Study: Women scientists don’t face bias

Women’s choices — not male bias — explain why so few women advance in science careers, concludes a study by Cornell researchers Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams, which is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  The focus on “sex discrimination in reviewing, interviewing, and hiring represents costly, misplaced effort,” they argue. “Society is engaged in the present in solving problems of the past, rather than in addressing meaningful limitations deterring women’s participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers today.”

Looking at two decades of data, the researchers found that women scientists are more likely than men to step off the career track.

This situation is caused mainly by women’s choices, both freely made and constrained by biology and society, such as choices to defer careers to raise children, follow spouses’ career moves, care for elderly parents, limit job searches geographically, and enhance work-home balance.

Family-friendly policies, such as the option to work part-time and delay the tenure clock, could help women advance in science careers, they write.

Ceci and Williams are married to each other and have three daughters, notes Lisa Belkin in the New York Times.

She links to an interview with Dr. Janet Davison Rowley, now 85, “the matriarch of modern cancer genetics.”  The mother of four, Dr. Rowley worked part-time until her youngest child was 12.

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  1. Overt gender bias is fortunately mostly a thing of the past; however, I do feel that the family unfriendliness of STEM careers is a subtle form of gender bias. The expectation is for women to follow a traditionally “male” career path, which is fine for those who are childless but most women still do want to be mothers.

  2. I would agree that overt gender bias is mostly of a thing of the past, but not entirely.
    A couple years ago, a male friend of mine was finishing his PhD at the same time his wife was finishing her PhD in a different scientific discipline. They were applying for postdoctoral positions all over the country, hoping that they could get positions at least in the same city. My male friend got an offer from an Ivy League institution, whereas his wife was placed on a waiting-list for a position at the same institution. She, on the other hand, got very prestigious offers from R1 schools on the west coast. They tried negotiating with the Ivy League school, and the response literally was that the couple should move there and perhaps it was a good time for the wife to start a family!!!!!! The most crazy thing about this story is that the Ivy League professor who made that outrageous statement was a woman herself.

  3. Crimson Wife-
    What is a “male” career path?

    I have to call BS on claims of subtle gender bias – being a stay-at-home parent is not a biological imperative. I make less than my wife… and guess who went part-time to focus more on child rearing? Am I choosing a “female” career path by choosing what is in our family’s best interest?

  4. Years and years ago, I saw a citation analysis studying the productivity of men and women scientists. Men did better than women, because a few married men were very, very productive. (The median man and the median woman were about equally productive.) But the surprising part was that women with children did just as well as women without children.

    As I recall, the researchers explained that second result in two ways. The women with children were often married to men in the same field, and did a lot of joint papers. And they were adept at at using their children as excuses to avoid the bureaucratic nonsense that you can find in so many academic departments.

  5. A “male” career path is a linear one where the individual is willing to put in 60-80+ hour weeks to get ahead and doesn’t step off the ladder for any reason. Obviously, not everyone who does this is male, nor do all males choose to follow this path. But those who reject this path are penalized (regardless of their gender) because doing anything else is viewed as “not being serious” about one’s career.

  6. Those scientists who are women step off their career in comparison to men.

  7. Crimson….”the family unfriendliness of STEM careers”

    Surely these careers are typically no more “family unfriendly” than, say, partner track at a major law firm??…indeed, probably less so. Or how about if we compare them with investment banking jobs or top-tier consulting firms??

  8. Corporate law and investment banking are also “family unfriendly” and women are underrepresented in those fields (at least at the partner/managing director level) as a result. However, they do not require quite as long time in graduate school prior to starting one’s career (2 years for a MBA, 3 years for a J.D. vs. 5-10 years for a PhD.) so they don’t conflict quite as much with peak childbearing years.

  9. Good point about the length of time in grad school….I’d note, however, that there are plenty of STEM jobs which don’t require a PhD—-there are plenty of very successful engineers, software designers, etc who do not have advanced degrees.

  10. According to AMA data presented at a recent meeting, women physicians work 18% fewer hours than do men. They also tend to choose different specialties; most often in primary care (fewer years of training) and least often in surgical specialties. (this choice also explains salary differences) In my community, where the medical field is a very large employer, many women family physicians and internists have chosen to be hospitalists; treating hospital patients during specific shifts, instead of having the evening/weekend on-call schedule of clinic-based practices.

  11. “But those who reject this path are penalized (regardless of their gender) because doing anything else is viewed as “not being serious” about one’s career.”

    So if its regardless of gender… how can you claim gender bias or assign genders to the career paths?
    The point is, regardless of gender, the decision to prioritize family is a personal choice that males or females can make. Nothing in the STEM career fields make it more likely that a woman would choose family… instead, it is a combination of long-existing societal norms and the necessary time-off period preceding and following childbirth.

    Some fields just are more demanding than others. There is no practical way to give handicaps to those who take family time… do you feel that someone who has been out of work for 5 years should be promoted and given a raise for their time off? Or should someone who has been working that five years be denied a promotion and raise to be ‘fair?’ The same idea holds true for part-time work… how do you equalize the pay and promotions between someone who works part-time for years with someone who has worked full time?

    Yes, there is a discrepancy in genders in the upper ranks of demanding fields. Yes, in the past females were discriminated against in these fields. But to assume that the discrepancy is solely due to gender bias and that we can ever reach a perfect 50-50 split despite inherent biological differences is wrong.

  12. do you feel that someone who has been out of work for 5 years should be promoted and given a raise for their time off?

    No, but I do believe she (or he) should be able to come back at the same level as when she/he left instead of having to start all over again at the bottom (which is what typically happens now). The career clock should “freeze”, not reset to zero.

  13. Crimson-
    Whether or not the clock resets to zero is a gender-blind issue. Claiming gender bias and blaming it on institutionalized sexism does nothing more than confuse the issue and cause more problems as the government tries to fix a problem that isn’t there.

  14. The issue is that married men have wives – few women do. We have come a long way from overt sexism to advancement curtailed due to personal choice. I think the main issue is bias toward the young as a byproduct of societal youth-obsession combined with traditional thinking in terms of career trajectories..Now that lifespans are longer and we have the tools to remain healthy and productive to a much older age, we may see some additional adjustment. I took a total of 6 years “off” to raise my daughter, and currently have a very good job given my personal preference for normal hours and minimal travel (again, a personal choice), but am looking forward to the time I will be able to take on extra work and travel. At that point, I will still have many years left to advance.