Our Gender Bias

genderbiasWhen I first read the NYT headline, “Academic Science Isn’t Sexist” in the Sunday Review this weekend, I thought it was a joke. Or maybe an ironic goad to draw the reader in? But no. The authors, Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci (both researchers at Boston University and Cornell, respectively) were completely serious.  They’ve just published a paper, Women in Academic Science: A Changing Landscape, with their colleagues, in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest. That paper, summarized in the NYT op-ed piece, claims that there is no sexism in the science academy and that the under-representation of women in math-intensive science fields are “rooted in pre-college factors and the subsequent likelihood of majoring in these fields, and future research should focus on these barriers rather than mis-directing attention toward historical barriers that no longer account for women’s underrepresentation in academic science.”  The authors claim that it is all about personal choices that young girls make, opting for life sciences or other fields. In their published paper, they discuss the reasons why females make these choices and talk about the “perception” among new female PhDs and post docs that tenure track positions are not compatible with family formation.  The main thrust of the NYT piece is to say to these women – good news! science departments are great places to be as a woman and the whole gender-bias thing is over.

I did a double take. And then I quickly flipped back to the paper’s front page because, yes, in fact there was a front page article about sexism at Yale. Right there. In the same newspaper. A sexual harassment case that’s been unfolding at Yale Medical School for the last five years. Cardiology Chief, Michael Simons, made unwanted advances to a student Annarita Di Lorenzo (18 years his junior) that went on for years, undermining her career as well as her then-boyfriend’s.  Despite formal filings with the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct, Simons is still there and, though he admits that he made “an error in judgement by pursuing a junior colleague”, he claims that he has never abused his position of authority or leadership. Riiiight. Academic science departments are a great place to be as a woman. I’ve got to think that the NYT editors had a frisson of delight over the juxtaposition of these two articles. But I take little comfort from the fact that the Williams/Ceci article is an opinion piece and the Simons story is hard, cold fact. Gender inequality and bias are alive and well.

Shall we take a look at a few gems from the world of gender bias research?

Science Faculty Subtle Gender Bias Favors Male Students

Blind Orchestra Auditions Better for Women

Gender Bias in JAMA’s Peer Review Process

Bibliometrics:  Global Gender Disparities in Science

or, one of my personal favorites, Female Hurricanes are Deadlier Than Male Hurricanes.

One of the leaders in this area is the MIT researcher, Nancy Hopkins. From 1995-97, Dr. Hopkins chaired a committee at MIT that studied inequalities experienced by women science and math faculty as a result of unconscious gender bias. The summary report from that committee – known as the Report on Women Faculty in Science at MIT – is credited with launching a national re-examination of equity for women scientists.

In January 2005, at an NBER meeting in Cambridge, MA on the topic of how to address the under-representation of women and minorities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, Dr. Hopkins rather famously walked out in protest during a talk given by then-Harvard University President, Larry Summers. In his address, Summers proposed that one reason for the very small number of high achieving women in science and engineering fields might be their lesser “intrinsic aptitude” for these subjects, relative to men. Subsequent news articles and reports about Summer’s speech set off a national discussion on gender discrimination, which ultimately was one factor leading to Summers’ resignation as the President of Harvard. Have we already forgotten the Larry Summers story?

Have a listen to Dr. Hopkins’ 2014 BU commencement address. Wendy Williams, were you there in the audience that day?

The sad fact is that gender bias is sneaky.  Sometimes it is overt and obvious (like Simons at Yale or Summers at Harvard) but often it’s hidden and sneaks up on us. Thoughts and impulses that are so deeply rooted they are outside our awareness – and often our control. Doubt your own gender bias?  Try taking the gender bias test at Project Implicit (Mazahran Banaji’s, Harvard University, amazing work).

Since Sunday, thoughtful science bloggers have taken deeper dives into the original paper by Ceci et al. and shared their analyses. This by Jonathan Eisen (UC Davis) (along with his nicely done Storify piece) and this by Emily Willingham who takes a close look at the data provided in the published article, reaching very different conclusions. Then there’s this, from Slate, published this morning. I’ve got to say, I’m looking forward with relish, to see what Letters to the Editor the NYT will publish as follow-ons.

