Don’t Worry Your Pretty Little Heads

A New York Times op-ed trolls the academic science community.

Chemistry lab
A “lifestyle preference.”

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Listen up, ladies: It’s time to forget everything you’ve ever read about gender inequality in the academic sciences, because a recent op-ed in the New York Times proclaims once and for all that “Academic Science Isn’t Sexist.” While its authors, Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams (both senior faculty in human development at Cornell), acknowledge the existence of significant research to the contrary—and readily admit that women comprise a mere 25–30 percent of tenure-track and 7–10 percent of senior faculty in “math-intensive” fields—they confidently dismiss any connection between those numbers and institutional sexism as the “largely anecdotal” whining of a vocal minority.

“If alleged hiring and promotion biases don’t explain the underrepresentation of women in math-intensive fields,” they ask, then what could possibly be the problem? According to their latest paper (for which the op-ed serves as a plug), “the biggest culprits are rooted in women’s earlier educational choices, and in women’s occupational and lifestyle preferences.” See, it’s not something insidious—like, say, that even women on science hiring committees are more likely to prefer a man’s curriculum vitae over a woman’s when all but the names are identical (as this study found). It’s that 5-year-old girls prefer frogs to Rube Goldberg machines.

Granted, respected (and decidedly not antifeminist) scholars have done research on scientific inclinations in children, some of which backs up this aspect of Ceci and Williams’ study. Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci took to my public Facebook page with a rundown of some of her recent work in this field: “Smart, confident girls are choosing not to go [into] computer science and engineering, and consciously moving towards the biosciences and life sciences,” she wrote. “When you talk to most of them, there is no ‘I can’t’ but ‘I would rather,’ and excitement towards what they want.”

Yet, many other scientists I communicated with over the weekend say the problem is that the conclusion of Ceci and Williams’ study—that “academic science isn’t sexist”—contradicts much of their own presented data. The paper’s weaknesses just might be the result of where it’s published, i.e. the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, for which Ceci serves as founding co-editor—meaning he has printed his work in his own journal. Why the Paper of Record did not disclose this relationship is, frankly, baffling to me.

Had this study been subject to more strenuous peer review (the kind that you are more likely to get when you don’t submit to a journal you founded), Ceci and Williams may have been pressed more on why their conclusions, as the sociologist Zuleyka Zevallos tells me, don’t match their data, which she argues actually “do show inequalities in STEM, but the authors dismiss this.”

Which inequalities, you ask? Luckily for all of you (and me!), several science bloggers, such as Jonathan Eisen, P.Z. Myers, and Emily Willingham with this magisterial analysis, have already done the heavy lifting and located numerous inconsistencies in the paper. Willingham implores us: “Check out Figure 15 [average number of hours worked per week, by gender]. Go ahead. Just for fun.” (The graph shows women scientists working more.) “And scroll on down to Figure 16 [average number of publications, by gender].” (Men have more publications.) “Look at the salary values on Table 4.” (With precious few exceptions, men make more money.) “Look at Figure 18 [‘Percentage of University of California postdocs who switched away from an emphasis on a career as a research professor as a function of presence of children and gender’].” (A vast gap in genders, with women strongly in the lead.) “I don’t understand how they wrote the paper or the op-ed they did while looking at the same results I see in their paper. … Where I come from,” she concludes, “we call that institutional bias.”  

If you still want to explain all these inequalities through personal choice, that’s great, but allow me to extrapolate a tad upon that “choice” for you: Sometimes it involves “choosing” not to let your kids run around barefoot and starving—or “choosing” to allow those children to come into the world in the first place and thus end your career, a “choice” that men in sciences (and academia in general) are not expected to have to make. It involves “choosing” to opt out of the endless litany of temporary postdoc positions in far-flung locations, which most scientists now must serve out in order to get hired permanently (maybe), thereby once again often being forced to choose between career and family outright. It involves, yes, sometimes, “choosing” not to be subject to harassment anymore.

This is not to say that many women in the academic sciences do not enjoy substantial success (they do) or career satisfaction (they do)—as Tufekci put it to me, “If someone wanted to collect positive anecdotes, there would be an outpouring—except also, of course, people who have a great life tend not to be writing anxious posts about it.”

But articles like “Academic Science Isn’t Sexist” are not actually helping trumpet those positive aspects of a career in academic science. Instead, they are providing the opposition with ammunition. Ceci and Williams are a bit like self-righteous pundits who accuse people of “playing the race card” and thereby reveal themselves to be racist. By insisting that the continuing exodus of women from scientific academia boils down to lifestyle choices, denying that it is the unwelcoming environment of scientific academia that forces those choices, Ceci and Williams have simply revealed their own sneering—and, yes, sexist—dismissal of the experiences women have had.

Work like theirs will do little more than help to ensure that institutional bias in the academy endures for years to come, and anyone who dares argue to the contrary will be peremptorily dismissed as a screeching hysteric.