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No, academic science hasn’t overcome sexism

Here I am teaching Alice in Wonderland about Möbius strips and other fun mathematical concepts at GeekGirlCon last month. According to cultural stereotypes promoted by the New York Times, I shouldn't bother because girls aren't interested in math. [Credit: GeekGirlCon on Flickr]

Here I am teaching Alice in Wonderland about Möbius strips and other fun mathematical concepts at GeekGirlCon last month. According to cultural stereotypes promoted by the New York Times, I shouldn’t bother because girls aren’t interested in math…all evidence to the contrary. [Credit: GeekGirlCon on Flickr]

[Update: Emily Willingham wrote a far more thorough take-down of the New York Times piece than mine. Please go read it!]

I confess I am often guilty of science boosterism. Partly it’s an occupational hazard: most of the stories I write are news items, discussing recently published papers on new experiments or observations. While I hope I’m appropriately skeptical when it’s called for, and while I try to emphasize the messiness of science (along with the need to discuss incremental and marginal results in their proper contexts), my writing is decidedly more “yay! science!” than “here are problems that we need to solve”. Again, it’s a major part of my job to promote science — and I want to. I love science, and I am incredibly privileged to be paid to talk about it every day (even if I’m unlikely to ever be paid enough to get rich or retire or go on vacation).

But maybe it’s better to say I love the results of science, because so many things about the process fail. In particular, I think of all the scientists who might have been, but never had the opportunity — especially those who were denied or pressured into studying something else, or not studying at all. It’s rarer than it used to be for women and girls to be told explicitly that science isn’t for them, but the message is still there and incredibly pervasive.

As children, girls tend to show more interest in living things (such as people and animals), while boys tend to prefer playing with machines and building things. As adolescents, girls express less interest in careers like engineering and computer science. Despite earning higher grades throughout schooling in all subjects — including math and science — girls are less likely to take math-intensive advanced-placement courses like calculus and physics.

That’s a sample from an article published online in the New York Times yesterday, which will appear in the print edition tomorrow. From the headline to the end, the article argues that sexism in science is a vestige of the benighted past. The reason women aren’t as numerous as men in physics is that they just aren’t interested in the subject, so it’s all down to biology, not pervasive sexism in the culture. All evidence to the contrary is dismissed out of hand: “That’s not to say that mistreatment doesn’t still occur — but when it does, it is largely anecdotal, or else overgeneralized from small studies.”

I haven’t read the research paper for which the New York Times article is basically an advertisement. (It’s freely available at this link.) And most people won’t (not least because it’s more than 60 pages long in dense academic prose); the Times article is all they’ll see. This article will be used to support the idea that reform isn’t needed, that we don’t have to examine hiring and evaluation processes within universities, or the way we talk to children about science. Our culture already promotes the idea that “girls like fuzzy aminals and wimpy feelings while boys like manly things such as explosions and robots” (with all the wrongheaded assumptions this entails on both sides).

The basis for dismissing sexism seems to be a small study of faculty hiring practices, comparing the percentage of male and female applicants who successfully landed academic physics positions. They didn’t look at retention — the problem that many assistant professors don’t achieve tenure or are slow to be otherwise promoted — and they seem to ignore all of the factors that decide whether women feel welcome in the profession. That seems to be a significant problem, not one that should be dismissed as “anecdotal”.

I’m a physicist who writes about physics and astronomy; I’m no sociologist or social psychologist. However, it really bothers me to see people who supposedly should know better (the authors are professors of human development at Cornell, along with two economists) dismissing cultural factors out of hand to declare there is no bias. Multiple studies — dozens of studies — have shown that many factors apart from innate ability determine whether girls and women succeed in the physical sciences, including the influence of education, family, peers, and cultural influences. (Look up “stereotype threat” for more on this topic.) Active intervention to encourage girls increases their participation in math and science — and doesn’t lower performance across the board.

The whole issue is frustrating and exhausting. Every research paper I cover where all the authors are male represents the world in which we live: one in which women and girls are not-so-subtly told they don’t belong in physics. Every article such as this in the Times is another blow that hurts us all. Every story that claims women/African-Americans/whatever aren’t good enough to make the cut without examining any cultural factors is missing evidence — and is therefore failing at science.

