men (although I would contend that her data do not show that either), but if in the end that does not have a measurable impact on hires, is it really that important ?

  13. #13 Gerard Harbison
    April 24, 2008

    I wonder was this ‘paper’ developed with the same stellar research skills that led Dr. Towers to conclude I’d written 6 papers since the year 2000? Or the same concern for the truth?

  14. #14 Zuska
    April 24, 2008

    She doesn’t say women were hired in significantly smaller numbers than men. She says that if conference presentations were allocated by productivity, then women would have gotten more of them, and since conference presentations are the visibility that leads to faculty positions, women were not allowed to be as visible as they should be, thus they are likely to have been offered jobs less often. It’s not that the women and men were equal and hiring outcomes were equal so all is well. The women were actually better than most men, but not rewarded accordingly.

  15. #15 Gerard Harbison
    April 24, 2008

    Interesting comparison with Wenneras and Wold. When Wold was asked to provide her raw data for independent analysis, she announced she could not find it any more. And Wenneras didn’t reply at all.

    http://www.american.com/archive/2008/march-april-magazine-contents/why-can2019t-a-woman-be-more-like-a-man?

    Meanwhile, in contrast, NSF and the Rand corporation found no evidence of gender bias in grant review, in 1997 and 2005 respectively, except for a discrepancy at NIH, which the authors of the study admitted might have been due to differences in the amount requested, and the absence of important covariates. Quoting from the Rand study:

    Overall, we did not find gender differences in federal grant funding outcomes in this study. There were no differences in the amount of funding requested
    or awarded at NSF (from FY 2001 to FY 2003) and USDA (from FY 2000 to FY 2002), as shown in Figure 1.

    In science, you’re supposed to examine all the data, not just the data that agrees with your position.

  16. #16 Massimo
    April 24, 2008

    She doesn’t say women were hired in significantly smaller numbers than men.

    Nor have I claimed that she does. What she does say (on page 14, for example) is that
    “If the experiment allocated physics conference presentations based on physics productivity rather than gender, we predict that around 50% more females in our cohort would have moved on to faculty positions”

    Is it inaccurate to rephrase the above as “fewer women were hired than productivity considerations would have dictated” ? If it is correct, then conference presentations were merely the mechanism to actuate the bias.
    My difficulty accepting her thesis stems from the following:
    1) I do not buy her argument of “around 50% more females [should have been hired]” (which means “around 2″). This predictions comes from Towers’ own parametric model (page 13), whose reliability is not obvious, especially given the small sample size. A more objective statement could be made if six of the nine women ranked by productivity in the top twenty (something that Towers does not say), in which case one could indeed claim that discrimination took place (assuming that productivity were all that mattered in a faculty hire, which it is not). However, even in that case it would not be specifically discrimination against women, for just as many men, proportionally, could argue that their position was unfairly given to a less productive colleague.
    2) I do not believe that a simple statistical fluctuation can be ruled out, when talking a deviation of two from a target of six in a sample of nine.

    I am also not convinced by her “conference reward ratio” measure, which I regard as misleading because it gives most of the weight to presentations given by “unproductive” individuals. I think it would be easier to assess to what extent men were awarded significantly more conference slots if the raw numbers were available, as opposed to ratios.

  17. #17 Schlupp
    April 24, 2008

    Gerrard, the Wenneras-Wold paper is based on data of Swedish foundation, which they got via a freedom if information act. So, all you have to do is ask the foundation.

  18. #18 Massimo
    April 24, 2008

    I stand corrected, Zuska, you are quite right, in my first reply I did attribute to her the claim that “women were hired in significantly smaller numbers than men.” I think this statement is basically correct, but I should have added “fractionally” to make it more precise.

