Choices -- not discrimination -- determine success for women scientists, researchers say

Feb 07, 2011

It's an incendiary topic in academia – the pervasive belief that women are underrepresented in science, math and engineering fields because they face sex discrimination in the interviewing, hiring, and grant and manuscript review processes.

In a study, "Understanding Current Causes of Women's Underrepresentation in Science" published Feb. 7 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Cornell University social scientists say it's just not true.

It's not discrimination in these areas, but rather differences in resources attributable to career and family-related choices that set back in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, say Stephen J. Ceci, professor of developmental psychology, and Wendy M. Williams, professor of human development and director of the Cornell Institute for Women in Science, both in Cornell's College of Human Ecology.

The "substantial resources" universities expend to sponsor gender-sensitivity training and interviewing workshops would be better spent on addressing the real causes of women's underrepresentation, Ceci and Williams say, through creative problem-solving and policy changes that respond to differing "biological and social realities" of the sexes.

The researchers analyzed the scientific literature in which women and men competed for publications, grants or jobs in these fields. They found no systematic evidence of sex discrimination in interviewing, hiring, reviewing or funding when men and women with similar resources – such as teaching loads and research support – were compared.

"We hear often that men have a better chance of getting their work accepted or funded, or of getting jobs, because they're men," Williams said. "Universities expend money and time trying to combat this rampant alleged discrimination against women in the hope that by doing so universities will see the numbers of women STEM scientists increase dramatically over coming years."

The data show that women scientists are confronted with choices, beginning at or before adolescence, that influence their career trajectories and success. Women who prioritize families and have children sometimes make "lifestyle choices" that lead to them to take positions, such as adjunct or part-time appointments or jobs at two-year colleges, offering fewer resources and chances to move up in the ranks. These women, however, are not held back by sex discrimination in hiring or in how their scholarly work is evaluated. Men with comparably low levels of research resources fare equivalently to their female peers. Although women disproportionately hold such low-resource positions, this is not because they had their grants and manuscripts rejected or were denied positions at research-intensive universities due to their gender.

Also, females beginning before adolescence often prefer careers focusing on people, rather than things, aspiring to be physicians, biologists and veterinarians rather than physicists, engineers and computer scientists. Efforts to interest young girls in these math-heavy fields are intended to ensure girls do not opt out of inorganic fields because of misinformation or stereotypes.

Also, fertility decisions are key because the tenure system has strong disincentives for women to have children – a factor in why more women in academia are childless than men. Implementation of "flexible options" to enhance work-family balance may help to increase the numbers of women in STEM fields, the researchers say.

As long as women make the choice and "are satisfied with the outcomes, then we have no problem," they write in the paper. "However, to the extent that these choices are constrained by biology and/or society, and women are dissatisfied with the outcomes, or women's talent is not actualized, then we most emphatically have a problem."

The solution will only be possible if society focuses on changing the women's non-optimal choices and addressing unique challenges faced by female STEM scientists with children, the researchers say.

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StarDust21
5 / 5 (1) Feb 07, 2011
I'm getting tired of these sexist studies..There's no discrimination, medicine loaded with females for instance. And why would it be so dramatic if girls are on average less interested by science? Doesnt mean they are less intelligent in science, and if it is the case, than whats the big deal, I'm sure they are good at other fields..
brianweymes
3.7 / 5 (3) Feb 07, 2011
The study indicates females are not going into the hard sciences because they opt to have families instead. Thus, more efforts should be made to accommodate these women so the sciences do not lose them. If women are not taking up science because as girls they are not as interested in it as boys, more efforts should be made to kindle this interest in them from the start. Research in areas such as physics, math, engineering and computer science is extremely important to the prosperity and growth of modern civilization. The more talented individuals there are in these fields the better.
gwrede
5 / 5 (1) Feb 08, 2011
(sarcasm) If women aren't as interested as men in physics, math and engineering, then we should change their education until they are. (/sarcasm)

Seems to me a lot of people aren't satisfied until there are as many women studying phys etc as men. Whether the women themselves want it or not.

I agree that medicine, psychology, biology and others definitely gain from female participation. But I really don't think math, physics or computer science can gain anything new from 50% women. They should be studied by whoever (be it man or woman) who naturally is most interested in them. Not by a forced equality.
QuantumDelta
2 / 5 (1) Feb 08, 2011
I very much agree with brian, if we are to continue to move forward as a society ...if we are not using 100% of the resources(people) available to us, we're just not going to get the most out of our potential.

Edit; gwrede, it's not so much about 50% equality, but that if people who have einstein level potential are put off a field because they can't have a family, or something similar then we seriously lose out.
No one is suggesting the fields need to be numerically balanced, but more easily accessed.
AssociationForWomenInScience
not rated yet Feb 10, 2011
They are confusing discrimination with bias.
Ceci & Williams argue that, while overt discrimination has declined, there are still societal and professional barriers impeding the advancement of women, and such constraints that affect women across all academic disciplines. Having acknowledged the continuing problems, how can they possibly conclude that gender sensitivity training may no longer be needed?
When there was overt discrimination, it was possible to pass laws prohibiting it. But when dealing with the biases leading to societal and professional barriers, gender sensitivity training and continuing assessment of problem areas is precisely what is needed at this time.
There findings may be essentially correct, but their conclusion is mind-bogglingly wrong.