It’s also interesting to note that Ceci et al only examined data with regard to women in math-intensive academic fields. By far and away more women (and men) who major in science enter jobs in industry, where gender bias rages with intensity and larger numbers – salary inequities, promotional dead-ends, sexual harassment, and an alarming paucity of women in leadership positions.

I can’t resist concluding this post with a pair of viral videos that add zest to the story and an important reminder that sexual harassment is all about power and control. The first, produced by Hollaback, shows excerpts from video recorded of a young woman, walking around the streets of New York City for 10 hours:

The second, from Funny or Die, a send-up of the first, with a man doing the same.  Click on the photo to travel to the video.

From Funny or Die.  Click to see the video.

From Funny or Die. Click to see the video.



Filed under Reflections

15 responses to “Our Gender Bias

  1. nheyden

    The best defense is a strong offense. Your rebuttal is better when critiquing their research– its limitations and too broad conclusions– and less so when contrasting it to anecdote atrocities, which may or may be symptoms of the same cause. Also, there is a distinction between unthinking, not premeditated sexism and the twisted use of it for personal power and pleasure.

  2. Well done.

    It’s interesting to dissect this problem with a spouse who is also a scientist. You know that they personally try hard not to be part of the problem. But we (neither partner) can get inside the other person’s head and see clearly from their perspective.

    I don’t see two links to videos at the bottom of the post? Maybe you corrected that already.


  3. Lisa Urry

    This is a great post, Robin. Thanks for pulling this all together. I thought the NYT article was kind of mind-boggling.

    • rheyden

      Thanks for reading, Lisa. It was a relief to write it, quite frankly. Like you, I just couldn’t believe that article was even there!

  4. All I have to do is look around me at the number of female grad students, post docs and assistant professors who are leaving academic biology after working incredible hard with many sacrifices to get here. The funding squeeze has made the problem even worse with more pressure for more work on everyone. I think it’s reasonable to look at pre-college factors, but where the pipeline has an enormous breach, according to what i see, is at the grad/early professional stage.

    I wonder if anyone has looked at how many women are able to accept a job because a spousal hire is part of the package as opposed to the same for men. Anecdotally (admittedly not as powerful) it seems to me that men are able to negotiate for spousal hires more often than women. Again lots of factors involved, but isn’t it the outcome that matters.

    Go Robin and go Nancy Hopkins (and GO Larry Summers)!

    • rheyden

      Well said, Jean. I think you are right on about the grad/early professional stage, just where mentoring, advocacy, and leadership can really make a difference. The funding squeeze undoubtedly exaggerates all of the problems, as everyone scrambles for fewer and fewer crumbs. Interestingly, the Ceci paper did mention spousal hires, but, to my mind, didn’t shed any particular light. Yet another place where men have more power? All in all, it’s depressing and I can’t believe that we are still fighting this fight with so little change. It’s been nearly two decades since Nancy Hopkins published the MIT report.

  5. Jane Reece

    A terrific blog post, Robin! — packed with useful information, incisive explanation, and food for thought.Thank you for doing this. . . .Just last night in Santiago, I had a long dinner table conversation with two Chilean women, a mother and daughter, about the same issues in the world of business here. Despite the country having a female president, the situation for women here is decades behind that in the US. Sad . . .but the accomplishments and awareness of women like these are cause for some optimism.

    • rheyden

      Thanks, Jane! Interesting (but not surprising) to hear that the same biases and de-valuation of women’s work holds true in Chile. I’m always so impressed to meet women, like your friends there, who press on valiantly, against the odds. Does indeed give us all hope.

  6. gardnercampbell

    An extraordinary post, Robin. Thank you. As always, your words are clear, thoughtful, zestful, and fair.

    As a third entry in the video series, I’d love to see one on the locker-room and schoolroom harassment directed at men by men. The alpha-dog stuff can be truly damaging. I also think it perpetuates all sorts of intra- and inter-gender abuse later on. Gender-based harassment of all kinds are truly complex and rotten pathologies.

    • rheyden

      Too right, Gardner. A painful truth. Isn’t it interesting how a short video can shine such a bright spotlight on these problems? Maybe we need a whole series of videos with each devoted to the perspective of the harassment recipient.

  7. Hi Robin,
    Great post. I had not seen the “10 hours walking in NYC as a man” video — I could not stop laughing. (“Hey buddy … want a job? I’ll give you a job.”) Often humor is the best way to open people’s eyes to truth!

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