  19. #19 Lisa
    April 25, 2008

    I appreciate that you took the time to read and think about the paper, Massimo. I am trying not to get into this in too much depth as I am practicing for my prelim. However, I want to briefly point out one thing:

    “I do not believe that a simple statistical fluctuation can be ruled out”

    Nobody said it could be completely ruled out! The effect reached statistical significance, according to Towers’ analysis. You disagree that it should have reached statistical significance, but don’t seem to disagree that there was a clear effect related to the presentations, which I thought was the main take-away message of the paper. Keep in mind that this is just one of many studies which collectively tell a story. We know that gender discrimination iwes often subtle and hard to prove. Therefore, it would be difficult to have a discussion about these issues if we could only talk about effects which are completely beyond any shadow of a doubt. Along with other data, this paper provides us some insight. Of course, more data will always be helpful, but I don’t think anyone has claimed otherwise.

  20. #20 Massimo
    April 25, 2008

    Nobody said it could be completely ruled out!

    Towers seems to think that it is sufficiently unlikely that one may appropriately speak of “gender bias”. I think that that is a pretty serious accusation, and I think that the statistical evidence required to make it is much stronger than the one she presents in her paper. Just my opinion, of course.

    You [...] don’t seem to disagree that there was a clear effect related to the presentations, which I thought was the main take-away message of the paper.

    Actually I do disagree on both counts. First off, I do not think that Towers’ data clearly show that conference invitations were allocated in significantly greater numbers to men. That is suggested by her “conference reward ratio” measure, which I think is misleading for the reasons that I stated above.

    Secondly, even accepting the above premise, I disagree that there was any effect whatsoever, let alone a “clear” one. Towers’ point is that if conference time allocation had been fair, it would have had to reflect productivity. This means, in turn, that hires should also ultimately mirror productivity. In order for Towers’ case to be valid, observed hiring frequencies should deviate significantly from what one would expect based on productivity. In my opinion, they do not (if you are interested in details, I have a blog entry on this subject), which is why I do not buy her claim of gender bias (which does not mean that I claim that it does not exist).

  21. #21 Lisa
    April 25, 2008

    I have looked at your blog entry; I was impressed by the fact that you did not make personal attacks on Towers or say other ridiculous things such as I have unfortunately come to expect in these kinds of discussions, and that is why I made the comment.
    Even if you disagree with the analysis, the paper raises the important point that many of these decisions are made behind closed doors and there does not seem to be a clear metric for evaluating who gives a conference presentation (or for many other things.) I am sorry that I do not remember the reference, but research has shown that when the rules are less clear, those in the minority are more likely to have difficulty navigating the system. As a graduate student, I don’t have specific proposals to clarify the “rules” here, but apparently Towers has suggested relatively simple changes. I think it would benefit (almost) everyone to work to clarify the system. How are you supposed to improve when you don’t know the criteria on which you’re judged?

  22. #22 Lisa
    April 25, 2008

    I was trying to leave this alone but I am back again. . .
    “In order for Towers’ case to be valid, observed hiring frequencies should deviate significantly from what one would expect based on productivity.”
    I still don’t understand why you are only interested in the hiring. What if the females, knowing they had less presentations than their peers, tried to go out of their way to network and make their names known through other sources, in an attempt to get a job? What if the hiring committees knew gender discrimination was likely and tried especially hard to look at the entire record and all publications of each candidate? What if the women were getting less prestigious jobs? I know you disagree with the analysis, but when you are arguing theoretically “accepting the above premise” why don’t you admit that this IS gender discrimination (theoretically)? Also, as you have pointed out, there are only N=9 females so N=9 got/didn’t get jobs. However there were many conference presentations possible so it could be easier to see the effect at this level.

  23. #23 Massimo
    April 25, 2008

    Even if you disagree with the analysis, the paper raises the important point that many of these decisions are made behind closed doors

    Much less than you think, Lisa. There are control mechanisms in place, which may not work perfectly but cannot be simply bypassed. Some accountability is there. Many state universities have offices of equity and diversity, which are going to look at the entire file and ask some tough questions, if clear evidence of impropriety is found. As the chair of a search committee, I have found myself having to explain why we were not going to make an offer to one of the women in the short list, a very strong candidate who had made it clear to us that, unless we would hire her husband as well, she would turn down our offer. We were not willing to do that, which is why we moved on to the next candidate. The person to whom I spoke decided to double check this, and called the candidate to verify that what I was saying was the truth.

