I’ve been on holiday this week. So when an email came through from a friend, pointing me to the CNN report on this paper, I read the title and scanned the first couple of paragraphs, and filed it away for later reading.
I did keep thinking about it though, especially while sitting alone in the onsen after a day in the snow. I have had in mind that I am giving another rendition of the talk that started this blog next week, in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Canterbury. So I was sitting, soaking, and thinking about what it might mean, because I have always worried, from the first time I put a summary of the evidence together, that I might easily be accused of cherry picking the data. Without a research background in psychology or social science, I think this is a sensible thing for me to worry about.
So how could a study reporting favoritism towards women in science be reconciled with the previous studies I had read? The conclusion I came to, sitting in the sulphurous hot water and staring at the birch trees that framed my view of the sky and snow, was simply this: any study that looks into the issues of women in science is one that I welcome, even (especially) if it challenges the conclusions I have previously come to. I may not have a background in social science, but working in the physical sciences is not a bad place to learn about the many complexities that can arise in an apparently simple system.
People are not a simple system.
So: before having read the original study, and only based on the CNN summary, I had framed a few possible hypotheses in my mind. These run as follows:
1) CVs of tenure-track candidates are being evaluated without the gender bias that was demonstrated in the study of Moss-Racusin, where the applicants were for jobs that did not require a PhD. Therefore perhaps there is a difference in the effective gender bias at these different career stages.
2) The extent to which the issues of women in science have been publicised in the last few years, based on the Moss-Racusin study, the study of attitudes towards the concept of innate talent, and a range of other pieces of research – oh, and a whole issue of Nature devoted to the problem – has led to a change in awareness, and therefore in behaviour (which is not necessarily the same as suggesting that unconscious biases have changed in any measurable way, which a lot of literature would suggest is much much harder).
Hypothesis 1) is pretty well ruled out by the consistency between the Moss-Racusin study and numerous other studies that show gender bias in the evaluation of CVs for a range of jobs, across different disciplines, fields, and levels of seniority. A secondary version of this hypothesis might still be valid: that there is something special about academic tenure track science positions. This, however, can easily be turned into a version of hypothesis 2): perhaps the attention given to the issues of women in science has caused widespread recognition within the academic community, and, we may hope, scientists are willing to work towards countering their biases.
This would be the positive way of framing my reaction 1.0: at least, this hope that discussion and awareness would lead to positive change was the major reason for my putting this talk/blog together in the first place. So I’d like to take the results of the current study in that spirit.
However – having had a little time now, to read the original research paper, I think I need to add a little more to this: so what follows here is my reaction 2.0.
A great summary of some of the technical issues with the paper is here, and I won’t reiterate the points that it makes so well other than to say that I would not be quick to condemn any piece of research for weaknesses in methodology, so long as such weaknesses are acknowledged in the paper itself, and taken into account in the formulation of its conclusions.
A particular point, that I would like to focus on here, is the authors account of their motivations in doing this study. As they say themselves:
These results suggest it is a propitious time for women launching careers in academic science. Messages to the contrary may discourage women from applying for STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) tenure-track assistant professorships.
Now I am very sympathetic to the implied discomfort with continued negative messages around the issues of women in science. I have always been very careful to insist that the biases and sexism are really only assessable in a statistically meaningful sample; to worry about the impact of these (mostly rather small) factors on an individual career is nonsensical, not to mention unhealthy. It also misses the importance of intersectionality by trying to reduce analysis of what is and isn’t fair to a single dimension – life is not always fair, and to a large extent, those of us who do well in academia do so because we have had the luck to have been well supported – by mentors, family, and friends – at crucial moments in our careers. It does come down to luck – and while you can certainly make your own luck at times, I’d argue that that’s a necessary but not sufficient condition for success.
So yes: gender imbalance in science exists, but the sexism that we have to deal with is structural; I don’t believe I have seen any indication that direct sexism exists in academia at greater levels than in society generally (though it certainly does exist). Talking about gender imbalance, honestly and openly, is, I genuinely believe, better than trying to conceal the truth under a coating of ‘nothing to see here, it’s all fine’.
And this is the irony in the current PNAS article. The results most likely suggest, in contrast to the authors conclusions, that talking about gender imbalance and unconscious bias has made a difference in peoples attitudes. At least to the attitudes of the 30% of academics who would opt to participate in such a study.
I say attitudes only, and not behaviours, because of the nature of the study: assessing candidates for assistant professorships on the basis of individual ‘narratives’ – not even CVs – is a long way from a real hiring scenario, and one in which the goals of the study are likely to be highly transparent. Participants may well feel freer that they would in a non-hypothetical scenario to make the decision that they think is the right one – in a world in which gender bias is apparent.
I’m not even going to comment on the fact that it’s only the male economists that show no preference for female candidates, in this scenario – whether it is the awareness or the will that is lacking, I am not qualified to judge.
Finally, I will take issue with the conclusions that the authors come to:
Our data suggest it is an auspicious time to be a talented woman launching a STEM tenure-track academic career, contrary to findings from earlier investigations alleging bias
The data show considerably stronger bias than even in the Moss-Racusin study, just pointing in the opposite direction! The last thing that this article shows is that sexism is dead. It does, however, provide an interesting demonstration of how querying and qualifying experiences of gender bias – even if done for the best of reasons – can lead to an amplification of the original sexism.
We hope the discovery of an overall 2:1 preference for hiring women over otherwise identical men will help counter self-handicapping and opting-out by talented women at the point of entry to the STEM professoriate
As opposed to just giving ammunition to those who have been pushing back against efforts to get women into science by alleging ‘you only got the job because you’re a woman’?
Way to increase the damage done by imposter syndrome, guys.