Most readers of the higher education press likely believe that women are underrepresented in STEM field because of sexist stereotypes, “unwelcoming” attitudes and practices, and either implicit or outright bias.
But the work of two Cornell psychologists, Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams, co-directors of the Cornell Institute for Women in Science, has upset this apple cart of conventional wisdom. In a number of peer-reviewed articles, papers, and op-eds, they have presented the findings of their research showing, as they put it in a New York Times op-ed last year, “Academic Science Isn’t Sexist,” summarizing their recent research published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest. That research, they wrote,
reveals that the experiences of young and mid career women in math-intensive fields are, for the most part, similar to those of their male counterparts: They are more likely to receive hiring offers, are paid roughly the same (in 14 of 16 comparisons across the eight fields), are generally tenured and promoted at the same rate (except in economics), remain in their fields at roughly the same rate, have their grants funded and articles accepted as often and are about as satisfied with their jobs. Articles published by women are cited as often as those by men. In sum, with a few exceptions, the world of academic science in math-based fields today reflects gender fairness, rather than gender bias.
Last spring they published a blockbuster article in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, “National hiring experiments reveal 2:1 faculty preference for women on STEM tenure track.” Williams and Ceci constructed elaborate, detailed resumes for three fictional applicants for an assistant professorship in biology, engineering, psychology, and engineering: an extremely highly qualified woman, an equally extremely highly qualified man, and a slightly less qualified man. They then wrote a job application for each, including extensive quotes from recommendations, search committee evaluations, publications, and biographical information. These “applications” were submitted to 873 tenure-track faculty members (including a roughly equal number of men and women) from 371 universities around the country.
“The results,” Science magazine reports, “run counter to widely held perceptions and suggest that this is a good time for women to be pursuing academic careers…. A woman applying for a tenure-track faculty position in STEM … at a U.S. university is twice as likely to be hired as an equally qualified man, if both candidates are highly qualified, according to a new study.” A second article in Science, “Women have a hiring advantage in the scientific stratosphere,” emphasized that “In every field but economics, where the data indicated no gender preference, the respondents strongly preferred the purportedly female candidates.”
These dramatic findings were also widely reported in the popular press. A long article in the Washington Post, for example, “Study finds, surprisingly, that women are favored for jobs in STEM,” noted that “women are no longer at a disadvantage when applying for tenure-track positions in university science departments. In fact, the bias has now flipped: Female candidates are now twice as likely to be chosen as equally qualified men.” According to altmetrics, which tracks mentions of science publications in social media, this study received one of the highest number of mentions of anything published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
These findings — especially the implication that “the bias has now flipped” (not Ceci’s and Williams’s conclusion, as we shall see) — had the effect of poking a hornet’s nest with a stick, unleashing a swarm of stinging, vituperative attacks. “We’ve had such amazing attacks. They really, really hate us,” Williams told Science Careers by phone. “The outpouring of vitriol,” she continued, shows “that there are a lot of people who don’t want to acknowledge the data. It’s not like they’re willing to acknowledge it and discuss it…. They try to say that we had an agenda or that the entire method at its root was completely flawed.”
One example: according to Alex Madva, a visiting professor of philosophy at Cal Poly Pomona whose field is the philosophy of psychology, “a 2:1 preference for women over men in STEM hires just doesn’t seem to pass the smell test.” (Quoted on Feminist Philosophers, which discussed other somewhat more substantive criticisms. (See the hashtag #GaslightingDuo for more.)
Another telling example: In “Eye of the Beholder,” Inside Higher Ed reports an interesting controversy over research suggesting that gender bias colors evaluations of evidence purporting to show gender bias. Jessi Smith, a professor of psychology at Montana State University, co-authored a paper, based primarily on a faculty sample from Montana State, that found that men were less likely than women to believe evidence demonstrating gender bias, and women were less likely than men to believe evidence of the absence of bias. That study was criticized by Williams and Ceci for, among other reasons, being based on too small and unrepresentative a sample and thus overstating bias. Professor Smith’s striking reply: “What is worse — understating a bias that exists which results in keeping people from fully participating in STEM or overstating a bias that exists which results in real transformation and resources to correct a past injustice?”
The correct answer, for anyone but a partisan ideologue, is that identical errors are equally bad whatever their political effect.
