Yay! Sexism in science is over!

The New York Times has declared that Academic Science Isn’t Sexist. What a relief! The authors are reporting the results of a broad study of many different parameters of the career pipeline, and are happy to report that there are no problems in academia. None at all, no sir.

Our analysis reveals that the experiences of young and midcareer women in math-intensive fields are, for the most part, similar to those of their male counterparts: They are more likely to receive hiring offers, are paid roughly the same (in 14 of 16 comparisons across the eight fields), are generally tenured and promoted at the same rate (except in economics), remain in their fields at roughly the same rate, have their grants funded and articles accepted as often and are about as satisfied with their jobs. Articles published by women are cited as often as those by men. In sum, with a few exceptions, the world of academic science in math-based fields today reflects gender fairness, rather than gender bias.

Yay! But wait…I looked at their paper, and it was weird. Despite total equality, somehow there are still fewer women entering the academic workforce, still fewer getting tenure, women are getting fewer publications, etc. It's right there in the data they present. Somehow it all vanishes in the analysis, though. So I look at the data, I look at their interpretations, and there's some magic that goes on between the two that makes the differences disappear. I'm not sure how -- it's a long paper and it gallops all over the place, so it's going to take more scrutiny than I want to spend on it to figure out how they're doing that magic trick. But here's a clue, one among many:

The cause of this is not that women applicants are not being hired, but rather that they are choosing to opt out of academic science. [my emphasis]

Back to the NY Times article: we see the same sleight of hand.

Our analyses show that women can and do prosper in math-based fields of science, if they choose to enter these fields in the first place.

See? It doesn't count against academia if the women choose to leave, rather than not being hired or, I don't know, forced out at gunpoint. So, for instance, if women were facing a hostile work environment in academia, or are discouraged by being told or seeing that they'll have to work much harder than their male colleagues to succeed, or learn that they have to make a choice between family and work (a choice the men rarely face), and just decide "screw it, this isn't worth it", that's not a problem! Well, in this paper it's not a problem, it's waved away. In the real world, it's a problem.

Here's another summary of why women leave academia from a completely different source that doesn't dance away from the difficulties.

Men and women show radically different developments regarding their intended future careers. At the beginning of their studies, 72% of women express an intention to pursue careers as researchers, either in industry or academia. Among men, 61% express the same intention.

By the third year, the proportion of men planning careers in research had dropped from 61% to 59%. But for the women, the number had plummeted from 72% in the first year to 37% as they finish their studies.

If we tease apart those who want to work as researchers in industry from those who want to work as researchers in academia, the third year numbers are alarming: 12% of the women and 21% of the men see academia as their preferred choice.

So women find academia a far less pleasant prospect than men do, and abandon it in droves. But it's by choice, so Williams and Ceci have an excuse to ignore this hemorrhage. And why do they find it less pleasant?

Women more than men see great sacrifice as a prerequisite for success in academia. This comes in part from their perception of women who have succeeded, from the nature of the available role models. Successful female professors are perceived by female PhD candidates as displaying masculine characteristics, such as aggression and competitiveness, and they were often childless.

As if all this were not enough, women PhD candidates had one experience that men never have. They were told that they would encounter problems along the way simply because they are women. They are told, in other words, that their gender will work against them.

But this is not a problem. Because they choose to leave. In the same way, I suppose we could argue that ISIS is not a problem in Iraq, because all those refugees chose to flee their homes.

But wait! You know this story could be worse. Williams and Ceci could make some argument built around intrinsic differences, you know, the old "boys play with trucks, girls play with dolls" stuff…uh. Oh. Uh-oh. Crap.

As children, girls tend to show more interest in living things (such as people and animals), while boys tend to prefer playing with machines and building things. As adolescents, girls express less interest in careers like engineering and computer science. Despite earning higher grades throughout schooling in all subjects — including math and science — girls are less likely to take math-intensive advanced-placement courses like calculus and physics.

We live in a culture with pervasive gender roles -- we all learn early on that if we want to fit in (and as social animals, most of us do want to fit in), you adopt the roles that will make those around you happy, and often that means we can be personally happier that way. But let's not pretend that these aren't shaping women to fit into less well rewarded positions, or in many cases compelling them to abandon life choices to which they would be best suited (and likewise, this can afflict men as well). So here they even admit that girls perform better at science and math, yet somehow they end up not following through to enter science and math careers.

But this is not a problem. Because it is their choice.

What's really ironic is that the conclusion of their paper is that they have swept away all the attempts to reduce the causes of the attrition of women in STEM to a single “culprit” -- it's multifactorial and complicated, they proudly announce! Yeah, we already knew that. I don't know anyone who has tried to explain it away as a consequence of a single factor…except those people who try to argue that girls just don't like machines and building things. Or blue things. Or stuff that requires active involvement. Don't you all understand that men do things, women have things done to them?

You're going to see a lot more about this paper in the near future -- all of the gnathostomes are dropping their jaws at the denial of the obvious in that op-ed. Galileo's Pendulum sees a big omission.

The basis for dismissing sexism seems to be a small study of faculty hiring practices, comparing the percentage of male and female applicants who successfully landed academic physics positions. They didn’t look at retention — the problem that many assistant professors don’t achieve tenure or are slow to be otherwise promoted — and they seem to ignore all of the factors that decide whether women feel welcome in the profession. That seems to be a significant problem, not one that should be dismissed as “anecdotal”.

