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Paradigms and prejudice

TFG, woman scientist

Credit: G. Grullón/Science

Science, argued physicist and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn in his seminal 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, makes fundamental advances when new, unfamiliar intellectual paradigms replace older, accepted ones that can no longer account for important data and observations. But new paradigms, Kuhn added, inevitably face resistance from people committed, whether intellectually or personally, to a former consensus that no longer adequately explains the evidence. It’s likely that we’re witnessing something of the sort right now, in a discussion that has vexed academic science for decades: Why do women constitute a minority of faculty members, especially in math-intensive fields?

The conflict between new and old flared into public view in October, when a pair of well-regarded Cornell University psychologists, Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci, published an essay in The New York Times challenging long-established orthodoxy. “Academic Science Isn’t Sexist,” declares the headline (although editors, not article authors, determine headlines, usually with the aim of attracting readers). “[T]he experiences of young and midcareer women in math-intensive fields are, for the most part, similar to those of their male counterparts,” the authors write.

So, notwithstanding the squawking from the blogosphere, the data indicate that able women who set out to make academic careers today in math-intensive fields of science have as good a chance of succeeding as men, keeping in mind that the chances don’t appear great for anyone of either gender.

By “experiences” Williams and Ceci mean the objective facts of who is currently getting jobs and promotions, not how it feels to enter and advance in a field traditionally considered male. Contrary to the accepted narrative of pervasive sexism and gender discrimination, they write, current data show that women scientists now “are more likely to receive hiring offers [than men], are paid roughly the same …, are generally tenured and promoted at the same rate …, 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.”

Williams and Ceci acknowledge the long history of discrimination against women scientists, but their conclusion about the current situation derives from a nuanced and meticulous 67-page literature review they wrote with two leading labor-market economists, Donna Ginther of the University of Kansas and Shulamit Kahn of Boston University, and published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest. As our colleagues at ScienceInsider and Science Careers have noted, objections to the Times essay immediately erupted in the blogosphere, and some scholars of the subject have expressed reservations.

Still, the review firmly concludes that today—in fields where fewer women than men are obtaining faculty posts—the reason is that fewer women are applying for the jobs. After detailed examination of eight possible explanations for this discrepancy, the authors declare themselves unable to specify a cause. Some revealing light on this question, though, comes from other recently published research.

Former paradigms

For some years, the reigning explanations for women’s smaller numbers in academic science fields have been gender bias and institutional barriers, especially policies inimical to child-care responsibilities. Before that, the predominant paradigm invoked supposedly inferior female intellect, especially in math. Elaborate theories involving evolution, brain structure, and hormones purported to explain this. But in recent decades, as high school girls began taking the same math courses as boys, the longstanding difference in average math scores has vanished and with it the basis researchers used for claims that females can’t handle scientific subjects as well as males.

Women now earn nearly half of the bachelor’s degrees in math and half of the Ph.D.s in life science and pharmacy. They make up half of the medical school graduates, dental school enrollees, medical physics students (anecdotally), and biomedical and environmental engineering students; 62% of Doctor of Pharmacy recipients;  and nearly 90% of veterinary medicine graduates.

In other work and along with other researchers, Ceci and Williams have argued that women’s values and preferences—especially those involving children and family—are influential in encouraging them to pursue careers other than research-based academic science. Recent research suggests, furthermore, that gender and family commitments are “two separate issues,” Sarah Damaske of Pennsylvania State University, University Park, told Science Careers in an interview. “Not just looking at academics, the employment literature all suggests that women without children fare much better than women with children in the workforce,” she says. “They have higher pay, greater pathways for success.”

An illuminating study by Damaske and co-authors Elaine Howard Ecklund of Rice University; Anne Lincoln of Southern Methodist University; and Virginia White, also of Rice, takes gender out of the equation entirely by examining the relationship among the family commitments and career progression and choices of male biologists and physicists at prominent research universities, ranging from graduate students to full professors. “Male Scientists’ Competing Devotions to Work And Family” describes four approaches to domestic responsibilities that the men expressed. About 15% have decided to “forgo childrearing,” either by remaining single or, if married, committing not to have children.

Most of the men, however, have families or hope to. Of those, 28% are “egalitarian partners,” who “appear devoted to their wives’ careers (rather than simply talking about egalitarianism), and … actively reduce their work activities to accommodate the dual careers” and an equal division of child care and household responsibilities. Another 22% are “neotraditional dual earners,” whose careers take precedence over those of working wives mainly responsible for child care and other domestic duties. The 30% who are “traditional breadwinners” have stay-at-home wives who shoulder the entire burden of parenting and household work. These men “report spending the most time at work (and having the lowest workload at home.)”

All the men recognize the major time commitments needed for success in academic science; some even say they would rather leave academe than make the personal sacrifices required to succeed. The foregoers consider science “incompatible” with parenthood. The egalitarians, being more “involved at home[,] report greater levels of stress and decreased productivity at work” than colleagues with fewer domestic duties, “mirroring the very problems reported by women who face similar demands from both work and family,” the article states. Not surprisingly, the traditional breadwinners have the highest percentage of full professors and attained tenure quickest. These findings indicate, the authors note, that academia has “a child-rearing problem, suggesting that … not only women … are at risk of structural discrimination within academic science but also men who want to have and spend time with their children.” In the interview with Science Careers, Damaske emphasized that the study does not examine gender as a factor in academic careers.

From computer science (CS) professor and labor market researcher Norman Matloff comes another example of differential values and preferences influencing (nonacademic) science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers. He first noticed “the mystery of declining female enrollment in CS” in his classes at the University of California (UC), Davis, “a bit before the issue became a nationwide topic around 2008,” he writes. “My theory at the time was that women are more practical than men, and that the well-publicized drastic swings in the CS labor market are off-putting to women more than men. This was confirmed by a 2008 survey in the Communications of the ACM, a professional magazine of the Association for Computing Machinery, which found that in choosing to enter the IT [information technology] field, women placed significantly more emphasis on job security”—a rare commodity for many in today’s IT workforce.

A new reality

The Williams and Ceci Times essay does contain one patently inaccurate statement: “Our country desperately needs more talented people in [scientific] fields.” To the contrary, evidence they and their co-authors present in the Psychological Science in the Public Interest paper makes clear that concern about “leakage” of women—or, for that matter, of anybody—from the pipeline to the tenure track is decidedly, well, academic. Over 6 years at a “large state university” cited in the paper, out “of 3,245 applicants for 63 tenure-track positions in 19 STEM fields, 2.03% of male applicants were hired compared with 4.28% of females,” the authors write. And, as we have reported previously, fewer than a third of the top postdocs at ultraprestigious UC San Francisco make it onto the tenure track. For the great majority of early-career scientists of either gender to have any hope of earning a living, they must “leak” into lines of endeavor other than academic science.

So, notwithstanding the squawking from the blogosphere, the data indicate that able women who set out to make academic careers today in math-intensive fields of science have as good a chance of succeeding as men, keeping in mind that the chances don’t appear great for anyone of either gender. A vast oversupply of scientists has created fierce competition for the very few available academic posts. Many people, it appears, decline to make the life choices—specifically the single-minded expenditure of time and devotion—needed for those jobs. There is, of course, no guarantee that women won’t encounter men with sexist attitudes in the scientific world; they very likely will. Clearly, though, the objective barriers that blocked the way for past generations of scientifically talented women are, if the hiring and promotion data are to be believed, objectively gone. It’s likely, therefore, that we're confronting a new reality that requires and deserves a new paradigm to describe it.