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“Understanding current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science”


A new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences has been causing a storm: Understanding current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science, by Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams, both from the Department of Human Development at Cornell University.  (What is a Department of Human Development?  According to their website, “The Department of Human Development addresses the biological, emotional, cognitive, and social factors that shape human behavioral development and the potential of research for enhancing development and well-being from infancy through old age in diverse social contexts.”)

Though there are points to be made about the media coverage of this article, I want to focus on the text of the article itself.  The article claims to prove that there is no sex discrimination in (i) manuscript reviewing, (ii) grant funding or (iii) interviewing/hiring.  The last section then explains the point that

Women’s current underrepresentation in math-intensive fields is not caused by discrimination in these domains, but rather to sex differences in resources, abilities, and choices (whether free or constrained).

Let’s examine the two issues separately, and then wrap it up in summary.

I: Discrimination

The authors break this up into three parts.  I have not been very aware of studies on discrimination in journal reviewing, and have not heard any big push against it, so to me this part is largely a strawman.  However, it also possibly suffers from the weakness of the next section, regarding grant funding.  The often quoted statistic is that women need to be 2.6 times as strong an applicant, but objective measures, to be rated as strongly (subjectively) as a male applicant.  This is based on a paper in Nature which studied postdoctoral fellowship applications to the Sedish Medical Research Council (MRC) in 1995.  After comparing an objective “total impact measure,” based on “total number of publications, total number of first-author publications, total citations, total impact measure, first-author impact measure, and first-author citations,” they found that “a female applicant had to be 2.5 times more productive than the average male applicant to receive the same competence score [from the judges].”  Ceci and Williams now go on to cite multiple studies where grant applications for males and females had the same success rates, indicating that such discrimination has never been reproduced and therefore doesn’t exist.  But nowhere do they attempt to address apples to apples.  Male and female success rates say nothing about the content of those applications – did the successful women have to try twice as hard as the men?  That’s the discrimination question at the heart of the MRC study, and that’s not addressed by any of the other studies about acceptance rates.  The exception is a followhip study of the MRC, which found no discrimination, but in fact a small effect in favor of women instead.  But that’s not surprising – if your esteemed organization made headlines for being discriminatory, wouldn’t you take that as a giant kick in the behind to pay attention to the issue, and sometimes that involves a bit of recalibrating?

The third discrimination issue is related to hiring practices.  Ceci and Williams first list a handful of the many studies that have shown gender preferences in hiring, but then never go on to disprove them.  The next paragraph includes the sentence “A Government Accounting Office (GAO) report notes that women in math-intensive fields express feelings of isolation, dissatisfaction, and discrimination,” and then goes on to talk about how women are more likely to work part-time because they choose to and that’s why they get paid less.  I’m sorry, did I just blink and miss something?  How was this transition logical, except to imply that women feel discriminated against because they work part time?  Perhaps they feel discriminated against because they are being discriminated against?  I don’t understand how these issues (discrimination in hiring and self-reported discrimination) just managed to fall out of the article at this point.

The only time hiring discrimination is actually addressed in this section is the statement that “among PhDs applying for tenure-track jobs, women were slightly more likely than men to be invited to interview and offered jobs.”  Yet this is, once again, the same key omission from the entire paper – just who are these women that are applying?  If STEM fields lose increasing numbers of women as you go up the pipeline, who is left by the time they are applying for tenure-track jobs: the superstars, of course!  The ones who have fought against the tide, who are committed, who have made it that far despite many barriers against them.  The fact that they are slightly more likely than men to be interviewed doesn’t mean discrimination doesn’t exist, because it ignores the many women that have already been discriminated against.  And, again, it says nothing about how hard these women had to work compared to men.

All in all, I did not feel that the paper held up to its claims of proving that discrimination doesn’t exist.  Quite frankly it was shoddily done and failed to address the actual key issues that exist in regards to discrimination.  As Joan Schmelz wrote in the AAS Women newsletter on February 11, 2011: “I think the authors should be sentenced to walk a mile in my shoes . . . I hope I am wearing the highest of my high heels on that day!”

II. “Today’s Causes” of Underrepresentation

The quote that sums it all up:

That women tend to occupy positions offering fewer resources is not due to women being bypassed in interviewing and hiring or being denied grants and journal publications because of their sex.  It is due primarily to factors surrounding family formation and childrearing, gendered expectations, lifestyle choices, and career preferences – some originating before or during adolescence… – and secondarily to sex differences at the extreme right tail of mathematics performance on tests used as gateways to graduate school admission.

