Wednesday, February 23, 2011

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

This post is about the Ceci-Williams meta-study itself. To explain where I am going with this, note that the possible reasons why women, on average, might show different patterns of participation in the so-called hard sciences, can be summarized as follows:

1. Biological explanations

1a. Women cannot learn enough science to work as researchers in the field, on average.

1b. Women are not interested in hard sciences for biological reasons (such as biologically determined focus on people rather than on things)

1c. Women are biologically destined to be the sex which gives birth to children and then takes care of them (as well as of their father). This work conflicts with the long hours necessary in hard science research.

2. Societal explanations

2a. Girls and women are socialized away from hard sciences, probably because their primary future roles are seen as caretakers of children. This can take place inside homes, in schools and in popular culture (Math Is Hard). This, in turn, results in fewer women prepared to enter hard sciences as well as fewer women with expressed interest in hard sciences.

2b. Societal gender roles place the responsibility for childcare and household chores on women. These tasks are time-intensive. That women do them also benefits men in hard sciences who can thereby both dedicate themselves to their careers AND have children. Women in hard sciences may be offered "a choice" between having a family or a career.

3. Discriminatory Explanations

3a. Direct discrimination. This term refers to our usual understanding of the term "discrimination," such as hiring a man over a better qualified woman in a laboratory, making certain that women scientists don't get the best spaces, promoting men over equally qualified women and so on. Note that direct discrimination could happen because the person discriminating believes that women are biologically inferior as scientist, but it could also happen without that belief.

3b. Indirect discrimination. This is a seldom-used term. It refers to discrimination in earlier stages of some process. For instance, if schools discriminated against girls in the teaching of mathematics, the fact that later universities would not do so doesn't mean that discrimination had no role to play in the outcomes. Sometimes it is useful to keep in mind that the overall impact of discrimination on any one particular woman is a cumulative one. To disprove discrimination in the final stages does not mean that it never played a role. Likewise, treating sons and daughters with equal talents and interests differently is also gender discrimination, even if of the indirect kind by the time the daughter would like to be a scientist.

3c. Institutional discrimination. This term is interpreted somewhat differently by different people, but in general it means that the institutions themselves, perhaps in an unintended fashion, discriminate against some group, women in this case. As one popularization of the Ceci-Williams study pointed out, universities in general are set out to "discriminate" against any individual whose fertility declines rapidly after the age 35 because of the way tenure is granted. The tenure process was not invented to keep women out of academia. But its impact on women is far more negative than on men.

It's quite possible for several of these theories to apply at the same time. I like the list because it reminds us that "choice" may mean several different things, even though certain commentators equate it with "free choice" by women. But by the time a woman is ready to "choose", she has already been subjected to a society in which it is women who take care of children and she knows that hard sciences are where the Menz Are.

Armed with this, let's have a closer look at the Ceci-Williams meta-study. They argue that women are no longer directly discriminated against in journal reviewing (a process which one must pass to get published) or in the awarding of research grants, given that we compare men and women with "the same resources" and in those two sections their work is fairly good. They also argue that women are no longer directly discriminated against in hiring.

Their work in that section is less convincing. As the Slate review points out:
Here's what Ceci and Williams show: That women with the same resources as men are just as likely to get their papers, grants, and job applications accepted. While this might appear to mean that women scientists don't face discrimination, in fact, it's quite compatible with the strong experimental evidence that there is bias against women.
In order to understand why, we need to revisit some basic facts about the scientific method. The best scientific way to discover if one factor influences another is to do a controlled experiment. For example, you can give people two identical résumés to evaluate, one with a woman's name and one with a man's name. If people rank the one with man's name higher than the identical one with a woman's name, you know that they are discriminating on the basis of sex, and nothing else, since you've experimentally controlled all the other factors. These experiments, and others like them, have been done. They are described in the PNAS article and the results are clear. Even in fields that are traditionally considered friendly to women, such as psychology and sociology, a woman's name leads to a lower ranking. As Ceci and Williams say, it is extremely unlikely that this bias is limited to the specific fields that were studied in these experiments. If you want to answer the scientific question of whether there is unconscious bias and discrimination against women, these experimental studies are the gold standard.
This quote reminds us, by the way, that unless we happen to experts in this particular field we also have no way of knowing if the studies Ceci and Williams analyzed are an unbiased sample of all the studies in the field. They may well be but it's always good to remain aware of the possibility that a different set of researchers might have covered different studies and emphasized different results.

My major disagreement with the study is not about the hiring section, however, or even the absence of sections on promotions and the "firings" which are created by not getting tenure, but the way the concept of resources are treated in the study.

What do the authors mean by resources? This seems the closest to a definition I could find:
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): “There is very little direct effect of sex on research productivity. . generally have positions superior to those of women, although structural differences by gender have appreciably declined over time.Once sex differences in such positions and resources are taken into account, net differences between men and women in productivity are nil or negligible” (ref. 26, pp. 863–864).
What this quote says is that women are every bit as productive as men who are treated the way women in science are treated! Only most men are not treated that way, but once we control for the fact that women tend to teach larger classes in colleges with less research emphasis and tend to do research with less money and fewer assistants, they do every bit as well!

Oops! I shouldn't have used the word "treated" there, because clearly women chose to have larger classes, less prestigious colleges, less money and fewer assistants.

Humor aside, we don't actually KNOW how resources are allocated. Ceci and Williams take a tremendous leap here:
Given equivalent resources, men and women do equally well in publishing. A key issue, separable from sex discrimination in manuscript evaluation, is why women occupy positions providing fewer resources and what can be done about this situation. This situation is caused mainly by women’s choices, both freely made and constrained by biology and society, such as choices to defer careers to raise children, follow spouses’ career moves, care for elderly parents, limit job searches geographically, and enhance work-home balance. Some of these choices are freely made; others are constrained and could be changed (3).
When I read the above, I prepared for a long review of all the studies which demonstrate how women's choices are the cause of their fewer resources. Pages and pages of them, I thought. But to my surprise the authors move on to discuss grant applications. Thus, it's only that number (3) which is used to refer to the certain-sure evidence that lower resources are mainly caused by women's own choices. It refers to another Ceci&Williams article, called "Sex Differences in Math-Intensive Fields." I haven't had time to get hold of it yet (send money) but surely the above leap is too important, too fundamentally earth-shatteringly important, to stand on just one puny citation? Especially given that this is the take-home message of the whole article?

I am not arguing that women's child-rearing and household responsibilities wouldn't play an important role. Far from it. But note that these responsibilities play the same direct role in all academic disciplines. Their indirect role may be greater in the field of hard sciences, because of the strong gender connotations that field has in the popular imagination and because women in the field are rare enough to perhaps stand out negatively if they ask for longer maternity leaves or more time in the tenure clock. It might look like demanding preferential treatment when most of the guyz don't "need it".

Still, imagine a study which argues that secretaries and bosses are treated exactly the same once we standardize for their available resources! That would never fly but this one seems to. My point is that discrimination, if it exists, is not going to leave the resources available to women unaffected. No way. And yet the whole Ceci and Williams meta-study argues that resources are something completely different from discrimination and all about women's choices.