No, sexism and racism are not a thing of the past in academic science, anymore than they are a thing of the past in society at large. Believing yourself to be free of biases is generally a bad assumption, as DN Lee points out in this excellent article on racism in science communication. Believing science as a whole is free of sexism and racism is a lovely dream, but it doesn’t gel with reality. Let’s stop making excuses for the problems in science, and actually fix them.

Update: I have been challenged fairly for letting the women in the comments section defend themselves against charges of unseriousness, impoliteness (while feeling free to be dismissive), etc. I apologize to Kelly and Tara for my passivity. It’s not fair for women to have to deal with this kind of nonsense, and I abdicated my responsibility as comment moderator. Comment moderation is an important task, and one I generally don’t need to spend a lot of time on, but in this case it needed to be done and I failed at it. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to respond in detail to every comment and must do paid work, which this blog is not. So, I am closing the comments for this post, at least temporarily.

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38 Responses to “No, academic science hasn’t overcome sexism”


  1. 1 Anonzy November 1, 2014 at 13:52

    “As children, girls tend to show more interest in living things (such as people and animals), while boys tend to prefer playing with machines and building things.”

    Did you actually look at the evidence from studies on female and male infants that supports this observation? It’s in the paper. I would be interested to know what you think of it. The other issue I always have is when someone takes umbrage that girls may be better at biology rather than physics. Is that because biology is less important than physics? That seems unfair.

    • 2 Matthew R. Francis November 1, 2014 at 13:59

      I don’t think physics is more important than biology in the slightest. I’m just saying that gendering scientific fields is a bad idea. Psychology and veterinary medicine are often gendered as female and looked down on for that reason, which is patently a horrible thing.

      • 3 Kim Wallen November 4, 2014 at 12:33

        It is interesting because I can remember when psychology was not female-identified, but dominated by men. When I was in graduate school in the early 70s less than 25% of graduate students were women, with the only possible exceptions being school psychology and developmental psychology. In biological psychology is was about what STEM disciplines are today <15% women. I doubt that anyone would argue that there were not significant sexist barriers to women in psychology ("you don't belong in graduate school as you will be taking a man's job). Those barriers were broken down and cast aside. Now my biological psychology program is 85% women and has been like that for 15 years. The Neuroscience graduate program is about 75% women as is the Chemistry graduate program. The effect is psychology is, as you point out, a loss in status for the program, which reduces male participation even more. Our faculty is about 33% women, but this doesn't prevent our graduate students being overwhelmingly women. Sadly, less than 50% of the women graduates go on into academia the primary reason being that academia is too demanding for too little reward. The other reason is that the women do not see academia as conducive to having a family and a reasonable life.

        We can encourage all of our students to take post-docs and apply for academic positions, but we can't force them to do that. This generation of women who have been told that they can be whatever they want to be and do whatever they want to do since kindergarten is doing exactly that. They do not find academia attractive and it is not because of sexism, but be because academia asks for so much commitment and doesn't compensate accordingly. Why men continue to seek academic careers is, for me, the unanswered question.

  2. 4 Kelly Hills (@rocza) November 1, 2014 at 15:14

    “Girls aren’t doctors. Girls are nurses and veterinarians.”

    Actual thing told to my aunt when she wanted to go to medical school. A long-term gendering that hasn’t been appreciably “fixed” in the last 30 years.

    • 5 scitrigrrl November 1, 2014 at 16:48

      Also an actual thing told to one of my current undergrads through high school. She is currently pre-med, planning to become a doctor.

    • 6 Kim Wallen November 4, 2014 at 12:35

      I think the fact that many medical school classes are more than 50% women would suggest that this has been “fixed” since your aunt’s time.

      • 7 Kelly Hills (@rocza) November 4, 2014 at 15:02

        Aw. Apparently you don’t understand gendering! …which seems like a sort of big failing, given your education. Emory has a great women’s, gender, and sexuality studies department. I suggest–especially given your commentary on other replies in this thread–you strongly consider contacting them regarding sitting in on some introductory classes. If nothing else, it would benefit any female students who pass through your classroom(s). Things have changed a lot since 1979, and it doesn’t appear your knowledge has updated with the times. Which would be fine if you weren’t interacting with students, but since you are, you should really make more of an effort to educate yourself, and set a positive example for them.

