Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Gender and scientific success

I didn't want to write this post.  I really don't want to touch this with a ten foot pole. What follows is messy and complicated and guaranteed to make everyone mad at least some of the time. (Ask Larry Summers).

We need a sane approach to how we deal with gender in the sciences.

Women are making measurable representation gains in the sciences. This is an undisputed good. Everyone benefits when the right people are doing the right job. However, despite the fact that the majority of bachelor's degrees are now being awarded to women, women only make up about 20% of professorships in math and the sciences. Why?

The three basic alternative answers: 1.) women tend not to choose careers in math or science (either willingly or due to life/family circumstances); 2.) women are barred from achievement in math and science through acts of willful discrimination; or 3.) women do not have the same aptitude for achievement in math and sciences as men.

This is a difficult issue to study as people's careers cannot be manipulated experimentally, and we are left to mostly correlational evidence. An exception are CV studies where identical CVs are given to judges with either a woman or man's name on the top. Judges are asked to determine the competence of the candidates. These studies typically find that the "male candidates" are judged to be more competent than the "female candidates". As no objective differences exist between them, this is a measure of sex discrimination.

Reviewing the correlational evidence for gender discrimination in the sciences, Ceci and Williams find that when examining researchers with equal access to resources (lab space, teaching loads, etc), that no productivity difference is found between male and female scientists. Female scientists are, on average, less likely to have as many resources as male scientists as they are more likely to take positions with heavier teaching loads. How to reconcile the CV studies showing discrimination and the correlational evidence suggesting none? In an excellent analysis of the Ceci and Williams paper, Alison Gopnik asserts a possible hypothesis: "Women, knowing that they are subject to discrimination, may work twice as hard to produce high-quality grants and papers, so that the high quality offsets the influence of discrimination".

It's possible. But Gopnik also admits that it is also possible that policy changes could be responsible. In other words, that affirmative action-style policies that give women advantages could counteract the subconscious gender discrimination seen in the CV studies.

There's a darker side to these policies, though. Some worry about the discounting of a female professor's abilities, assuming she rose to the position via policy rather than talent. Furthermore, some policies designed to given women more voice actually end up give them more work - if a certain number of women need to be on a committee, then female professors are doing more service work than their male counterparts.

And then there's the matter of why female faculty find themselves in low-resource situations to begin with. Stated eloquently by Gopnik, "the conflict between female fertility and the typical tenure process is one important factor in women's access to resources. You could say that universities don't discriminate against women, they just discriminate against people whose fertility declines rapidly after 35."

And well-meaning policies also interact with the fertility issue in insidious ways. For example, many universities offer to "pause" the tenure clock for a year for a faculty member who gives birth before tenure. Sounds great, right?  It could be, except that there is a tremendous amount of pressure to not take this credit for fear of seeming weak. This is especially true in departments that have faculty members who have already chosen not to take the time.

So... we have unconscious discrimination, conscious policies to counter said unconscious discrimination, conscious and unconscious backlash against the policies, and a structural problem for female fertility. In other words, it's a complicated picture and I don't know what the answer is. I do, however agree with Shankar Vedantam's assessment: "It is true that fewer women than men break into science and engineering careers today because they do not choose such careers. What isn't true is that those choices are truly "free.""

No comments:

Post a Comment