Ceci and Williams break it down again into three issues: career preferences, ability differences, and fertility/lifestyle choices.  What boggles my mind is how these are somehow stated as issues independent of discrimination, whereas they are truly embedded in a gendered society that influences everyone throughout their entire lives.  And the mathematical differences thing – is this truly being brought up, despite all the studies that show that gap decreasing?  How can something biologically innate be changing so rapidly?  And then of course, there’s the fact that you can teach spatial ability, the well-demonstrated existence of stereotype threat, and how silly it is to focus on the gender makeup of the top 0.01% when a far greater percentage of people than that go on to get degrees in science. (If you say there are about 10 million scientists and engineers working in this country [old numbers], that’s about 3% of the population now, which is 300 times the number of people you are talking about in that tiny tiny tail of the SAT-M scores, and those are the ones that get STEM degrees, which plenty of high-scoring math students don’t.)

The article ends with noting that many statistics about how fertility choices and work-home balance come up as big issues, and that we ought to be addressing those issues with family-friendly policies.  Okay.  But how is this issue not related to discrimination?  The fact that this is a woman’s burden and that men come out relatively unscathed in the whole process when they have children (I don’t mean to imply that it’s not difficult, just that the same career effects aren’t seen) says something about our society and the unfair treatment of some over others – that’s discrimination.

Summing it All Up

The paper phrases their purpose for downplaying discrimination in the abstract:

Thus, the ongoing focus on sex discrimination in reviewing, interviewing, and hiring represents costly, misplaces effort: Society is engaged in the present in solving problems of the past, rather than in addressing meaningful limitations deterring women’s participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers today.

Do we need to address issues other than discrimination?  Yes, a resounding yes.  Work-life issues are huge in academics (and elsewhere) and can affect both men and women.  But that doesn’t mean that we can’t also talk about discrimination.  I don’t know how “costly” it is to hold seminars and workshops that raise awareness, but I highly doubt that the money spent on such efforts could fund entire campus day-care centers, hire postdocs or teachers to fill-in for new parents, and fund couples-hiring initiatives.  Furthermore, not talking about discrimination and unconcious bias is dangerous because awareness is key to addressing the biases that we all have.  Have things gotten better since the Swedish Medical Research Council?  You bet, and that’s because they were called out, big time.  To say that talking about discrimination is counter-productive only allows it to continue.  It’s definitely not so blatant anymore, which is why more of the focus is on unconcious bias, which is not adequately addressed in this article.  I’d really love for these authors to walk a mile in my shoes, too.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Fritz permalink
    05/06/2011 9:21 am

    Speaking as an academic math insider, my experience is that the amount of discrimination IN FAVOR of women is enormous. Women with weaker backgrounds are consistently admitted to the graduate program to fill unstated quotas. The sad thing is that this is really hurting the women. They end up completing degrees at a lower rate.

    In the case of my university my year, 3/4 female applicants to the graduate school were given signing bonuses of thousands of dollars each (something no male has ever received as far as I know) despite the fact that many of their test scores were less impressive than male competitors. Women were given a far larger proportion of fellowships than their actual representation in the department. Also, women are obviously given preference for post-doc positions as well, so much so that we give out more offers to women than men! This should be really surprising considering the applicant pool is heavily male.
    I’m really sick of listening to arrogant people discuss things they don’t know about. Go spend some time in an actual math department and see how the politics works, then come talk to me. Especially at larger state universities where there’s a lot of political pressure, I can assure you there is nothing but bias in favor of women.
    The days of the good old boys club are done. The good old boys are dying and retiring. Let’s make this change to a more gender balanced work world a peaceful one by supporting equality of outcome. Universities, corporations, governments shouldn’t write gender into law. That’s what thinking people call BIGOTRY.

    • Julia permalink*
      05/06/2011 10:05 am

      Fritz, as a graduate student in math I should hope that you would know the difference between statistics and anecdotes as well as the importance of a large sample size. I would also hope that you would have taken the time to actually read the post on which you are commenting, because right now all I see is a knee-jerk reaction to anyone wishing to discuss problems which tend to affect women more than men. If you would like to discuss the specifics of the article, that would probably be more useful. Further on-topic discussion will be allowed, but off-topic whining will not.

