NAS Deigns to Admit 9 Women This Year

The Chronicle of Higher Education daily update reports on this year's inductees to the National Academy of Sciences. A total of 72 members and 18 foreign associates elected this year - and guess what, they managed to find 9 worthy women. Yes, NINE.

Is that not amazing?

But fear not, friends. We are told:

The number of women inducted is nearly half the record 19 elected in 2005 (The Chronicle, May 4, 2005). Nevertheless, the percentage of all members who are women has steadily grown to reach about 10 percent this year, an all-time high. The proportion should continue to grow as more women enter science and work their way to the elite ranks from which the academy's members are drawn, said the academy's president, Ralph J. Cicerone.

10%!!! All-time high!!!! Oh, yeah. If I had a dollar for every time I've heard that "work their way up the ranks" line, I'd be a rich lady by now. Sooooooo tired of that. Dude, we have been working our way up the frickin' ranks for ages and where has it gotten us? Not into the NAS, that's for sure.

Nancy Hopkins, a member of the NAS, notes that women were 18% of full professors in 2003 (latest year for which date were available), yet constitute only 12.5% of inductees this year. She calls this "not good" and further notes:

"maybe [my fellow members] thought they had pretty much solved the problem, and they took their eyes off the ball." Several elite universities, including MIT, have worked to hire and promote more female scientists, and, she said, "if you look at data from a lot of places, that's what happens" -- numbers go up for a while and then level off or drop (The Chronicle, April 28, 2006.) "People have come to realize that to continue to get results requires sustained effort," she said.

But perhaps we should take heart. At least we know how many women there are in the NAS, and how many are inducted each year. And at least the NAS is aware that there is a gender bias issue that they need to pay attention to, and they are trying to work on it. They've at least become aware of the fact that outstanding women scientists actually exist, and that maybe they have some obligation to notice them and mentor them along just like they do for the boys in their old-boy network:

A new approach being pursued by some of the academy's discipline-based scientific sections was for members to offer to serve as mentors for rising stars they identify as being "on stunning trajectories" in their careers and who might be eligible for academy membership a few years down the road, Mr. Cicerone said. Most sections have already begun trying to take note of and track the development of such candidates, he said.

Yes, at least women have this. Because if you want to know what the academy is doing in a similar vein about minority membership, I can summarize it for you as follows: Nada. They don't even track data on minority membership.

As of 2003, the total number of African-American scientists among the academy's members was believed to be four.

"Believed to be". I mean, how pathetic of an answer is that? I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Okay, I'm done. Disgruntled readers might now be tempted to commence with their same old tired comments, including:

  • But we can't have the NAS lowering its standards just to admit women/minorities!
  • What, are you proposing quotas? That wouldn't be right! We have to have a system based on merit! Just like we have now, where all the deserving white men and the very, very, very few deserving white women and the very, very, very, very, very occasionally deserving minority man or woman gets elected in a totally unbiased process based solely on merit.
  • You are totally overreacting.
  • Are you saying the NAS should not elect men who deserve membership just so they can elect more women?
  • You are too shrill/whining/too angry. If you would be less/shrill/whiny/angry, people would be more likely to listen to you and take your argument more seriously.
  • You are too shrill/whiny/angry. I am going to stop reading you if you do not quit being so shrill/whiny/angry.

But please be advised: I am conducting an experiment with this post. Generally, I do not moderate coments. However, for this post, any comments that fall into any of the above categories will be deleted. Anybody who wants to comment substantively on the situation at the NAS is welcome to do so. Here is a hint on how to make sure your comment does not get deleted on this post: you may want to begin with the working assumption that gender bias has indeed played a role in the past in limiting women's membership in the NAS. This basic premise is not up for discussion. If the NAS was able to reach that conclusion, you can, too.

UPDATE: Early in my post there's a quote from the Chronicle article that links to this earlier Chronicle article titled "Elitism, Excellence, or Both at the National Academy of Sciences? Critics question why so few female and minority scholars are elected". It contains this most delightful quote from Carl Djerassi:

"Just because people deserve things doesn't mean they get them," says Carl Djerassi, a professor of chemistry at Stanford University and a member of the academy. "There will always be more people who deserve awards than get them."

And there you have it. Just because women deserve to be in the NAS, doesn't mean they'll be allowed in. There will always be a lot more men who deserve to get in than women, at least in the eyes of the men doing the selecting.

Do give that article a read. It's a real eye-opener.

More like this

Well, isn't that how a "prestigious" club stays prestigious, after all? By making it hard to get into, they leave us hoi polloi drooling in the aisles, clamoring to get in. The din we make keeps them prestigious.

If, on the other hand, everyone admitted that the academy is the farce it is and stopped slavering over it like starving dogs, their influence would diminish and they would be exposed for what they are - a bunch of doddering old farts in a gold sandbox whose myopia leaves them unable to release unbiased and relevant reports.