    “Gender discrimination” is an ugly beast, one to be dealt with very carefully. All it takes is one questionable piece of research, to give ammunition to those who deny its existence, who will use it as an excuse to dismiss >all such claims. That is what worries me about this paper. That is why I wish the data were more plentiful, statistically stronger, and the analysis more transparent.
    Granted, the author may know things that we do not know, but if she makes the decision of writing a paper about “gender bias”, her case must stand based on the evidence that she presents on the article.

  24. #24 Massimo
    April 25, 2008

    I still don’t understand why you are only interested in the hiring.

    Because the whole point of the paper is that career prospects of female researchers were significantly hurt by the alleged infrequency of their invited talks. I respectfully submit that that is what makes this paper potentially so important.
    I think very few people, including Towers herself, would care about speaking invitations at all, if they had little or no measurable effect on career prospects. How many of those female researchers, given a choice, would rather give a talk than get a job, in your view ?
    My point is, even if allocation of invited talks did not reflect productivity, it does not seem to have affected careers.
    Of course, things should always be done fairly, including giving every one a chance to speak at conferences.

  25. #25 Gerard Harbison
    April 25, 2008

    Schlupp:

    Even if I were had the time, experience, and inclination to figure out how to negotiate the Swedish FOIA system, that would not get me all of the data that the two authors collected; and nor would it tell me what specific data they used.

    I tell my students that as far as I’m concerned, if they don’t have a record of the raw data, the experiment was never done. A paper which cannot be checked independently because the data are lost is a compromised paper. Massimo very properly points out the problem with questionable data, particularly in such a contentious field.

  26. #26 Zuska
    April 25, 2008

    Oh for pete’s sake Gerard now you are stooping to new levels of silliness. Just because YOU don’t have the time/experience/inclination to personally look up the data Wenneras and Wold used, doesn’t mean that the data don’t exist. Do you personally take the time to verify and validate the raw data of every scientific paper you read before you accept that it is a useful piece of research? yeah, I didn’t think so.

  27. #27 Schlupp
    April 26, 2008

    Gerard, it’s not as if one had to repeat lots of experiments to get the data… Anyway, you could just ask the Swedes, and if they refuse, you can still think about what to do. Also, the raw data are not missing, what they allegedly did not hand out was their compilation. Which may not be nice, but is rather common place, as far as I know.

    As to questionable: Wouldn’t you actually *prefer* to get the real raw data from the agency itself? I know I would if I wanted to check.

  28. #28 PhysioProf
    April 26, 2008

    Dude, Gerard has no good faith interest in seeing the underlying data. The data being “unavailable” is just a fake-ass bullshit diversionary tactic that lets him sound like he is all about “scientific method”, when what he is really about is “fearful woman-hating apologetics”.

  29. #29 Marxist Plague
    April 26, 2008

    Gerard title on his response to the Towers article is: “American physics to go the way of men’s gymnatics” (re: title IX)… wouldn’t you know, the problem with title IX was that universities/colleges see athletics as a good way to extract money, so of course they strip men’s gymnastics and fencing so they could meet title IX requirements… translated to physics, Gerard is worried that… dumb men will have to be stripped of their physics jobs so that women can get them? This is bad how? Still thinkin’ on this one…

  30. #30 Gerard Harbison
    April 28, 2008

    Schlupp wrote:

    Also, the raw data are not missing, what they allegedly did not hand out was their compilation. Which may not be nice, but is rather common place, as far as I know.

    Alas, no, that’s not what happened.

    Steiger wrote to Wenneras and Wold requesting copies of the data so he could review them himself. Wold wrote back that she would gladly send the data, except that they had gone missing: “They were in a computer of a guy at the Statistics department and I got them on a diskette many years ago and I am afraid I will not be able to find it anymore.” Wenneras did not reply at all.

  31. #31 Gerard Harbison
    April 28, 2008

    translated to physics, Gerard is worried that… dumb men will have to be stripped of their physics jobs so that women can get them? This is bad how? Still thinkin’ on this one..

