Field of Science


Daring to Discuss, Part Two

John Tierney is back, dispelling the dangerous myth that women face bias in science and math fields. And that means I'm back to read his source material and try to wrap my poor female brain around all those statistics. Ouch, math!

If you missed my last foray into Tierneyland, this is the second in his two-part New York Times series about women in science. He's addressing a piece of gender-bias legislation that would create workshops for researchers and other academics to discuss gender equity in academic science and math.

"Let me venture one prediction" about these workshops, Tierney says: "There will be lots of talk about...[a Swedish paper] published in Nature in 1997." This paper, he says, discusses 20 Swedish fellowships awarded in 1994, and is "the fundamental text of the gender-bias movement." I would have guessed, especially after skimming over the online comments on his article, that there would instead be "lots of talk" about people's actual, firsthand experiences with discrimination. At any rate, I agree that it's not very useful to rehash one old and pretty small Swedish study, so let's not.

To contradict that study, Tierney cites several others that, he says, have found that women and men in science receive equal grant funding. One of these was a large study by the RAND corporation that, he says, "concluded that female applicants for research grants from federal agencies in the United States typically got as much money as male applicants." That is what the study found--for two of the three federal agencies it studied (the USDA and NSF). For the third, the National Institutes of Health, it found that women received only 63% of the funding men did. (The authors note that they don't know whether women also requested less funding from the NIH. But for the other two agencies studied, they know that men and women requested equal amounts.)

Tierney cites another large study by the National Academy of Sciences that concluded that overall, men and women "enjoyed comparable opportunities within the university." The study also says this:
"The data should not be mistakenly interpreted as indicating that male and female faculty in math, science, and engineering have reached full equality and representation, and we caution against premature complacency."
Male professors earned more money than female professors. Women were more likely to apply for a position when there was a woman on the search committee (maybe an interesting point about the perception of bias, if not bias itself). And at every point along the academic career path, women were lost: fewer women applied for tenure-track jobs than received PhDs, and fewer women reached tenure than were assistant professors. Where are they going? Women seem to be leaving the academic path somewhere along the way--presumably, in many cases, to start families.

Instead of talking about how academia might be unwelcoming to women who want to squeeze in a kid or two between PhD and professorship, Tierney would like to remind us that there is "consistent evidence for biological differences in math aptitude" between men and women. Thanks for the refresher, John! My inferior spatial ability made me forget where on this blog I already dissected that idiotic argument.

Tierney allows that researchers have found "a gender gap that widened after children arrived, with fathers focusing more on personal careers and mothers focusing more on the community and the family." But he immediately dismisses this concern. "After all," he says, "the difficulty of balancing family and career is hardly unique to science, and academia already offers parents more flexible working arrangements than do other industries."

If I paraphrase Tierney's final argument, you'll think I'm oversimplifying to make him sound dumb. So I'll let him tell you himself:
"The gap in science seems due mainly to another difference between the sexes: men are more interested in working with things, while women are more interested in working with people."
I followed this link, and sure enough it's a psychology paper titled, "Men and Things, Women and People." It's all clear now!

Good news, Tierney says: women don't face any real barriers. If these "theorized barriers" really exist, then how can you explain women's success in the fields we actually prefer (even if we don't know it)--for example, psychology? He ends with the cringe-inducing,

I’d love to see more girls pursuing careers in science (and more women reading science columns), but I wish we’d encourage their individual aspirations instead of obsessing about group disparities.
I'd like to end, though, by looking at one more of those studies about grants that Tierney cited earlier. A Swedish study followed up, 10 years later, on the study that had found gender bias, and concluded that "female applicants were actually rated more favorably than male applicants." Something else I learned about Sweden this week is that they have federally mandated "parental leave" instead of maternity leave, and 85% of dads take time off from their careers to help raise their kids. One parent doesn't have to choose career (or "things") while the other chooses family.

Though the article about Sweden doesn't specifically address academia, it does say that for every month of paternity leave Dad takes, Mom's future earnings go up by 7%. John Tierney thinks that questions about the equality of men and women are just "scare stories," but it's nice to know that for some people, improving women's career opportunities is more than a phantom.

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