Women in Science

Flawed Study Dismissing Job Bias Thrills Media

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The media is having a heyday with a study that came out earlier this month finding that scientific women are stalled by their own lifestyle choices, not discrimination. Co-authors Roz Barnett and Caryl Rivers say "show us the data."



(WOMENSENEWS)--Is discrimination against women in the sciences a thing of the past? Do women do less well than men because of choices they themselves make, rather than bias and structural barriers in the workplace?

Yes, says a new paper that's getting a lot of media attention.

Researchers Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams say women's underrepresentation is mostly a matter of career preferences and fertility and lifestyle choices.

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Seeking time with family, caring for children or elderly parents, following a spouse or preference for working part time are the real reasons they say women lag behind men in good jobs in math and science.

Their paper, "Understanding Current Causes of Women's Underrepresentation in Science," was published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Feb. 7.

The news media loves it.

"Goodbye glass ceiling; so long old-boys club," said Nature news. The Washington Post called the article a "stunning critique of research on bias against women." John Tierney of the New York Times featured the article in a column in the paper's science section and the Guardian asked, "When it comes to worrying about the underrepresentation of women in science, especially at higher levels, are we stuck in the past?"

Afraid not.

This rosy scenario about the decline of sex discrimination is very flawed.

Ceci and Williams dispense with any data to the contrary as "aberrant, of small magnitude" and "superseded by larger, more sophisticated analyses showing no bias."

What's the basis for this conclusion? The authors don't tell us. At the same time, they brush aside a huge trove of contradictory evidence

Other Studies Pushed Aside

Barely mentioned is the major, gold-standard study "Beyond Bias and Barriers," a 2007 report by the National Academies Press on the status of women in academic science and engineering. It cited more than 500 studies and journal articles and was put together by a star-studded 18-member panel made up primarily of female university presidents, provosts and senior professors.

They found women very likely to face discrimination in every field of science and engineering and continued questioning by others of their abilities and commitment.

Research with controlled experiments and examination of real life show that people:

• Are less likely to hire a woman than a man with identical qualifications

• Are less likely to ascribe credit to a woman than to a man for identical accomplishments

• Will far more often give the benefit of the doubt to a man than to a woman.

Although most scientists and engineers believe that they are objective and intend to be fair, research indicates that they are not exempt from those tendencies, the report noted.

Ceci and Williams also virtually ignored a major MIT report that found serious discrimination against tenured female professors at the institution.

They barely mentioned the extensive research of psychologist Madeline Heilman and others showing that both men and women are likely to ascribe good performances on the job to men rather than to women.

The authors spend most of their time brushing aside a Swedish study finding that when men and women were subjectively rated for scientific competence, males fared far better even when they weren't objectively as good as women. A female applicant had to be 2.5 times more productive than the average male applicant to receive the same competence score as he received.

Ceci and Williams dismissed the study largely because it has not been replicated. But many studies--especially large and complicated ones--are not replicated. (Nature reports that fully a third of scientific studies do not get cited, much less replicated.)

The Swedish study was thorough and comprehensive. Its authors actually looked at the reviewers' notes so they could compare the reviewers' subjective judgments with the actual objective data--the first time a major study had access to such data. It's doubtful that subsequent studies could duplicate this design.

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This explanation that women aren't represented in professional or leadership positions due to choices they make is common in all fields, not just science and engineering. I heard it all the time in public school administration. It's nonsense. In 2007, I published the book PLAINTIFF BLUES to describe the 17 years I spent as a plaintiff in two federal lawsuits fighting these same attitudes. Even when I won in federal court, it was a grueling experience. I blog on www.plaintiffblues.com to continue discussing these and other social justice issues.

A continuation of my post: citing three sources doesn't support the idea the media are having a "field day." Citing only print media doesn't support castigating all media. Where are the television reports? Radio? Social media?

I remain disappointed that We-news doesn't know that "media" is a plural noun. The medium of television IS the predominant way people receive daily news. The media ARE having a field day with this new study. I'm also disappointed that the authors criticize "the media" but fail to cite examples of the media that have reported the study.

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