A study in how not to talk about sexism in science

[Credit: Futurama]
[Credit: Futurama]
[UPDATED! See below.] Anyone who has applied for academic positions, whether teaching or research-focused, knows how bad the job market is right now, and it shows no signs of getting better.[1] While I love writing, a major reason I chose to do it full-time is because I was tired of applying for jobs constantly in hopes of landing even a position that would last a year or two before needing to apply — and move — again. So anything that looks like a bright spot in the academic market is a positive thing, such as last week’s paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS). This paper, by Cornell University psychologists Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci, concluded there is a 2-to-1 bias in favor of hiring women in academic science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) positions. Now that raised my eyebrows for two reasons: Williams and Ceci were the same people who concluded last year that “academic sexism is dead”, and based on the statistics I knew, women are largely underrepresented in STEM departments on all levels. (I commented on the earlier work on this blog, as did many others.) As I found when writing about the study for Slate‘s “Double X” section, the study is flawed in both its focus and its execution. There may be a slight bias in favor of women over men in academic hiring, but it’s not 2-to-1 or universal across STEM fields, it doesn’t translate to equal pay for women, and doesn’t result in equal numbers of women to men on any level of the academic hierarchy in many STEM departments.

Rather than examining actual hiring practices, Williams and Ceci based their strong conclusions on a voluntary survey sent to faculty members. They sent materials to equal numbers of male and female faculty, even though men and women are not equally represented in the departments they polled. When they analyzed their results, they seemingly did not control for the rank of the faculty respondents, which is crucial because more men hold senior-level positions and have more hiring power. [Read the rest at Slate]

I won’t rehash everything I wrote there, but suffice to say Williams and Ceci are likely giving aid and comfort to those who want to set back women’s progress in STEM,[2] while missing many of the more relevant issues of academic sexism. And of course, by focusing on gender (specifically traditionally female-identified faculty applicants), this study neglected to account for the specific problems faced by women of color and LGBTQ women. Finally, in the time between writing my piece[3] and its publication, several more people have written on the Williams and Ceci study.

  • Marie-Claire Shanahan’s excellent analysis gets to the heart of why this study is potentially damaging: “Yet, without much evidence that hiring bias is the major obstacle, this study adds a strong voice to the public conversation about science that says: ‘Guess what, no bias! Just choose to apply to tenure track jobs!’ How might the CNN piece (and even the study) sound around the water cooler?: ‘That thing about women in science struggling to get jobs, totally a myth.’ If there were compelling evidence that bias was the cause of underrepresentation and now it was solved, I would be strongly in favour of changing these conversations. But this is not the case.”
  • Lisa Grossman in New Scientist writes: “There is one way to interpret the results that is both realistic and positive: that affirmative action policies, which say that the under-represented candidate should get the job in cases where two candidate are equal, can work – at least in two-thirds of cases. Williams and Ceci agree with this. But their assertion that women fail to apply for jobs because they are discouraged by research about sexism is misguided.”
  • Greg Gbur focuses on one aspect of the study: the use of surveys to identify intention in hiring new faculty, as opposed to real practices. This is a point I didn’t belabor in my Slate piece, but it’s important nevertheless. Most people when hiring new faculty or deciding who gets a promotion don’t think “I’m going to deliberately downgrade women and upgrade men in my estimation”, even if that’s effectively what they do in practice.
  • UPDATE: Karen James collected a lot of thoughts and links on Twitter using Storify, which is a good summary of how people have been thinking of the Williams and Ceci study.

I’m sure there are many other analyses I missed as well, so please let me know and I’ll add them.


  1. And of course non-academics will rightly point out that it’s no better anywhere else.
  2. I will not link him, but there’s at least one notorious anti-feminist troll who is calling for addressing this supposed bias by hiring fewer women for the foreseeable future. Thankfully he has no power to change anything, any more than I do.
  3. I wrote it in a hotel room while I was ostensibly on vacation. I may be unclear on the concept of “vacation”.

3 responses to “A study in how not to talk about sexism in science”

  1. Since on twitter you have defended quotas that would favor women over graduating men, it leaves me wondering why you do not resign your position to help out young graduating women.

    In return I propose you find a job that currently has a strong female bias in it, perhaps daycare, K-5 teaching, nursing, something like that.

    I honestly see no possible argument as to why you should maintain your position while defending quotas.

    1. I’m not sure what kind of position you think I have that I can resign, but since you brought up quotas (which I didn’t mention until someone else asked me about them):

      Quotas are a partial, imperfect solution to addressing total representation bias. I haven’t studied the problem in detail, so experts on workforce and affirmative action should comment on implementation, what works and what doesn’t. However, I suspect there’s an underlying difference in assumptions between us. I don’t think giving a woman a job for which she’s qualified is taking that job away from a man, any more than giving a job to one man is taking it away from another man.

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