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The Real Causes of Women’s Underrepresentation in Science

What accounts for women’s intensively studied “underrepresentation in math-intensive fields of science”?  Not “sex discrimination in grant and manuscript reviewing, interviewing and hiring,” write Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams of Cornell University in the current Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.Claims about such practices, though once spot-on, are “no longer valid,” they state. Women, in fact, now fare slightly better than men in the competition for tenure-track positions. Efforts to root out a problem that no longer exists therefore waste resources that could far more profitably be focused on the real sources of underrepresentation, the authors argue.

Strategies based on “current, as opposed to historical findings” about causes need to focus not on ending overt discrimination but on making institutions “responsive to differing biological realities of the sexes,” especially those related to childbearing and family life, Ceci and Williams believe.

They also note scientifically talented women’s tendency to prefer careers that emphasize “people as opposed to things” and therefore to enter such fields as medicine and biology rather than computer science or physics. “To the extent that women’s choices are freely made and women are satisfied with the outcomes, then we have no problem,” they write. “However, to the extent that these choices are constrained by biology and/or society, and women are dissatisfied with the outcomes, or women’s talent is not actualized, then we most emphatically have a problem.” If it exists, they say, solving it will require directing resources toward the real causes in effect today, not toward those that existed in the past.

3 comments on “The Real Causes of Women’s Underrepresentation in Science”

  1. still-facing-discrimination

    There are several problems with this latest Ceci & Williams that undermine their claim that gender discrimination no longer exists in math-intensive fields:
    1. They have selected studies that support their case, ignoring most of the ones that conclude gender discrimination still exists.
    2. Most of the studies they describe are from the biological and social sciences where women are now well represented, not from math-intensive fields where women remain highly under-represented at the faculty level in research-intensive universities.
    3. Given qualified women drop out of math-intensive fields at higher rates than their male peers, there probably is sampling bias among those who remain. Thus, the women who remain are probably, on average, better than their male colleagues and should be having better outcomes on average. If their salaries, resources, publication rates, etc. are similar as Ceci & Williams claim, it then indicates gender discrimination still exists, not that this problem has been solved.
    In addition, this PNAS article is largely a rehash of several other articles published by these authors during the past few years. Thus, this story is not sufficiently news worthy to be posted here; it also should not have been accepted for publication in PNAS.

  2. James Austin

    Dear still-facing,
    Thanks for the comment. Needless to say, as a white-male editor (and former scientist) I’m in no position to pass judgment on your claims. Still, I think there are big practical advantages to approaches that focus on opportunity and logistical support rather than on conflict and outright discrimination. If outright discrimination — which still exists — is at a low enough level that we can afford to ignore it in our policies, then the problem is much more tractable. If nothing else, it allows us to sidestep the entrenched miscreants and do something useful while we wait for them to die or retire, whichever comes first.
    I am at least hopeful that we have reached that point, and I am comfortable putting in place policies aimed at increasing opportunity and offering logistical support. Partly that’s because I see little hope of progress in outright confrontation. If such policies fail to realize real progress, we’ll know we got the wrong diagnosis.
    Thanks for commenting.
    Jim Austin, Editor
    Science Careers

  3. Mack the Mac

    Very good article, I fully agree.

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