The Myth of the ‘Myth of Women in Science’

If you skimmed through some articles about women in science recently, you’d be forgiven for thinking ‘problem solved’. A recent study by Cecil and Williams, published in no less august a publication than PNAS, claimed women actually had a 2:1 advantage over men when it came to hiring at tenure track level. Isn’t that fantastic! Hence CNN ran a story claiming it was now ‘the myth of women in science’, implying that those tedious whinging women could now shout up (other outlets ran similar write-ups).

However. Yes, there’s bound to be a however. This claim, which many women would be hard pressed to believe from personal experience, was sure to be scrutinised. If you want an analysis of why the study is not as robust as its abstract (and the CNN article) suggests, take a look at this. This deconstruction of the study highlights a number of shortcomings , not least the fact that respondents being asked if they’d hire someone knew full well the CVs they were sent were not genuine. Why not show how impressively unbiased you are by choosing the minority candidate when absolutely nothing hangs on it?

Now the plural of anecdote may not be data, and indeed hiring decisions could in fact be completely independent of the microinequities people feel justified in making day by day (see Jenny Martin’s recent blogpost if you doubt such things are still ongoing) but nothing I have seen suggests we have yet reached a point when we can relax and think equality has been reached in science. Study after study suggests that women leave the profession at a faster rate than men and that, whatever percentage of women start out at undergraduate level the percentage falls at each successive stage, although the numbers vary between disciplines.

It isn’t the first time Ceci and Williams have published a study suggesting discrimination in hiring is essentially a thing of the past (see this earlier study where in essence the blame was put on women wanting to become mothers). It is of course true that overt discrimination is not common, but subtler forms undoubtedly still occur. The sort of thing covered by a suspicion that a woman of child-bearing age wearing a ring might be a risky appointment in case they want to take time out for a child or an undefined sense that someone might not fit in as well as the candidate who looks like everyone else already in the department

Hiring is of course a crucial stage in any individual’s career, but it isn’t the only moment that matters; possibly not even the most critical. If the community is led to believe that they can relax because all is completely hunky dory when it comes to hiring, then collectively I am sure there will be an inclination to stop looking at the wider problem. Yet the problem is not one-dimensional and there are multiple factors that may cause the attrition in numbers of female scientists. That is why recognition of the sorts of pervasive microinequities that Jenny Martin describes is so important. The PhD student who feels bullied, ignored or treated as no more than a dumb blonde is not likely to want to stick around (see here for my discussion of a study highlighting these issues specifically in chemistry). The female post doc who wonders why it is always the blokes who get encouraged to go to conferences to present the group data or who is only the second author on a paper describing what is actually her own work may feel there is little point in applying for a fellowship or faculty position. You cannot blame an appointment committee for failing to appoint the women who don’t apply because they’ve been systematically discouraged before they reach that point, even if none of this discouragement is explicit. Yet Ceci and Williams seem keen to load this blame for not applying onto the discouraged women.

That is why I think investigations that are being carried out into the data on success rates by career stage and gender for grant applications are so important; I know my own university (and maybe several others too) are carrying out this analysis together with several funders. As I’ve written before, working out why women aren’t applying for Royal Society URFs in the numbers represented in the pool and why they are less successful when they do is an important step forward. Since URFs – and their equivalent from other funders – are an important staging post in an aspiring academic’s career, grasping and solving this problem would be an important milestone towards equality.

But if we have a study, which in itself can actually be heavily criticised, allowing institutions to wriggle off the hook by permitting them to kid themselves there isn’t a problem, then we are likely to end up with a lot of complacent deans and chairs of appointment committees. A similar point was made here where a careful deconstruction of some of the additional claims made in the Ceci and Williams paper is made. More importantly, though, this piece by Marie-Claire Shanahan spells out just why the discourse being created by Ceci and Williams is potentially so dangerous: it implies it’s the women’s fault (by not applying for positions) because it certainly isn’t the hiring committees’ fault if they don’t get hired. This puts the blame on women in a most unhelpful way. It isn’t that women are wimps who don’t apply because they believe there is bias in the appointments, it is that too often they get deterred and derailed by a whole range of different factors along the way. Feeding a misleading message to the media, as appears to have happened around this article, is at best unhelpful.

Personally I fear that by putting the blame on women it means that the ‘establishment’ will sit back and wait for the women to ‘man up’. Articles like the latest Ceci and Williams one and the hype surrounding it run the very real danger that some of the encouraging trends we’ve been seeing will unravel. Actions such as requiring panels to take unconscious bias training will be put into reverse and more thoughtful and thorough approaches by search committees will be allowed to lapse. In other words, equality will be set back. I sincerely hope people will not allow themselves to be deluded back into inaction by this PNAS article.


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3 Responses to The Myth of the ‘Myth of Women in Science’

  1. d says:

    Try finding a British born scientist (regardless of gender!) of African descent in academia…

  2. saskia says:

    Thank you for this post. Being in the US (and being young and female and somebody who should be looking for that tenure-track job), several people felt the need to point out this article. I found the article so upsetting I also looked deeper in the methodology.
    First hand experience, I can say the reason I am not looking for a tenure track position, is because in the last 2 years on the market, I did notice people only wanted me to apply to fulfill an HR requirement (no women on the list, means no hire). If my CV did make it to interview state, often the weakest candidate (their own candidate, with Ph.D from that institution) did get the job. Not any of the other candidates. So yes, after 2 years of going through all the politics (in which my field did not hire a single female (or other minority) faculty member …) I have decided to quit the race for tenure track job. Not because I am not good enough, as these authors suggest, nor because I did start a family, because it is pointless.

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