What 'substantive' points are there left to make? Old white males tend to exclude anyone other than other old white males. We know this. Yelling "bad dog" and spanking with a rolled up Science mag has no effect. As in every other arena there are two strategies available. Sue 'em. Seep in and overturn gradually. hah.

I do think your "work the way up the ranks" observation is spot on. I used to believe in this. For women and minority representation alike. It should have worked better in academia. Here are some of the reasons why it didn't (but i'm looking for more).
problem one, nobody freakin' retires. problem two, the universities started teaching more and more class hours with temporary labor, offsetting the need for real tenure track hires. problem three, the baby boomers (as usual) distorting the distribution.

It seems to me that in most clubs the members tend to nominate (and vote for) those who they both like and feel a bond with. Since the NAS is mostly made up of old white men, it doesn't surprise me that mostly white men are elected. Even with identical scientific credentials, that bias gives Joe Scientist (who reminds the members of themselves) an edge over Jane Scientist. I'd bet that kind of bias also helps account for the fact that more than 1/3 of the members come from just 10 research institutions.

The candidates are narrowed down through a number of nomination, ballot and committee steps (pdf). I'd be interested in knowing where exactly the bias starts - is it in the initial list of nominees? or in the the final balloting? The only solution may be to completely overhaul the election process.

First, let me say that I am sympathetic to the cause of equal right for everyone, particularly women. After all, my mother, my wife, and my daughter are all female. They should have every opportunity for advancement. (I know, this sounds exactly like saying "Some of my best friends are black, but ...").

If 18% of the full professors are women, but only 12%of the NAS inductees are, that could be evidence of discrimination, but it is probably not. Because the influx of women into science in large numbers is a relatively recent event, I suspect (without any large data set handy to confirm or refute) that the discrepancy between any two other academic ranks will decrease as you go down the ladder. For instance, in my department only 20% of our full professors are women, but 32% of our associate professors are women, as are 50% of of our assistant professors. 75% of our tenure-track hires in the last 2 years (4/6)were women. 60% of our undergraduates are female. (I don't have data for our grad students at hand).

At every faculty level above assistant prof (where it is pretty equal), the average pay of the women is greater than average pay of the men. This is not because land grant schools in Texas are particularly enlightened, it is simply that overall, our female faculty are better scientists than men of the same rank. Initial pay rates are decided by our department head and the college dean, both men. Annual raises are decided upon by a departmental review committee (six tenured profs, all male for the last 2 years) and the department head (still male).

It does seem to me, a middle class, middle aged, white male cracker that progression through the ranks is the biggest factor in the discrepancy at higher levels. When I was an undergraduate and people asked why I went into science, I replied that it was to meet women. This was a hilarious joke that even people outside of science understood. Today, going into science to meet women seems like a high probability venture, if not a valid rationale for choosing a career.

Dont disagree with you, but I am not a fan of throwing around %s and raw numbers as a way to make a point on these issues. Its too easy to present numbers in an inappropriate manner. Better, in my opinion, would be to list those women who clearly should be in NAS that are not.

At my institution, a mural of excellence was put up which contains the faces of 10 men from the university, almost all of whom I know of scientifically. Of course someone stuck up a sign saying "where are the women?" My kneejerk reaction was "yeah, where are they?" but as I thought about it, I could come up with only one woman who was not up there who had made significant contributions scientifically that were widely known and thought about. Unfortunately she left the US thnks to the Bush administrations biblical approach to science and is currently the focus of a potnetial scientific misconduct investigation. Obviously, I believe there are many deserving people regardless of dangly bits, melanin production, that should be in the NAS. I wish you name some names because its specific people that get in not numbers.

OK. The percentage of female full professors (18%) is higher than the percentage of female National Academy inductees this year (12.5%). But it's not as if 18% is a number that you should be satisfied with. Plus, the Academy members are usually elected when they are old and have had more time to establish themselves. So, I expect that there should be some time-lag before increase in female professors to be reflected in the number of female Academy members. I think that the productive thing is to continue the efforts to increase women in science, including efforts to make the work environment more friendly to women. After all, that is more relevant to most women who are scientists or considering careers in science.

If you think that there are female scientists who deserve to be Academy members, but are neglected, it would be more convincing if you can actually give examples, as wafer suggested, and as Sandra Porter did in a response to your post on the Nobel prize.

Wafer, HI, there are a couple of things going on here.

First, I'd suggest you check out…

Now, it's not quite the same situation, but explaining away the lack of women and minorities in the NAS, by "Well, they're the pinnacle of a sexist structure", may be accurate, but it's not very satisfying. You'd expect them to be doing something active to change that structure.

Now, if admission to NAS were based on some objective measure, which in itself was systematically biased, that could be difficult to change. You end up with the "it's the best instrument we have" problem. But it's not.

