Biology in the News Explained

Women are still bailing out of science: “choice” or discrimination?

Hallelujah.  According to Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams, of the Department of Human Development, Cornell University, gender discrimination in science is over (Understanding current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science,  published online Monday at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences*).  According to the authors, there is no longer discrimination against women in the realms of hiring, grants, or publications in science.  Why are women still so underrepresented in all of these?  It’s all about “choices,” of course.

To give the authors a little credit, they acknowledge some of the “choices” as “constrained” (even as they use the term “freely made” to describe some choices, without ever defining what they really mean by either term).  Their paradigm of “constrained choices” is so much less harsh and accusatory than a paradigm that the deck is stacked against you from day one, because of your decidedly unchosen genetics, and seems designed to appease a conservative wing of the social science field that doesn’t actually exist.  It’s perhaps not too surprising, though, coming from a department as vaguely named as “Human Development” – imagine living your whole world amid the sanitized jargon of social sciences, and you can perhaps understand the apparent need of the authors to use as uncontroversial a term as possible.

As the two or three longtime of readers of this blog know, I am not exactly charitable to the idea that persistent lack of women in science and other male-dominated careers is all about “choices.”

The authors of this paper make ubiquitous use of the term “freely made” choices – which is of course, as always, a total straw man. Claims that fewer women are in certain professions due to “freely made choices” ignore the fact that the very existence of a gender gap shows that those choices are not freely made. Believers in “choice” support the view that women genetically are more likely to make certain choices, which is as dangerous as asserting that blacks freely choose to set their sights on becoming successful athletes rather than intellectuals, or that non-Christians freely choose not to live in certain southern communities (because they just wouldn’t like it there).  It is an attempt to paper over discrimination by chaining women to their physiological role in reproduction, and imposing feelings and opinions that people who don’t understand statistics mistakenly believe are perfectly correlated with that role.

So, as long as it is still acceptable to assume that women don’t care about their work as much as their male partners do, the cycle perpetuates as a self-fullfilling prophecy, and nothing changes.

No one ever discusses that men are constrained in their choices too, of course – they are expected to get and keep shitty jobs, even if they’d prefer to spend more time with their families, and women are expected to “choose” family over shitty jobs. The social forces are probably just as strong for each gender, but they run in opposite directions.

The tired old suggestion of providing resources associated with “family balance” as a way to keep women in the job perpetuates the ridiculous but rarely questioned assumption that lack of family support is a women’s problem only. This has to stop, or no progress will be made in decreasing the gender gap in science achievement.

But now for some choice quotes from Ceci and Williams’ paper, which exhorts us to stop worrying about nonexistent discrimination:

Others have also found that after controlling for structural variables such as status of university, discipline, and presence of young children (which affects women disproportionately), there is no evidence of discriminatory treatment, because women and men in the same circumstances (e.g., same type of institution, discipline, and amount of experience) fare equivalently. Again, although these variables affect men and women similarly, they disadvantage women more in practice, because more women work at teaching-intensive jobs.

So they controlled for the presence of young children because they affect women disproportionately. This by itself shows how ingrained our thinking is on this matter.  The authors are letting their assumptions about proper gender roles drive their argument, which of course then results in gender parity in their model. Have faculty in “Human Development”, who seem to know so much about science, ever heard the term “tautalogical”?  Controlling for “presence of young children” is equivalent to controlling for how dirty their houses are, because both make an assumption about gender roles at home. Until we get past the assumption that the mother has to be the one taking care of young children, nothing will change, because it is this assumption that is at the root of academic discrimination against female scientists. Relative to their interest in women’s reproductive status, it hardly occurs to anyone to consider a man’s.  That has barely changed through all the decades of reduced legal barriers for women in the workplace.

A similar passage, on attrition of women at higher levels of academia, is by the same authors but from a 2010 paper (Sex differences in math-intensive fields. Curr Dir Psychol Sci 19:275–279):

Although the reasons for this attrition are not well understood, it appears to have less to do with discrimination or ability than with fertility decisions and lifestyle choices, both freely made and constrained. The tenure structure in academe demands that women having children make their greatest intellectual contributions contemporaneously with their greatest physical and emotional achievements, a feat not expected of men. When women opt out of full-time careers to have and rear children, this is a choice—constrained by biology—that men are not required to make.

