Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Dearth of Women in "Hard" Sciences? Women's Fault, Probably. Part I

Here is where reading the two posts below comes in handy! You can see How It Is Done in this society, meaning how we can talk out of two sides of the mouth at the same time when it comes to women: Women's lower participation in sciences is their own choice, either free or societally constrained, but nobody EVER tells them what they should choose! So pay attention, my sweeties, because Auntie Echidne has just shown you here, on this very blog, how it is done to make women "choose" family over careers of all times.

This post is about a new meta-study looking at the reasons why women are scarce in mathematics and hard sciences. By "meta" I mean that the new study doesn't actually carry out new research but goes over research already published. The conclusions of this study, by Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams, called "Understanding Current Causes of Women's Underrepresentation in Science" have spread like a wildfire in the popular media. Here is the study summary:
Explanations for women’s underrepresentation in math-intensive fields of science often focus on sex discrimination in grant and manuscript reviewing, interviewing, and hiring. Claims that women scientists suffer discrimination in these arenas rest on a set of studies undergirding policies and programs aimed at remediation. More
recent and robust empiricism, however, fails to support assertions of discrimination in these domains. To better understand women’s underrepresentation in math-intensive fields and its causes, we reprise claims of discrimination and their evidentiary bases. Based on a review of the past 20 y of data, we suggest that some of these claims are no longer valid and, if uncritically accepted as current causes of women’s lack of progress, can delay or prevent understanding
of contemporary determinants of women’s underrepresentation. We conclude that differential gendered outcomes in the real world result from differences in resources attributable to choices, whether free or constrained, and that such choices could be influenced and better informed through education if resources
were so directed. Thus, the ongoing focus on sex discrimination in reviewing, interviewing, and hiring represents costly, misplaced 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. Addressing today’s causes of underrepresentation requires focusing on education and policy changes that will make institutions responsive to differing biological realities of the sexes. Finally, we suggest potential avenues of intervention to increase gender fairness that accord with current, as opposed to historical, findings.

A translation: Ceci and Williams argue that women in sciences used to face direct discrimination in hiring, in getting grants and in getting their papers published in the past, but that this is no longer the case. When women and men with the same resources are compared, there is no consistent gender difference in either hiring, grants or the refereeing process. I will come back to the actual study in Part II but first, let's see what the media coverage of it has been:

This treatment has varied from really bad (by people who can't write):
As the 21st century unfolds, if even one woman does not get a job, there will be claims of discrimination.   And some will believe discrimination occurs institutionally despite the evidence, and insist any action by individuals is proof of sexism.   That's the nature of humans being humans.

But it's good to know the issue is still being addressed.   In a new study, "Understanding Current Causes of Women's Underrepresentation in Science" in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (freely available to read -, Cornell University social scientists, at least one who risks being immediately saddled with "white, male privilege" smears for daring to study the topic,  say institutional sexism is just not there any more.

to John Tierney (you know what he is going to say: it's women's bad biology):
Instead, the taboo against discussing sex differences was reinforced, so universities and the National Science Foundation went on spending tens of millions of dollars on research and programs based on the assumption that female scientists faced discrimination and various forms of unconscious bias. But that assumption has been repeatedly contradicted, most recently in a study published Monday in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by two Cornell psychologists, Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams. After reviewing two decades of research, they report that a woman in academic science typically fares as well as, if not better than, a comparable man when it comes to being interviewed, hired, promoted, financed and published.
“Thus,” they conclude, “the ongoing focus on sex discrimination in reviewing, interviewing and hiring represents costly, misplaced effort. Society is engaged in the present in solving problems of the past.” Instead of presuming discrimination in science or expecting the sexes to show equal interest in every discipline, the Cornell researchers say, universities should make it easier for women in any field to combine scholarship with family responsibilities.
to quite interesting takes:
Ceci and Williams did not show, or claim to show, that there was no discrimination or unconscious bias against women scientists. Instead, they tried to untangle the complicated causal factors that influence success. They found that when you factor in women's circumstances—for example, what kinds of teaching loads they have, whether they are at research universities, whether they have young children, and so on—then the correlation between sex and success goes away. Overall, female scientists have fewer resources than male scientists, just as poor people have less access to health care. But if you compare male and female scientists with identical resources you find that the women are just as likely to be successful. Ceci and Williams put it this way in their discussion of the number of journal articles women published: "The primary factor affecting women's productivity was structural position. When type of institution, teaching load, funding, and research assistance were factored in, the productivity gap completely disappeared (which is not to say discrimination has not influenced these factors in the real world)."
Concluding from this that gender doesn't influence scientific success, however, would be like concluding that poverty doesn't influence health in the study I described before. It's much more likely that gender causes the unequal resources, which causes the different outcomes.

finally, to this one:
Two thoughts before you use the comments to discuss whether women choose different paths, or whether systems are designed to “choose for them.”
First, the authors of the study are the co-authors of “The Mathematics of Sex: How Biology and Society Conspire to Limit Talented Women and Girls.” They are also, not incidentally, married to each other and the parents of three daughters. And, also not incidentally, he has an endowed chair at Cornell, while she does not.
The crucial finding of the Ceci-Williams meta-study has to do with the "similar resources" argument. That's also where their analysis lets them down as I shall show in Part II. But for the time being it's enough to note that we skip from the fact that women in science, on average, have fewer resources than men in science to the assumption that this is the outcome of female choice without addressing the question how resources in fact are allocated and to what extent that allocation process depends on the female scientists vs. the institutions which employ them.

Mostly, however, I wanted to juxtapose this post with the two below, for the enlightenment of all those who argue that women are these cumbersome creatures who keep choosing the wrong things. It's always the wrong things, by the way.