        Oh, and by the way, just because people defy social convention doesn’t mean that the social convention doesn’t still exist. This is another concept that you should be familiar with. All given, you may want to also brush up on logic; Emory has a pretty good philosophy department, as well. I’m sure they’d be more than happy to help you address not only logic but avoiding logical fallacies.

  3. 8 johnalanpascoe November 1, 2014 at 15:23

    “As children, girls tend to show more interest in living things (such as people and animals), while boys tend to prefer playing with machines and building things”

    The thing about this statement is that it doesn’t say what causes this difference in interest. In the context of the NYT piece it’s not unreasonable (I think) to infer that the authors consider this to be an inherent / biological difference, but in the summary of the actual paper they say:

    “The results of our myriad analyses reveal that early sex differences in spatial and mathematical reasoning need not stem from biological bases, that the gap between average female and male math ability is narrowing (suggesting strong environmental influences)…”

    What the authors seem to be arguing is that it’s not the pipeline that’s the problem, but the influx at the start of the pipeline. I’m not in any position to judge that claim, and I’ve certainly seen claims to the contrary (or rather, claims that the pipeline is *also* a problem), so I’d be interested to see whether this is a case of studies with conflicting outcomes or whether the existing data has been misinterpreted.

    Fig A1 of the paper certainly points to a big (though shrinking) disparity between obtained bachelor’s degrees and obtained PhD degrees.

    Looking at Table 5 of the paper gives some hints that sexism ‘hides’ in more subtle things than simple career progression (e.g.: ‘Women apply for fewer grants, particularly follow-up ones’…’Men on average get larger grants because they are principal investigators on larger projects’) That suggests sexism at work before, rather than during, the grant judging.

  4. 11 Dave Webb November 1, 2014 at 21:58

    Terrible title. Why would it entice anyone to read further? “Science” doesn’t give a rat’s @$$ about sexism, one way or another. It’s “people” that are sexist, and educated people can choose to be just as sexist as less educated people. It is a choice after all.

    • 12 Matthew R. Francis November 2, 2014 at 06:35

      1) My headline is responding directly to the New York Times headline: “Academic Science Isn’t Sexist”.
      2) Science isn’t an abstract Platonic ideal, existing independent of human beings. It’s human activity, and therefore reflective of our nature and society, both the good and bad parts.
      3) Contrary to what you’re saying, the real problem isn’t individual sexism (though that contributes), but systemic and cultural sexism.

  5. 13 Kim Wallen November 3, 2014 at 18:51

    This topic is quite important and I am curious how you felt it appropriate to discount Ceci and William’s op-ed without reading the 145 page (not 60 page) paper they published that provides reams of data to support their conclusions. I think if you read it you may find that the authors do a good job of offering a number of hypotheses about why there are fewer women in STEM fields than one would expect. The Op-Ed may overstate the current state of affairs, but the evidence in the paper it is based on make it very difficult to conclude that sexism is the primary reason that there are fewer women in STEM fields. Of course a lack of sexism is impossible to prove, but the data would seem to support that there are many factors contribute to the lower participation in STEM and one of those factors appears to be the interests and desires of the women themselves. If one could provide evidence of sexist barriers to women entering STEM, I would be glad to read it. Instead what is said is that it is obvious that it is sexism, no data to be found. Well, I don’t think that it is actually that obvious. What if it is the case that a small minority of women are interested in physics, engineering and computer science, just as it is a small minority of men who are interested in these disciplines? Would women be allowed to choose what interests them instead of having to meet someone else’s notion of what women should be interested in?

    • 14 Matthew R. Francis November 3, 2014 at 20:12

      Emily Willingham’s post ( http://www.emilywillinghamphd.com/2014/11/academic-science-is-sexist-we-do-have.html , also linked at the top of my own post) shows very clearly that there’s a mismatch between the data in the published paper and the general conclusions the authors draw, with plenty of citations. I’m sure others have or will do similar things. (The PDF paper at the link I have comes out to 67 pages, so I’m not sure why you’re peevishly correcting me on that particular tidbit.)

      In any case, I find this statement problematic: “If one could provide evidence of sexist barriers to women entering STEM, I would be glad to read it.” Given the copious literature on the topic (again, see “stereotype threat”, the article on girls in high school physics classes I linked above, and references therein), the evidence is there. The data in the very paper by Ceci, Ginther, Kahn, and Williams we’re discussing shows that something is happening to women who want to work in academic science: they enter the field, but they lose out on promotions and leave before reaching the highest ranks. That’s not simply explicable by “lack of interest”.