Horsefeathers. It is not constrained by biology. A medical leave of 6-8 weeks for a woman would be adequate in most cases for a household in which the father is the primary caretaker. This should not be enough to impact a person’s career, and it should be expected that men take as much time when they become fathers, which would reduce the imbalance. If the difference in job success turns into parents vs. nonparents, instead of men vs. women, then you can start making the argument that it’s all about “choices.” (Ironically, the push for more maternity leave for women, which has been stronger than than the push for equal parental leave, has only reinforced the idea in employers’ heads that women are less productive to have on the payroll than men.)

Here’s another reason why women bail at later stages of their careers, one that seems to be completely under the radar of all these social scientists and their statisticians: too much of a burden is being placed on them as representatives of their gender.  Some general data are needed, but in an anecdotal example, I know a female geologist, a tenured associate professor, who is reluctant to apply to full professor because every time she receives a promotion, she just gets put on more administrative committees that are desperate for “women in science” representation.  There are few female full professors in science, therefore those there are have a much larger service commitment than their male counterparts – another force keeping the cycle going.

Yes, gender discrimination is over, because the fewer women the farther up the career ladder you go

…is due primarily to factors surrounding family formation and childrearing, gendered expectations, lifestyle choices, and career preferences—some originating before or during adolescence[.]

So, presumably there’s nothing academic institutions can do about it.  Then again, how do you think those adolescents are forming their assumptions in the first place?  Could it possibly be from observing how typical female career paths go in the current real world?  Nah, of course not.

But here’s my number one favorite quote in the paper: “To the extent that women’s choices are freely made and women are satisfied with the outcomes, then we have no problem.”

This of course can never be the case as long as there are any women who do not believe their choices to be made “freely” (and even if they do, but are just rationalizing the hand they’ve been dealt). So it’s as stupid and as pointless to say as “To the extent that everyone has a job they really like, we have no problem.” One of the biggest problems we do have is with authors like this who get so wrapped up in what they think statistics say, that they never stop to think that what they are mostly doing is to encourage biased thinking about the motivations and abilities of individuals – which is what causes the problems they are so anxious to discount.

Here is Lawrence Summers revisited:

Today, the dearth of women in math-based fields is related to three factors, one of which (fertility/lifestyle choices) hinders women in all fields, not just mathematical ones, whereas the others (career preferences and ability differences) impact women in math-based fields.

Once again those “differences” in “ability” rear their ugly head, because people are confusing statistical significance with biological significance.  If the differences are even real, they apply to so few people that they are not a useful part of the discussion. That’s what Summers and his supporters apparently will never understand. The authors then go on to discuss the “significant” men-to-women ratio among those who score in the top 0.01% of the SAT math test. Are they actually serious in believing data that do not apply to 99.9% of the population are relevant to this discussion?   Yes, they are.  Those who are desperate to believe in important genetic differences in intellectual abilities between males and females cling to these tidbits, instead of seeing what is staring them in the face:  if the differences were big enough to have biological meaning, we wouldn’t need extensive statistical analyses to find them.  Ever heard of anyone doing a statistical test on which sex are the better breast-feeders?

One strategy to broaden girls’ interests and aspirations involves providing them with realistic information about career opportunities and exposing them to role models in math-based fields. This intervention is not meant to dissuade girls from aspiring to be physicians, veterinarians, and biologists, fields in which women are becoming a majority, but rather to ensure they do not opt out of inorganic fields because of misinformation or stereotypes.

Exactly. And for the near future at least, they will continue to have no role models, because we have decided that discrimination is over. How clever of us.

On steps needed to perhaps cause fewer women to “choose” family over work:

However, implementing such flexible options will require motivation and commitment of resources, and raises important questions that research will need to resolve (e.g., the impact on graduate students and postdocs working with part-time faculty; ways to “game” the part-time option for tenure).

Actually, the requirement is a lot simpler than all this gobbledygook that requires more “research”: that we get over this idea that having a successful research career means owing your soul to the company store. It’s not good for anyone – the tenure track at R1 institutions sucks for most men too. Let’s fix it so we don’t burn everyone out – there are plenty of labs in other countries that remain highly productive despite their leaders working “only” 8-10 hours a day.   Can we please, please, just stop saying that this is women’s problem to solve?  Because they have to keep doing all that extra stuff to get ahead, too, so if this continues to get dumped in their lap, I suspect that they may just continue to “choose” not to deal with it all anymore.

*(citation: PNAS published ahead of print February 7, 2011,doi:10.1073/pnas.1014871108)


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