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."

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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:

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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.