      • 15 Kim Wallen November 3, 2014 at 21:15

        “I haven’t read the research paper for which the New York Times article is basically an advertisement.”

        If you haven’t read the paper (which you are right is over 60 pages long, my mistake) how do you know that Dr. Willingham’s analysis is accurate? When I looked at the specific items that she presented as disagreeing with the Ceci and William’s conclusions that was not apparent to me. What do you see when you look at those specific items. Do they contradict the NYT op-ed’s conclusions?

        Please understand I do not believe that every aspect of women in relation to STEM participation is accounted for by any single factor. Stereotype threat is an important issue, but it does not explain why fewer women are in STEM professions than some think should be. I think that there are likely different factors operating at different times. For example, I sincerely doubt that stereotype threat contributes anything to women who get tenure track STEM jobs failing to achieve tenure. The biggest factor identified in the Ceci & Williams article is the gender gap in productivity in which women publish fewer papers than do men. However, this difference appears to result from reproduction as childless single women publish at the same rate as childless single men. Interesting men with children publish at a higher rate than men without children, whereas the opposite is true for women. Figure 18 of the linked article shows that children are a big factor in women deciding to leave academia. One might argue that it is sexism that leads to women disproportionately having responsibility for child care. It can also be that women need a substantial change in the way academia handles parenting. Lastly, it can be that some significant portion of women opt out of an academic career because they find parenting as more important to them than is their academic career, as happened with two of my Ph.D.s who left promising academic careers (in a STEM field) for full-time parenting. These personal decisions, which likely reflect the difficulty of being a full-time parent and a full-time academic, make it hard to know what it means when women enter an academic career and then fail to advance. It is not immediately apparent to me that the culprit is sexism.

        I think if you read the Ceci at al. article you will find much of interest that contradicts common beliefs about women and men in academia. Whether the title of the NYT op-ed was overly optimistic is a matter for debate, but it is not apparent to me just exactly what sexist mechanisms account for the disparity that remains in academia. Blaming it all on sexism can make us overlook important factors that do contribute to women’s difficulties in academia. I don’t think that stereotype threat accounts for very much of the disparity we continue to see in academia, I also don’t think that it is all accounted for by interests, though I suspect they play a bigger role in early decision making than they are credited with. The issues become more varied and complicated as the pipeline leaks woman. We don’t have a clear answer why, but I suspect that it will not turn out to be primarily sexism.

      • 16 Matthew R. Francis November 4, 2014 at 05:34

        First of all, sexism isn’t a single factor. You’re right that stereotype threat is going to be more important at certain periods than others, and unlikely to play a large role in tenure. However, publication pressures vs. issues with pregnancy and childcare are. If lip-service is paid to supporting families but real support is lacking, that’s one in the sexism column because men don’t have the same expectation to be the primary childcare giver (and are far less likely to be the sole caregiver).

        Second, “blaming sexism” isn’t the same thing as not looking for solutions. Saying as the NY Times piece does that the problem is largely over and that women have achieved income parity (a demonstrably false claim), etc., is another matter entirely. That’s where my beef is. The same people wrote the review article as wrote the NYT op-ed, so if they are overstating their claims in the Times, that’s on them, not me.

        Finally, as with many areas, I have networks of trust where I know people who are reliable analysts. I trust Dr. Willingham’s analysis because she has proven trustworthy in other analyses she’s performed (I’ve collaborated with her on a few projects). I could do an independent analysis, but the stack of papers in my to-read list is huge … whereas all of this blogging stuff I do for free, which cuts into time I could be doing work that actually pays my bills.

      • 17 Matthew R. Francis November 4, 2014 at 09:10

        Here’s another response from Athene Donald, digging into certain claims in the paper and finding them lacking:
        http://www.theguardian.com/science/occams-corner/2014/nov/04/is-the-sexist-scientific-workplace-really-dead

      • 18 Kim Wallen November 4, 2014 at 12:20

        Thanks for the link http://www.theguardian.com/science/occams-corner/2014/nov/04/is-the-sexist-scientific-workplace-really-dead

        I read the commentary and it is not particularly informative based primarily on the authors beliefs rather than any data. The one piece of data she offers to argue that science is sexist is an uninterpretable internet survey that couldn’t even determine whether people took the survey multiple times. She does acknowledge that child care falls disproportionately on women, but cites this as evidence of sexism whereas there are multiple reasons why this might be the case that have everything to do with the actual mechanics of reproduction and little to do with sexism.