      While that sums up my response to the majority of your comment, I have to call you out on this:

      I’m really sick of listening to arrogant people discuss things they don’t know about. Go spend some time in an actual math department and see how the politics works, then come talk to me. Especially at larger state universities where there’s a lot of political pressure, I can assure you there is nothing but bias in favor of women.

      This kind of blew me away. Why in the world would you assume that your vast experience as a graduate student somehow gives you the authority and expertise to explain “the hard truth” about academia to me? What makes you think that you know what you’re talking about, compared to me? The mere assumption that I should talk to YOU for expertise on the subject when you don’t even know who I am just speaks volumes to your assumptions, your privilege, and your arrogance. With that statement, you couldn’t have possibly better fit with the exact topic of this post, so bravo. (By the way, if you need a hint, I’m implying that I do in fact meet your criteria, and perhaps even more!)

      • Fritz permalink
        05/06/2011 12:45 pm

        Wow, what a response. Seems like I got put in a box, right quick. You don’t know me either. Let’s clear this up.

        First a response to your article:
        There are all sorts of ways in which “discrimination” effects career path. That discrimination often does most of its damage before high-school. The original article is not saying “there are no negative attitudes toward women in math and science”. The article is attempting to argue that most of those problems happen long before graduate school, and that when you factor those out you don’t see any real difference between men and women.
        Do you get my point? If we’re trying to find out if, for instance, there is discrimination in a given hiring process, enormous difference in outcome can be a result of descrimination/free choice from _before_ the hiring process. You can’t just say, oh well there’s always “cultural discrimination”, bang your gavel, and go home. This doesn’t solve anything and it certainly doesn’t advance the condition of women who are all to often dissuaded from pursing what I think is incredibly interesting material. I want more women in these fields too. I just don’t think the current understanding of the “problem” is correct, and I don’t think the “solution” is the right one anymore.

        Second a response to your comment:
        Of course I know that anecdotal evidence is not proof. I’m simply presenting what I’ve observed to a public who, likely, doesn’t know much about the inner workings of a math department. When I referred to “arrogant people discuss things they don’t know about” what I mean is people who have no problem commenting on the goings on in MATH departments who have little experience there. Mostly I was responding to Lauren’s comment when I said this, sorry it wasn’t clearer. (I’d like to point out that you don’t attack poster Lauren’s credentials, despite the fact that she’s an undergrad studying fields that have absolutely nothing to do with math).

        Math is not the same as other fields: it is clearly at the epicenter of all of this nonsense and as a result gets very special attention. There are few places where you will see more gender disparity than in a math department: with the exception of CS, you see a higher ratio of women in almost every other field. The unspoken gender politics in mathematics are intense. That is my experience. And that is what I’m trying to convey.

        All that being said, why do you assume your experience is so universal? So you’re an insider. We aren’t all at the same place! 🙂 Why dismiss my differing experiences entirely? You certainly haven’t seen all the math departments in the world either! 🙂

        I was not attempting to explain the “hard truth of academia” to you, but the hard truth of the math departments I’ve seen. I’ve spent a lot of time in three major universities, two in the US and one internationally. I’ve visited other and discussed these issues with male and female faculty members alike. My opinion is not uncommon, and not only males hold this opinion.

        I’m quite happy to discuss these ideas with people who disagree with me. If your experience is greatly different and if you’re a mathematician yourself (as you seem to suggest), then, of course, I’d really like to hear about it. I’m really surprised you don’t take this as an opportunity to share some of your knowledge and experience in the hopes that we will some day agree.

        BTW I read every word of the full article and every word of your response I’m quite well read on all of these subjects. Studying gender is a major side-hobby of mine. I do it every day. Rather than responding with shaming tactics and ad hominem attacks, I would really appreciate it if you would address my content. For instance, what about my concluding point? Do you not agree?

        “Let’s make this change to a more gender balanced work world a peaceful one by supporting equality of [opportunity]. Universities, corporations, governments shouldn’t write gender into law. That’s what thinking people call BIGOTRY.”

        Isn’t this what we want? If we disagree on some facts, that’s fine, but at least we should be able to agree on the goal! Who doesn’t want equality of opportunity?! That sounds ideal to me.

        p.s. Exploiting the fact that you can tell what my e-mail address is and then revealing related information in your post is pretty low.

        p.p.s. I’m totally amazed that this message board isn’t a complete echo chamber. Think you for allowing differing opinions to be heard.

