Why might you want to disbelieve the Moss-Racusin study?

An interesting thing happened, when I started talking about gender equality in science for a sustained period of time, with a broad range of people in the scientific community.  Consistently, the same issues were brought up as reasons to disbelieve, or to query the main conclusions, of the Moss-Racusin study.

A contender for first place would be this:

“The numbers show that the women are worse!  They are more sexist than the men!”

So no, according to the authors, the difference between the behaviour of the male and female faculty members is statistically insignificant, making them equally sexist.  But this is something that people seem to want to believe, often coupling it with a story about a particular woman who has made it to a senior position in science, but isn’t very nice.  She has done this by stomping on others, actively discouraging the promotion of less senior women about her, and so on.

I have very little time for this point of view, though I sort of see the appeal of the argument.  I can see that it feels that way, simply because we tend to expect more of women who are in these positions.  (It’s the small numbers problem again.)  There is a lot of literature about the difficulties that women have in making a go of leadership positions, not because of any inability to perform the job, but because of the way that they are judged for doing the job:

“If they act consistently with female stereotypes, their competence is questioned. But if their behavior is consistent with that of the stereotypical male, they’re viewed as being too tough.”

From here.

Another thing that was brought up more than once, was the view that the problem has gone.  It’s in the past, because

“In my research group, there are 10 girls and I’m the only man”

From a postgrad.  It’s not a perfect quote but the use of ‘girls’ and ‘man’ I remember.

Or else people — usually not biologists — feel the need to point out that in biology, in contrast to the physical sciences, women outnumber men.  True at undergraduate level often enough, and even at postgrad: but that’s not what we are talking about here.  At senior levels in biology, the women disappear very, very quickly.  I get that there is a need to point out that things are improving, and yes, if you compare to 50 odd years ago, I think this is true.  But have we seen progress in the last 20 years or so?  I think maybe not, with the exception of where specific programmes and policies have been put in place to effect change.

On the web, people are more forthright (or perhaps they know less about science that the people who’ve been to my seminars; dunno)

So, there’s this

or this comment,

or this comment on why the gender pay gap is unfair to men:

“You could look at it that way. You could also ask the question, “Why are so few men getting degrees in teaching?” And I’d say that a large part of that is because most K-12 teaching jobs pay pretty poorly, and men in our society are under pressure to get jobs that can provide for a family. So men who might be interested in teaching end up going into some other field where they can get better pay. Gender biases don’t just hurt women.”

Or this one, which echoes the point I made earlier:

“Look, I’m about as much of an open-minded, equal rights supporting liberal as you’re going to find most of the time, but there comes a time when making such excuses stops being convincing. My biology classes in college generally had more women than men, but I would never consider complaining about that, or claiming there was a gender bias.”

It’s a complicated issue, and by that I don’t mean to wave a magic wand over the different opinions that people have on (a) the existence of gender bias, and (b) the importance of it.  But I don’t think that casting doubt on the validity of this particular study gets you anywhere; yes, lots of people make different career choices, yes, people who are sufficiently self-aware are probably somewhat less sexist than the average.  But the results of this study make an awful lot of sense when compared to the statistically meaningful and persistent gender bias in science.  Maybe it can give us an idea or two of what to do about it.

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