        Now having read three defenses of sexism being rampant in academe I am disappointed by their superficiality. It appears than none of the critics have read Ceci, et al.’s paper beyond in Willington’s case, looking at a few of the figures and not reading the text.

        This is an important issue and it is sad to see it handled so cavalierly by the critics.

  6. 19 G. Steward November 3, 2014 at 21:17

    You should read the paper rather than accepting Emily’s “take down” at face value. Her criticisms make it seem as if she simply looked at the tables and figures without carefully reading the specific points being made about each one. Without accounting for what the authors actually say about the data, she concludes that they contradict the points being made in the text, when they really do not. The point is not about the existence of disparities, which are acknowledged, but sorting out the causes. Your comments above imply that the authors must be ignoring cultural influences, but such biases are expressly considered and, in fact, the influence of those biases well before women enter the academy is part of the authors’ larger point. The data on actual hires (as opposed to interesting but less relevant studies of mock candidates) are some of the most relevant and revealing. They are also in accord with my own observations, namely that, to the degree that bias can be detected in the academy these days, it is often in favor of women. I normally would not put stock in my own observations, since anecdotes are not very useful in these matters and I like to think I am special. But since the data suggest I am not so special (a much higher probability of being true), I am inclined to give them some weight. The arguments you make here suggest that you think you are special (i.e., not one to make women feel unwelcome or to hold biases against them in your field), and therefore bias against women must be the norm. I would suggest such an attitude is not so special anymore. It is the rare benighted individuals living in the present that are the special ones. While such individuals are unlikely to disappear, their opinions are sufficiently rare and unhinged as to be laughable (like the admonition that “girls (women) aren’t doctors” recounted in the anecdote above).

    • 20 Matthew R. Francis November 3, 2014 at 21:23

      If you’re going to use anecdotal evidence against Dr. Willingham, I recommend you not accuse her of being lazy in her analysis.

      • 21 dcer November 3, 2014 at 23:01

        He’s not saying lazy. He’s saying she’s biased (which she is). Her whole reply was one big straw man.

      • 22 Matthew R. Francis November 4, 2014 at 05:12

        I don’t think you understand what “straw man” means. She read the article, she was responding to its detailed claims.

        And get this: nobody is unbiased. The problem isn’t bias, it’s acknowledging that we are biased, accepting that perfect objectivity isn’t possible, and getting on with things. In fact, that’s highly relevant to this whole discussion.

  7. 23 Tara C. Smith November 4, 2014 at 13:31

    “She does acknowledge that child care falls disproportionately on women, but cites this as evidence of sexism whereas there are multiple reasons why this might be the case that have everything to do with the actual mechanics of reproduction and little to do with sexism.” Please, enlighten me as to what these particular mechanics are when dealing with child care but have nothing to do with sexism.

    • 24 Kim Wallen November 4, 2014 at 14:04

      This issue to me is whether having children deferentially increases the load for men and women without reflecting sexism. In terms of mechanics of reproduction pregnancy itself increase the load on women without appreciably affecting men. Watching a post doc in a neighboring lab pregnant with twins scheduling her work between trips to the bathroom to vomit from morning sickness I was struck by how much she had to deal with in addition to the pressures all academics feel. Could she do it? Yes, but there was no denying that she faced a more difficult task than both her nonpregnant women coworkers and all of the men.

      Breast feeding: Either the woman is tied to the baby’s feeding schedule or she is tied to pumping breast milk. It may not seem like a big deal, but it means that breast feeding women academics do double duty. I don’t think this could be considered sexism, but reflects the mechanics of reproduction that affects women but not men.

      A bigger factor that reflects neither mechanics nor sexism (I think) is the likelihood that one will have a partner who is a full time parent. This is relatively rare for women, even lesbian women, but common for men. A man is much more likely to have a wife who stays home with the children than is a woman likely to have a husband who stays home. Is this sexism? In some cases I am sure it is, but I am also sure that in many, if not most, cases this is a choice. Two of my women Ph.D.s were lost to academia because they decided that raising their children was the most rewarding thing that they had done and was much more attractive to them than academia.