In a lengthy online appendix to their study, Williams and Ceci have responded vigorously and persuasively to critics who continue to maintain that “anti-woman hiring bias as an important part of the reason for the underrepresentation of women in the academy.” One line of criticism, however, seems to have stung: the claim, as Williams put it in Part 4 of her remarkable five-part response to critics on Huffington Post, that they have a hidden agenda, “secretly machinating to overturn affirmative action.” And she quoted one example: “Ceci and Williams are beloved of right-wing columnists. We need to approach their work with skepticism, as commentators have largely done.” (See “Women Scientists’ Academic-Hiring Advantage Is Unwelcome News for Some,” Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
Indeed, Ceci and Williams appear to have been so concerned that “right-wing columnists” like me would approve of what could be taken to be their demonstration of “reverse discrimination” — that women’s hiring advantage includes hiring less qualified women over more qualified men — and their implicit criticism of affirmative action that they have just published a follow-up study in an attempt to refute that implication.
In “Women have substantial advantage in STEM faculty hiring, except when competing against more-accomplished men,” published October 20 in Frontiers in Psychology, Williams and Ceci acknowledged that their previous study “raise[ed] the specter that faculty may prefer women over even more-qualified men, a claim made recently.” In the new study, undertaken to evaluate that claim,
158 faculty ranked two men and one woman for a tenure-track-assistant professorship, and 94 faculty ranked two women and one man. In the former condition, the female applicant was slightly weaker than her two male competitors, although still strong; in the other condition the male applicant was slightly weaker than his two female competitors, although still strong. Faculty of both genders and in all fields preferred the more-qualified men over the slightly-less-qualified women, and they also preferred the stronger women over the slightly-less-qualified man. This suggests that preference for women among identically-qualified applicants found in experimental studies and in audits does not extend to women whose credentials are even slightly weaker than male counterparts.
These results, Williams and Ceci conclude with satisfaction, “should help dispel concerns that affirmative hiring practices result in inferior women being hired over superior men.” They see themselves, in short, as defenders, not critics, of affirmative action. “Some men,” Ceci and Williams note on Huffington Post, “do not welcome what they perceive to be reverse discrimination,” but they themselves are perfectly happy with the rather extreme preferences revealed by hiring women 2:1 over equally qualified men, refusing to see that preference as “reverse discrimination.”
However, the affirmative action they defend — practices that “give a preference to hiring a woman over an identically-qualified man” — is virtually non-existent in the real world. Their critics, who endorse hiring practices that “tilt the odds toward hiring a woman who may be slightly less accomplished but who is still rated very highly” and who argue that “extremely well-qualified female candidates should be given preference over males rated a notch higher,” have an understanding of how affirmative action does and should operate that is much closer to the academic mainstream.
In addition to defending affirmative action (as they but few others understand it), Williams and Ceci also lean over backwards to emphasize their concern about the “underrepresentation” of women in math-intensive fields (mentioned 15 times in the online appendix cited earlier). They insist that they “do not believe women’s underrepresentation in math-based science fields will disappear on its own.” And their analysis of why this “underrepresentation” matters is also entirely conventional. “Our country desperately needs more talented people in [STEM] fields,” they wrote in “Academic Science Isn’t Sexist,” their New York Times op-ed quoted above, and “recruiting more women could address this issue.”
More talent, of course, is better than less, but is there really such a dire shortage of STEM talent, or even of women in STEM? As Ceci and Williams noted in a 2014 study quoted in Science, “one 13-year study of ‘a large state university’ found that 2-to-1 female advantage resulted in the hiring of 4.28% of female applicants as opposed to 2.03% of males.”
Indeed, that Science article continues,
“Given the vast oversupply of Ph.D.s, faculty hiring has ‘been a buyer’s market for years,’ Ceci says. A search he recently chaired, for example, attracted 267 applicants, and ‘any of 30 or more would have been outstanding.’ ‘Every search yields several dozen applicants who are all extraordinary, and you don’t even know how to choose among them they’re so good,’ Williams adds.
Concern about the “under representation” of women in STEM fields, in short, seems driven much more by an ideological devotion to proportional representation than by any actual dearth of scientific, even female scientific, talent.