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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."

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Ceci and Williams dispense with any data to the contrary as "aberrant, of small magnitude" and "superseded by larger, more sophisticated analyses showing no bias."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

Women's Hiring Barriers Overlooked

Ceci and Williams concentrate on discrimination in reviews for grant funding, but say comparatively little about discrimination against women in hiring, a huge issue. They also mention, repeatedly, that a key factor in women's lack of advancement is insufficient access to resources. They claim that this lack is due to lifestyle choices and career preferences.

The MIT report raises real doubt about that. Senior, tenured women at the university did not have dependent children. They worked long hours, were highly accomplished and clearly had motivation and ambition. Despite all this, they had fewer resources than their male colleagues: fewer opportunities to speak at international conferences, smaller support staffs and offices and laboratories about half the size of their male colleagues of equal status.

Recently, at Harvard Medical School, female researchers who had been wooed by the school discovered that they were more likely than male peers to have smaller start-up packages, fewer opportunities to apply for research grants and inadequate office space. Again, these are women who had no family responsibilities--either their children were grown or they had no children. "Lifestyle" choices were not a factor, either for the women at MIT or Harvard.

Despite its obvious oversights the Ceci-Williams paper is being picked up uncritically by major news outlets. Why? Maybe because it feeds into a trendy media narrative--that women are doing fine while men are failing.

No need to worry about women, their problems are in the past and we have to fret about "The End of Men," as an Atlantic cover piece calls it.

Women's Leadership Roles Stagnating

The business research group Catalyst, based in Long Island, N.Y., found that women's representation in senior leadership positions is stagnating. In computer science and engineering, earlier gains appear to have stalled or even shifted into reverse.

The New York City-based National Council for Research on Women says too many women still feel they learn and work in unfriendly and hostile environments in labs and other technological workplaces. Discrimination is alive and well and while women's lifestyle choices may hinder progress in math and science jobs, such choices are far from the whole story.

To their credit, the authors of this new study urge policymakers to address the family and lifestyle issues faced by women interested in building a long-term career in science.

But too often, far from having vanished, discrimination is a key to women's choices. If you're running as hard as you can but getting no traction, maybe you stop trying so hard.

"The language attributing women's lower pay to their own lifestyle choices is seductive," said Hillary Lips, director of the Center for Gender Studies at Radford University in Radford, Va. Look more closely at the facts though, she says, and you will see that "the impact of discrimination is actually deeply embedded in and constrains these choices."

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Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University. Rosalind C. Barnett is senior scientist at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis. They are authors of the forthcoming book "The Truth about Girls and Boys: Confronting Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children" (Columbia University Press).

For more information:

"Understanding current causes of women's underrepresentation in science," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study:
http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2011/02/02/1014871108.abstract