      The effects of each of these factors may appear small, but they add up to women academics with children doing double duty. As Ceci et al. pointed out childless women are as productive as childless men, but women with children are less productive than both childless women and childless men. Men with children were the most productive of all, which if anything demonstrates that children are no impediment to men’s success, but have a significant impact on women.

      I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on the specific sexist attitudes and behaviors that create this imbalance. Do you think that women academics with children are discriminated against or does their lower productivity reflect a cost of having children that some women are more willing to bear than are others?

      Look at figure 18 in the Ceci et al. article which shows that women with children disproportionately leave academia. Is that all the result of sexism or personal choice of what is more important in their lives and what burden they are willing to bear?

      • 25 Tara C. Smith November 4, 2014 at 14:21

        That is fascinating. As a female academic with 3 children and partnered to another (male) academic, I’ve never even considered those factors. Ever. Fascinating. Thank you for that explanation.

        “Look at figure 18 in the Ceci et al. article which shows that women with children disproportionately leave academia. Is that all the result of sexism or personal choice of what is more important in their lives and what burden they are willing to bear?”

        How do you disentangle the two? Cause while you and others may think sexism in the academy is dead, I see your explanation as full of evidence that it is alive and kicking. Why, do you think, that women end up finding academia so distasteful that they leave at every “crack” in the pipeline (BS ->MS ->PhD -> postdoc -> jr faculty -> sr faculty), and leave disproportionately after having children? Do you think it’s conceivable that encountering sexism for SO MANY YEARS of work coming up the ladder could maybe, possibly, wear women down to the point that they say “fuck it” and look for more attractive careers elsewhere at many points in their trajectory, but particularly when becoming a parent? When does something stop becoming a “choice” and start becoming self-preservation?

      • 26 Kim Wallen November 4, 2014 at 14:42

        I don’t think sexism in academia is dead, but I also don’t think academia is sexist. I think everyone generally finds academia distasteful. It is only late in one’s career that one realizes that academia is the best of all possible jobs. I think that one leaves academia when they find the demands intolerable or they find another profession more attractive. You are completely correct that it could be that women encounter sexism throughout their education and finally say forget this I can’t stand the sexism any more. Alternatively it could be that extra demands tip the balance from acceptable to intolerable and I think that in many cases that is what happens with children (or even in the desire to have children.

        I think academia has done an awful job dealing with the issue of offspring in such a manner that the load is all on those with children. One view would say that is appropriate because having children is a choice, but another view says that we need to value having children and we need to value academics having children. So we need to come up with ways that make this possible without requiring that parents, particularly women to make sacrifices that their nonparental colleagues don’t make.This would require making parenting an something that academia wants to promote. That means university supported child care. That means parental leave policies that don’t in the long run penalize the women who use them (why is there this gap in your career?). It also probably means not having parental leave policies applied equally to men and women in recognition that pregnancy and child-bearing and early child rearing puts special demands on women than men don’t experience. I have seen too many male colleagues take a parental leave and dramatically improve their CV, whereas women colleagues use the time to just keep up with rearing their kids. I think an open and creative conversation is needed. You might be right that this all reflects sexism, but I think the evidence for that is weak. The evidence that children specially contribute to the issues women face in academia is relatively convincing; convincing enough that it is something that should be addressed.

        You are fortunate that child rearing didn’t affect your career and there are many women academics where this is the case. There are decidedly more, I suspect, where their career was affected and many who left academia because of it whether they chose something else, were denied tenure, or just abandoned academia. My women graduate students point out that the majority of women role models they have are childless. The unsubtle message that they get is that if one wants to be a successful women academic they better either be superwoman or remains childless. Would that meet your definition of sexism?

      • 27 Kelly Hills (@rocza) November 4, 2014 at 15:12

        See, the problem with everything you just said is that you assume being male is the norm – because in academia it was, for a long time. You default to “this is hard because of her biology” instead of “this is hard because this institution hasn’t been set up with women in mind.”