Election to NAS seems to be a weird combination of an extremely prestigious, yet non-substantial award. There's not a good way to get around this-- how do you compare person X's body of work in Biology to person Y's? But since it's such a subjective measure, you'd expect it would be easier to change.
Check out this document to see the convoluted process of how it's done.…
In particular, the repeated balloting is likely to reinforce biases present on the committees.

Finally, we come to your "Show me the women" argument. Now, anecdotally, and at particular institutions, you certainly may experience things like wafer's "wall of excellence" experience. Whether it's due to a crotchety old guard, or simple statistical variability, in a department where there are maybe, I don't know, 40-100 full faculty, and you're honoring 10 of them, there are bound to be cases where a subgroup gets overlooked.

But this is the NATIONAL Academy of Sciences, and selects from the entire country (as well as international associates). And, as noted, female full professors make up a fairly large subgroup. There must be enough to produce a decent sample of good work. Pointing out a such a large discrepancy between the average and the number elected should raise a red flag, regardless of who is involved.

To top it off, one of the stated goals of the NAS is to provide "Role-Models". This would imply that they should try particularly hard to correct the admitted bias in the NAS election process, for women and even more so with minorities.


Just because people deserve things doesn't mean they get them

Hmmm...I had my former doctoral supervisor (who happens to be male) read a recent paper I wrote regarding the dearth of career advancement perks awarded to young female particle physicists at Fermilab, despite the fact that on average they worked significantly harder than their male peers. His comment regarding that pathetic situation was almost word-for-word Djerrasi's comment.

I am on good terms with my doctoral supervisor, and we keep in touch regularly. In my opinion, during my doctoral studies he treated me in a completely gender blind fashion. But that doesn't mean he is (or was) a sensitive-new-age-guy. Far, far from it. I had him read the paper before I submitted it to a journal because I knew he will almost certainly be the only person likely to review it prior to publication who will read it as a Devil's Advocate. It made me angry at times to read some of the comments he made, but in the end the paper was immeasurably improved because I was able to change the wording to address potential criticism coming from all the other Devil's Advocates out there who will be confronted with the paper upon publication (and yeah, I mean "confronted"... some people at Fermilab will have some explaining to do once the paper is published). His comments still kind of piss me off (but nevertheless I'll have him review any similar paper I come out with in the order for my voice as an advocate for changes towards gender equity in the sciences to be effective, I need to be able to touch a chord with those who don't really give a damn about the cause, instead of just preaching to the choir in any paper I produce).

Sad to say, but there are lots of people out there, who, when confronted with irrefutable evidence of gender discrimination, will simply fall back to saying "well, not everyone gets what they want". It's such an easy cop-out, isn't it. And it rolls so readily off of the tongue. Close your eyes and repeat it to yourself a few times, and perhaps you too will find yourself slipping into the ignorant bliss of those who really couldn't give a damn, and don't ever want to be made to give a damn.

One other thing; regarding wafer's comment about him not being "a fan" of "throwing around %s and raw numbers"...wafer, if people talking about gender discrimination don't make rigorous statistical statements (unfortunately enough for you, involving all those icky numbers you don't like), they get shot down immediately. What a fucked up catch-22...a woman mentions the statistics that prove her point and people whine about being confronted with numbers that "are too easy to present in an inappropriate manner", but if she doesn't mention the statistics I bet the first response would be to tell her she's full of it because she doesn't have any rigorous statistics to back up her claims.

The "statistics can always be made to lie" mantra is yet another all too easy cop-out.

I also like your "name some names" comment. Yet another easy cop-out is to tell the woman that she needs to do yet more work to "prove" to you that gender discrimination exists. Oh yes, and then back up that "names some names" comment with some irrelevant anecdotal "evidence" from your own life. Yes wanker, or wafer, or whatever the hell your name is, you epitomize what activists for greater gender equity are up against.


The problem with your "show me the women" argument is that showing you the women relies on the women have some prestige and name recognition. The problem with that is that you get recognition and prestige if your colleagues notice your work. Since sexism happens at all levels, women who do good work get overlooked a lot and that means they don't get the recognition etc that a lot of men scientists do.

The important point about sexism in the sciences is that it's a systematic bias which affects *most* women at *most* levels, rather than affect only a few individual women at the point of being considered for National Academy membership.


I just wanted to call attention to Tex's remarks above, because they got lost by the spam filter for two days. Sorry, Tex.

And let me just say how tired I am of people speculating without bothering to access any data or references to back up their speculations, but nevertheless offering a corrective view that somehow just always seems to show that there is no real gender bias going on. In Tex's case, it's the same old "we just need to wait for them to filter up through the ranks" bit. The problem is, even when we do filter up through the ranks, we don't get recognized - which is the point of my post. We don't get nominated for awards, or for membership in prestigious academies, in proportion to our presence in science. We are underrepresented and men are overrepresented. That would be the gender bias I'm talking about.

And by the way, the clustering of women faculty in the lower academic ranks and the non-tenure track positions is another aspect of gender bias that has been noted and addressed in several recent reports, including the NAS report and one dealing with academia more generally.