Emily Willingham has done a more thorough reading of the paper than I have -- she points out that the data in their figures is elided in the text to an amazing degree.

Check out Figure 15. Go ahead. Just for fun. And scroll on down to Figure 16. Look at the salary values on Table 4. Look at Figure 18. See the job satisfaction results in Figure 19. Take a gander at Figure 5. Figure 4. I don't understand how they wrote the paper or the op-ed they did while looking at the same results I see in their paper. Nothing about these data says, "OK, folks. Our work in the academy is done. Let's focus on those kindergartners."

And evidently, the implications weren't manifest to them, either. Even as these authors say there's no sexism in the science academy, they write:

... we actually found a greater exodus of women from non-math-intensive fields in which they are already well represented as professors (like psychology and biology, where 45 to 65 percent of new professors are women) than from fields in which they are underrepresented (like engineering, computer science and physics, where only 25 to 30 percent of new professors are women). Our analyses show that women can and do prosper in math-based fields of science, if they choose to enter these fields in the first place.

Emphasis mine. See, the problem here is that women don't choose to enter these fields in the first place. But that's not because academia's not unwelcoming to them or anything.

Willingham seems to have had the same reaction to the paper I did -- it's bizarrely jarring, in that the data just scream "ACADEMIA HAS A PROBLEM HERE!", while the text chortles happily and says "Academia has no problem at all here."

Ceci SJ, Ginther DK, Kahn S, Williams WM (2014) Women in Academic Science: A Changing Landscape. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 15(3):75–141.


More like this

Whatever thoughts you have towards fewer women in some fields should apply to men in others, right? So, why no analysis in your response to the article to the following?

"In contrast to math-based fields, women prefer veterinary medicine, where they now constitute 80 percent of graduates, and life sciences, in which they earn over half of all doctoral degrees; women are also half of all newly minted M.D.s and 70 percent of psychology Ph.D.s."

Have you ever seen an article suggesting there should be more male nurses or elementary teachers? Wouldn't society be well served with more equality overall, not just for women?

Our son had only one male teacher pre-K to 6th grade. When that teacher and the principal coincidently left the school at the end of the same academic year, the school went years with the janitor as the only male played at the school... Why is that permitted? And, I from my unscientific polling of friends with kids, it is common.

By Morgan Evans (not verified) on 03 Nov 2014 #permalink

Looking forward to your response.

By Morgan Evans (not verified) on 03 Nov 2014 #permalink

While I agree with the fundamental tenant put forth in the blog commentary that sexism in various academic fields is alive and well, I think the first commentary highlights another aspect, that self-segregation and selection co-occur as well in the opposite direction, and their may very well be discrimination too. Some aspects may be a fact of human existence. The real question is does equal opportunity exist, and does society foster and promote it.

By Charles Carlson (not verified) on 03 Nov 2014 #permalink

@ #1 Compare salaries of elementary school teachers and nurses to those of tenured professors at research universities.

It's my recollection that the phenomenon of women doing better on average than men at each level of academia but fewer and fewer moving up the chain was discussed at some length by Jessie Bernard in her book "Academic Women", published in ... wait for it ... 1964. A mere half century ago.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

I for one, do think it's a problem that we don't have more male teachers. I raised the issue a few years ago with my kids' Montessori school. They laughed at me, and actually said no man would want to work for those wages! But of course, even in a profession where men are under-represented (teaching), they are over-represented in high-level supervisory positions (at least based on my kids' school system principals).

Nice piece, and thanks for citing my Guardian piece on why women leave. Regarding the first comment above, it is a problem when fields are gender imbalanced, no matter which way it goes. Too few male elementary school teachers, too few male psychologists, etc ... all that is problematic. But, the problems are actually quite different. The absence of women is about implicit bias, gender imbalance at home, and other very deep if implicit discrimination practices. The problem with too few men has different explanations. I don't in any way mean to belittle the issues raised in the first comment, but they are sufficiently different that there's nothing scandalous about not connecting them in this context. http://curt-rice.com/category/gender-equality/

By Curt Rice (not verified) on 05 Nov 2014 #permalink

My daughters elementary school has many male teachers, but is probably do to the fact that it is semi-private (Waldorf school) and the pay is much better than full-public, were the 'rule' is indeed mostly (and usually all) female teachers. Sad indeed.
Yoram (Israel)

By Yoram Gerchman (not verified) on 06 Nov 2014 #permalink

You quote :" ... women PhD candidates had one experience that men never have. They were told that they would encounter problems along the way simply because they are women. They are told, in other words, that their gender will work against them."

They are told this whether it is true or not. Doesn't this present a great issue for women in that they have to constantly be on guard whether that negative review they got was because they did bad work or because of sexism? There is no doubt that this is a cognitive load that women bear that male privilege frees men of.

By Kim Wallen (not verified) on 06 Nov 2014 #permalink

Sonya - When I was a nurse some years back, I noticed that although most of us were female the head nurse was male. The others assured me that this was typical. I don't know if that's still true, but I know which way I'd bet. Amusingly, the patients usually assumed that I - as a male - was either an orderly or a doctor.