        It’s a privileging and normalizing of men’s experiences, and it also pathologizes being female-it’s “abnormal” rather than “part of the experience.” And because of the lack of support–the sort of lack of support you indicate having witnessed, and that you are clearly indicating within this thread–women can find it better to leave than stay, whether that’s because of children or other things. If you were in an environment that considered your very biological norms to be abnormal, and wasn’t set up to accommodate you as a part of daily life (if you had to fight for the “privilege” of having a place to nurse, or being “able” to have morning sickness), you might very well decide that staying home is the better option. And if society paid you a quarter less than your wife made, you may also decide it’s “better” to not work – or at least a more sound financial decision for your family.

        Again, you are looking at the world for what you are: a privileged white man who has been in the academy almost forty years. I suggest you stop making an ass of yourself in this thread and go sit in on a couple of years of coursework.

      • 28 Kim Wallen November 4, 2014 at 15:15

        Thanks again for you kind and thoughtful comments.

  8. 29 Tara C. Smith November 4, 2014 at 15:00

    One, I never said that child rearing did not affect my career.

    Two, indeed, that is not exactly my “definition” of sexism, but certainly when women, and especially women with children, must do much more than their male colleagues just to be able to have their spot at the table, I do find that quite problematic.

    Three, it really is jaw-dropping to me that you can lay out all these issues and still declare that academia is not sexist. It is, frankly, mind-boggling, and that kind of denial is one reason why women are driven out. You can pontificate upon this all you like as an older white man, and explain to me all of the issues women have with child-rearing and breastfeeding and child care and dual careers, and explain to Matthew his lack of specialness as a man for working against sexism in the academy, but it is clearly obvious that you. do. not. get. it. Have you ever asked those students you mentored how it feels to know that no matter how hard they work, that they’ll have to work twice as hard just to be in the same place where a male colleague starts? How it feels to know that they’ll be paid less than said male colleague for the same work? How it feels to know that they’ll be expected to do more service and usually more teaching, and then be questioned when they have fewer publications than their male colleagues (and possibly denied tenure/promotion because of it, which will then be blamed not on these institutional factors, but “because they weren’t serious enough/had kids” etc.? How your student managed to get through her pregnancy and how it may have harmed her to think that she had no option but to puke and then go back to work, because if she didn’t, she was “letting down” the female gender as a whole?

    But no, sexism is probably dead in the academy. The New York Times said so.

    • 30 Kim Wallen November 4, 2014 at 15:57

      1). If your career was affected by having children do you attribute that to sexism in academe or something else?

      2) I completely agree with you that asking women to do double duty in order to both rear children and have an academic career is problematic and should be addressed. That was what I was suggesting in the post you responded to.

      3) I don’t know their answer, but will ask them. In fact I will ask my whole seminar that meets in a few minutes which has 8 female graduate students and 2 male graduate students. One of the women brought the NYT op-ed to the class last week, so I know that they will be interested in discussing it and your post to me.

      4) The student (actually a post-doc) with morning sickness was not mine, but that of one my female colleagues. I am quite sure that she felt no option other than to tough it out. When my graduate students have had morning sickness we found some way to cover their work so that they could focus on dealing with morning sickness.

      • 31 Tara C. Smith November 4, 2014 at 16:22

        1) Sexism in general, which cannot at present time be segregated into “in the academy” and “outside of the academy.” It’s omnipresent.

        2) OK, so you agree that women have it more difficult, running ahead just to treadmill back to the same place as a man on equal footing. How to you rectify that with your statement that there isn’t sexism in the academy, when gender is the issue here?

        3) That’s great, but if you’re as dismissive with them in person as you’ve been here on several points, please be aware that you might be hurting, and not helping. Also be aware that they may not feel able to speak freely with you there. Even as a tenured associate prof, there are still things that I simply to not discuss with those at a higher rank than myself–see back to #1–so you may not be getting the whole story no matter how interested they are in the topic.

        4) That’s great but doesn’t really address the issue. Perhaps this will illustrate: http://xkcd.com/385/

  9. 32 Kim Wallen November 4, 2014 at 16:02

    [ Accusation designed to cause professional trouble for another commenter ]

    • 33 Matthew R. Francis November 4, 2014 at 16:40

      OK, evidently I need to step in as blog-owner.

