In Response to “Academic Science Isn’t Sexist”

By Terilyn Chen

Treats aren’t hard to come by on Halloween, but with this year’s treats came what I thought at first to be a sick trick in the form of the New York Times’ Sunday Review article “Academic Science Isn’t Sexist.”

On Oct. 31, Cornell professors Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci published an article claiming that today’s math-intensive job environments are no longer unwelcoming to women. Instead, the underrepresentation of women in such fields can be traced to “women’s earlier educational choices, and in women’s occupational and lifestyle preferences.”

The authors base their arguments on “Women in Academic Science: A Changing Landscape,” a research article they co-wrote with economists Donna K. Ginther and Shulamit Kahn and published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest. According to their research, women “are more likely to receive hiring offers, are paid roughly the same (in 14 of 16 comparisons across the eight fields), are generally tenured and promoted at the same rate (except in economics), remain in their fields at roughly the same rate, have their grants funded and articles accepted as often and are about as satisfied with their jobs.” It follows then, in their minds, that today’s academic science environment “reflects gender fairness, rather than gender bias.” In other words, “academic science isn’t sexist.”

My purpose here is not to delve deeply into their research methods and results (though, there have been pieces doing just that that have offered fine critiques). Even if we take their specific findings to be accurate, however, the connections and conclusions they draw from those results remain problematic. One thing I will note about the particulars of their research, however, is that a quick skim of their research article reveals the authors’ decision to “not address issues related to women of color or immigrant women in science because race/ethnicity and nativity present additional academic career challenges for women.” In other words, even if we assume that the data is reliable, their conclusions will not necessarily be applicable to the experiences of women of color and immigrant women. This, in itself, is troublesome, and the authors’ failure to acknowledge this in their op-ed, which provides sweeping conclusions about the experiences of women in general, is morally dubious.

Williams’ and Ceci’s article joins a long line of literature about women in science that continues to put the onus on women and that assumes free will and choice even in the face of coercive social norms and environments. Williams and Ceci cite “early educational choices” like not taking advanced math classes in high school and not declaring math-intensive majors in college as explanations for the underrepresentation of women in math-intensive fields, but do not question why that is. They fail to even entertain the idea that there could be a connection between the “choices” that women make and the everyday reality of the likely work experiences they will have as women working in math-intensive fields.

It is ridiculous that an op-ed that claims to investigate the roots of the underrepresentation of women in math-intensive jobs neglects to discuss the social environment and culture of such jobs, or the social expectations imposed upon women professionals. It is irresponsible at best and extremely damaging at worst to deny the fact that many women scientists continue to experience “inhospitable” work environments. It is especially heinous when these denials are based on questionable data that ignores systemic sexism in the form of belittling and microaggression, pressure to balance domestic and career lives, the coalescing of sexism and racism for women of color, and sexual harassment and assault.

The authors’ blatant dismissal of anecdotes of sexism in the scientific workplace is also disturbing. Take this sentence, for example, which attempts to account for the abundant evidence that shows that institutional sexism in scientific academia is, in fact, alive and well: “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.” What does that even mean? To say that mistreatment is “anecdotal” reeks of the type of language that rape apologists use to doubt and discredit survivors of abuse. So was this just a stylistic slip? Did the authors mean to say that evidence used to indicate the presence of mistreatment has been anecdotal and extrapolated from small studies? Even if this was their intention, it is a severely misguided claim to make.

Cases of workplace sexism have long been known to be underreported, often because victims fear retaliation and/or social ostracization and/or because an effective reporting mechanism does not exist. Additionally, sexual harassment and assault in general are among the most severely underreported crimes. Point: the authors should have known better than to outright dismiss cases of workplace mistreatment without any qualifications of the phenomenon of underreporting. Or even better, they should have known better than to completely disregard mistreatment that affects the very workplace culture itself, like aggression, and sexual assault.

Engineering professor Carlotta A. Berry’s op-ed, “They Call Me Dr. Berry,” published exactly one day after Williams and Ceci’s op-ed, offers an interesting point of comparison that illuminates some of the problems with Williams and Ceci’s arguments. In it, Berry explains how the sexism and racism she has experienced in the academic environment has made her insist on being addressed by her professional title. She cites facts like, “in 2012 there were only 140 African-American women working as engineering professors– out of some 24,640 across the entire field (not including computer engineering)” and “as of 2011 African-American women made up 4 percent of all women in the engineering professoriate.”

In substance, these facts do not fit in well with Williams and Ceci’s argument, but in type, this is the data that they would seem to approve of– they are numerical representations of specific manifestations of sexism that do not incite controversy. But the bulk of Berry’s evidence is not based on such statistics. The sexism and racism she experiences comes in the form of seemingly harmless microaggressions and other such difficult-to-quantify offenses. Berry explains the lower levels of respect afforded to her by students. They address her with Ms. instead of “Doctor” or “Professor”; they are too comfortable offering pointers on how she can teach better. Behind all of this is the “presumption that… as a female and African-American, [Dr. Berry is] less qualified than… white male colleagues, or at the very least that [she] was hired in order to meet a double minority quota.” I suspect that Williams and Ceci ignore experiences like Berry’s out of convenience. After all, doing the opposite would require them to critically examine the sometimes subtle ways in which the social norms we all take part in perpetuate a culture of discomfort and hostility for women. It’s much easier to myopically point to things like tenure and promotion rates, grant funding and job satisfaction, and call it a day.

Ultimately, while it is true that the “unwelcoming image” of such workplaces is not helping to recruit women scientists, obfuscating the truth isn’t doing anyone any favors either. It is misleading, irresponsible, and absurd to claim to have discovered that sexism in math-intensive fields no longer exists by using selective blinders to filter out the types of harm that women scientists continue to face at the hands of sexist, hostile workplace cultures every day.

So no, academic science isn’t sexist, but only if, like Williams and Ceci, you ignore all the ways in which it most certainly is.

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