    Um, I’m worried the people they ‘strip of their jobs’ actually know some physics, and the beneficiaries of the ‘job redistribution program’ won’t. Sort of what happened when they stripped the existing farmers of their land in Zimbabwe, and gave it to people who didn’t know how to farm.

  32. #32 Schlupp
    April 28, 2008

    Gerard, in which way does this contradict my statement? Ask the guy at the statistics department, because the data are there. Fine that you finally agree with me that the data are not lost.

  33. #33 PhysioProf
    April 28, 2008

    Sort of what happened when they stripped the existing farmers of their land in Zimbabwe, and gave it to people who didn’t know how to farm.

    Yeah, treating female scientists like human beings is totally like stripping Zimbabwean farmers of their land. Do you even read the shit you write before clicking post?

  34. #34 absinthe
    April 28, 2008

    Harbison is way too busy to reply to right now PhysioProf; he’s currently preoccupied hiring a private investigator to perform background checks into my sordid felonious past.

    And no, I am not making this shit up. See here and cruise on down to this quote from Harbison The lunatic Absinthe, a.k.a. Sherry Towers — I posted a narrative of my run ins with her a couple of months back — is now bragging she’s going to testify before this committee. I can assure you the ranking minority member will have all the dirt I can drag up on her.

    Um, yeah…”run ins” with me…I had posted a blog piece inspired by Harbison discussing whether or not misogynist blogs maintained by people who openly identify themselves as a professor at a particular university violate Title IX. Harbison wrote me to bitch about it. I never wrote back. That was a real “run in”.

    I’ve clearly got to be stopped. Dirt must be dug up. From somewhere…anywhere. Because someone like me obviously must have really, really sordid/unethical/illegal/felonious stuff to hide. Cick the link to my blog and look at my latest entry to discover all the lurid things I’ve been hiding from people for so long. The shame of my checkered past has been weighing upon me, and I just had to come clean. I’m so happy Harbison inspired me to confess it all. I have tears of relief and happiness in my eyes even as I write this. The truth has set me free…

  35. #35 evgeny
    April 29, 2008

    absinthe, just ignore him. Don’t give him any info at all or engage in any back and forth. No need to be so sarcastic…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MjMYQyhjiYA

    NMR jocks are pretty weird people anyways. Most of them are crazy and will talk to you for an hour on the bus about some NMR they took 20 years ago if you let them or politics and the associated garbage. This one is a perfect example. He’s not going to waste any of his time beyond being nasty on the Internets. Don’t waste your time even for that on him.

  36. #36 absinthe
    April 29, 2008

    Evgeny, as much as I like The Kids in the Hall (and thanks for the link to that…I didn’t know there were a bunch of TKH skits on YouTube), I think sarcasm is actually a relatively innocuous response.

    I think you underestimate the zealousness and viciousness of people like Harbison and the people he apparently associates with; nothing gets your attention like getting an email from an anonymous hotmail account (you know the kind…mybigasstruck357@hotmail.com) from someone who claims to be a “friend” of Harbison that lists my home address and the names of my husband and kids.

  37. #37 absinthe
    April 29, 2008

    Oh yeah, and I forgot to mention the e-mail from Harbison himself that states he feels pity for me because I am so “vunerable”

  38. #38 absinthe
    April 29, 2008

    Just an update: I checked today and I can no longer link to the chat room where the Harbison “dirt” comment came from.
    It appears someone took it down…

  39. #39 absinthe
    April 30, 2008

    The “dirt” comment thread, btw, was posted off of http://www.darwincentral.org Harbison mostly appears to post there as Right Wing Professor (RWP). (I notice the link I gave a couple of comments ago doesn’t work).

    My husband took a look at the website’s stated mission, and then took a look at various commentary on the site (much of which has nothing whatsoever to do with the website’s stated mission actually). My husband’s comment was “it looks like a bunch of atheist right wing nutjobs mostly slamming religious right wing nutjobs, and god help you if you aren’t either and you get caught in their cross-fire…because they probably all have guns”.

  40. #40 absinthe
    April 30, 2008

    Damn, I just came across the original comment thread. It’s here http://forum.darwincentral.org/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=12900&hilit=sherry+towers