      1. I tolerate neither illegal behavior nor false accusations of it.

      2. This whole conversation really does come down to privilege. Several people have provided articles, data, and analysis, and the response has been fairly dismissive. You even had the chutzpah to say these writers (all women except for me) are not taking the issue seriously, then to lecture women about childbearing and childcare. (I find it also interesting that you note that men with spouses are more productive without seeing what that means, almost as though women are expected to shoulder all the domestic burden and free men to do whatever.)

      3. I sincerely hope the climate in your department is welcoming to women and open to listening to their concerns. That’s great if it is! We need that to be the case in every department at every university. Then we wouldn’t need to have this conversation at all.

  10. 34 Kim Wallen November 4, 2014 at 18:51

    [ accusation against another commenter, removed ]

    I have been dismissive of the critiques, including yours, because none of them apparently read the Ceci, et al. article and simply followed their biases to the logical conclusion that nothing has changed in the last 20 years. Ceci et al., show that a great deal has changed. They certainly do not show that sexism no longer exists, but I think that they make a realistic case that science is not sexist.

    I am sorry that you saw my posts about childcare as lecturing. Not sure why that is as I was reporting the findings in the article that no one appears to have read. I also think that I understand the implications of married men with women being the most productive. As I posted above, this likely reflects that married men with children are much more likely to have a full time care-giver at home than are married women with children. It is much easier to escape the child penalty to one’s career when one has a full time care giver taking care of the kids. Don’t you agree? Where I suspect we disagree is that I don’t see having a full-time care giving spouse as evidence of sexism. It’s a personal choice, isn’t it? Or are you arguing that because women will find it much harder to find a spouse willing to stay home with the kids that reflect sexism? If so, I would disagree with you. Are you arguing that men and women should be equally willing to sacrifice their career to child-rearing and if not that is sexism. Defined that way I would have to agree with you. I just don’t accept the basic premise.

    I think that the climate in my department is welcoming to the 85% of the department that are women (it is also welcoming to the 15% men, though we see much less of them). I also know that the issue of having children is one that vexes the women students. They perceive their biological clock as ticking and it causes many distress, They also know the data that child-bearing disproportionately affects women’s careers. They worry and with good reason. Were there a simple solution I would offer it, but I don’t see one. Do you? What might that be.

    I don’t want to continue to upset the like-minded people here. So thanks for listening and enjoy the show.

  11. 35 Kim Wallen November 4, 2014 at 22:38

    Item #1 on your commenting policy

    Please refrain from insulting, denigrating, or otherwise treating each other disrespectfully in the comments section. If someone says something you think is idiotic or asks a question you think is dumb, please keep that opinion to yourself. If you feel the need to respond to someone based on their gender, sexual identity, race, religion (or lack thereof), age, nationality, weight, or any other attribute that’s not germane to their blog comment, please keep that response to yourself and pause for a minute to examine your humanity. I will ban you if you post such things.

    So why do you look the other way?

    • 36 Matthew R. Francis November 5, 2014 at 03:29

      Pointing out your gender, race, and the privilege they afford is hardly un-germane to this discussion. If someone pointed out that you were disqualified to talk about physics because of your gender, that would be a different matter (and utterly ridiculous). “Ass” may be an insult, but it’s a fairly mild one and it’s absurd to assert it’s somehow equivalent to the kind of threats women receive daily for speaking out on any topic.

  12. 37 Janet D. Stemwedel November 5, 2014 at 01:38

    @Kim Wallen, do you think that your gender is not germane to what your experience of academia and its challenges has been?

  13. 38 Matthew R. Francis November 5, 2014 at 09:15

    I need to review my comment policy, because (as someone pointed out on another forum) the requirement to avoid insults is too easily used as a way to police tone rather than content. A man is free to say “all these women (entirely coincidentally to their gender, of course!) are unserious and probably didn’t bother to read the paper because they disagree with my conclusions”, but once a woman says anything against that — even a fairly mild insult — she is shouted at and the man demands her voice be policed.

    This is part of the problem of privilege, which I share. It’s easy for me to say “be polite”, and as blog manager it’s always my judgment call about which comments get through and which don’t. While I reserve the right to edit or delete comments, I really do try not to, but it’s also not a good idea for me to let the comments section become a free-for-all. So, because I don’t have either time or energy to keep moderating and responding to comments on this thread, I am closing the section. I apologize for not doing my job properly, and for my own privilege-blindness.


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