      • Julia permalink*
        05/06/2011 1:55 pm

        Thanks for the more thoughtful response. I do see what you mean about most discrimination happening early on in life. However, that doesn’t mean that once children grow up they no longer face these issues, the larger societal attitudes that shaped children are still present as we are adults, though it may be more under-the-surface. Outright discrimination is generally not the concern anymore, save for a few old dinosaurs. Instead the focus is largely on unconscious bias, which is a larger topic that was neglected in the PNAS article. Actually, it was indirectly brought up by listing all the studies that demonstrate hiring preferences (such as when the CV with the name “Brian” on the top gets called back twice as often as the exact same CV with the name “Karen” on top), but none of those studies were ever refuted in the article, which is what really got to me. The topic of unconscious (or implicit) bias is too large for me to address here in the comments, but I trust you have either already encountered it or can find more information. There is definitely a lot less old-fashioned discrimination, but that’s not really what the “problem” is, which may have been unclear in my original post.

        One point of our disagreement is that you seem to focus exclusively on math, whereas the article itself focuses on all STEM fields. I’m not a mathematician, but an astrophysicist, so my personal focus is more on the physical sciences. I disagree with your comment about math being the “epicenter” of this, or that math has the worst gender disparity except for CS. Engineering is extremely low (along with CS) and is a larger field than either math or physical sciences. The “physical sciences” as a whole are about on par with math but that is largely boosted due to chemistry. Physics itself is far lower; the percentage of women earning doctorates in math is twice that as physics. I should note that the numbers for racial/ethnic minorites are far worse for most fields. It was never my intention to exclusively talk about math.

        I definitely do not assume my experience is universal, my point is that neither of ours are. That’s why I prefer to go by the larger-scale studies, however I also think it’s important to listen to the experiences of the groups that we are talking about. In this case, that’s women. This is not to say that all women have the same experiences, or that we all agree, or that men should be “shut out” from this conversation. Not at all! But as a woman who has experienced both implicit and flat-out discrimination, I would prefer that my voice be heard and considered as part of the conversation. So for a stranger (and a man) to tell me that I am wrong, that my experience is wrong, is very hurtful. You say you’re surprised I don’t share my knowledge and experience, but that’s the point of this entire blog. My colleagues and I do just that in other posts, and I’d welcome you to read them.

        Obviously I agree with you on your last point. That’s why a lot of the measures I would propose to address this problem would involved increased objectivity and accountability in hiring and performance evaluations; basically, anything to remove the usage and strength of unconscious biases (or in the least, to bring awareness to them). I don’t see how this in any way would be bigotry against men, because every candidate would be evaluated by the same concrete standards. Perhaps you thought I was implying other measures (like quotas), but nowhere did I say that. I also believe strongly that talking about these issues, and raising awareness, is an important way to achieve that goal; shutting down conversation or claiming there is no problem is not the right way to go.

        I don’t want this comment thread to go on forever, but I think we’ve both had an opportunity to clarify our positions.

        p.s. Sorry about the identifying information, I edited the previous comment to remove your institution.

  2. 03/08/2011 2:15 pm

    Thank you for the great critique! I thought the PNAS paper had a number of problems, and I’m so happy to see them addressed here. I had the exact same response when I read the part on discrimination in hiring – I even read it again to make sure I wasn’t missing something.

  3. Dominique Millette permalink
    02/21/2011 12:36 pm

    Thanks for this article. It’s unbelievable anyone could be so completely unaware of the unfair burden women shoulder upon child-rearing. Things may have improved slightly, but not nearly enough for women to climb to the top as smoothly as their male counterparts. It looks like any intelligent woman with ambition must either forego children altogether, or find a good home caregiver as a substitute. Child care outside the home is often inadequate and, of course, you have to drop off and pick up your children there. Of course, if one is divorcing, one can leave the children with the husband.

  4. Lauren permalink
    02/21/2011 12:36 pm

    I’m a senior HD major at Cornell University, but I also minor in Education and Feminist, Gender, & Sexuality studies. I was horrified that Ceci and Williams could write an entire paper alleging that there is no discrimination against women in the sciences without acknowledging that “sex differences in resources, abilities, and choices (whether free or constrained)” CAN be a form of discrimination. I respect their hard work and their many contributions to science, but this article fails in its definition and understanding of discrimination.


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