Science Academia Is Not Sexist,Though Maybe Motherhood Is
    By Hank Campbell | February 16th 2012 04:36 AM | 8 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Despite claims by some of the more aggressive groups who attack science academia, women do not face a 'hostile' work environment because in some fields they are less than 50 percent or some other scientists are rude. Instead, they face a tough personal choice.

    Getting tenure is hard.  The work load is tremendous.  More women than men tend to think it is not worth the effort and, if they have kids, that feeling becomes more so.  They are not rejecting science but they are opting for a higher quality of life.  Studies show that male scientists often wish they had made the same choice.

    A new study from Cornell University is nothing new; but some advocates have ignored data since the 1990s, including all of the advances liberal academia has made regarding diversity, so these points need to be made again.  Women get more Ph.D.s than men, women get tenure and faculty jobs more than men and, for the first time in history, young women score as well as men on math tests before they reach college. That's a big win for science and society.  Sure, biology has more women and physics has more men but nothing in that fact says women or men are being blocked out of those fields by their genders or that those fields are worse off because their participation does not exactly match the overall population.

    "Motherhood – and the policies that make it incompatible with a tenure-track research career – take a toll on women that is detrimental to their professional lives. Even just the plan to have children in the future is associated with women exiting the research fast-track at a rate twice that of men," report Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci. "It is time for universities to move past thinking about underrepresentation of women in science solely as a consequence of biased hiring and evaluation, and instead think about it as resulting from outdated policies created at a time when men with stay-at-home wives ruled the academy," said Williams, who founded the Cornell Institute for Women in Science, a research and outreach center that studies and promotes the careers of women scientists, and does the current research with funding from the National Institutes of Health.

    Maybe our policies are outdated, though in countries like Iceland, which are held up as models for work-family policies, far more women than men take maternity leave even though it is available equally to both - and the government even pays child care but more women stay home to raise kids anyway.  Obviously there is no issue in the private sector, lots of women are doctors and have children without issue, but claims that science academia are hostile to women are again shown to be without merit. Now, science is absolutely hostile, just like any job, but at a time when advocates are insisting the military should have no gender separation, claiming women in science need special environments is a little silly. Women in science do fine; women in the military have to have their own separate scoring system because the vast majority would flunk a physical fitness test if it were gender neutral.

    Williams and Ceci analyzed data related to the academic careers of women and men with and without children in math-heavy academic fields and found that before becoming mothers, women have careers equivalent to or better than men's - just like the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows about women overall. "They are paid and promoted the same as men, and are more likely to be interviewed and hired in the first place," Williams said. Basically, women do take one for the team more than men and maybe that is wrong but they have the choice - that is the important point.

    Citation: Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci, 'When Scientists Choose Motherhood', March-April 2012, Volume 100, Number 2 Page: 138 DOI: 10.1511/2012.95.138


    Lindsay M. Starke
    This isn't a phenomenon simply relegated to the scientific disciplines. Even in the "cuddly" humanities, it is remarkably hard for women to simultaneously sustain a level of output worthy of a tenure track and to be mothers. There's societal (and cultural, especially in the sphere of academia) pressure to be a good mom who does all the crunchy-granola attachment parenting stuff, plus to be in there with the boys getting the same amount of research is hard, but not impossible, to do both successfully. _Mama, PhD is an excellent book dealing with this subject.
    Solving the problem, though. That's a doozy.

    Yep. No question because mothers take a hit for the family they have to be applauded, we just want an honest appraisal of whether or not there is bias.  If there's no bias, other things can perhaps be fixed.  Science, like athletics, is harder on mothers but we can't change either. 

    No country is doing a good job at it, we just get 'grass is greener' claims about countries like Iceland, even though the results are the same regarding participation and actually worse regarding income.  Basically, no one wants to hire women in a birthing age in the first place because they could be gone for years if they have a child.
    Lindsay M. Starke
    Absolutely. It's an interesting quandary for feminists like myself, who want things to be equal, but who at some point must recognize that biology makes us...well, perhaps not unequal but certainly not the same. Nature herself is a bit biased, unfortunately.
    I suppose the answer is better institutional support structure; my friends who are mothers and academics have noticed that the way that department meetings and such are scheduled on the fly makes it harder for them in terms of childcare. There are certainly anecdotes of older, tenured male professors who don't care for women in their departments, but the departments themselves are not hostile to women. It's that women need to start asking for their needs to be met in constructive ways, and for the institution (as slow-moving as some of them can be) to meet them halfway.

    This has already happened in some of the white-collar sectors of private industry, and I'd love to see it extend beyond—so that a woman having a child doesn't have to be gone for years, because her work environment is supportive and understanding. But we have quite a way to go.
    Yep, the private sector has far more parity in terms both income and family needs issues; oddly, the people who claim that can't be true (because business is eeeeeevil) are also the ones saying liberal academia is hostile to women. You can never win with them. If they want to find sexism, they will find it.

    Some old guys are going to be sexist but that is just someone being an asshole; it is not endemic to academia or science so it shouldn't indict entire institutions when the data show it isn't deserved.

    We want opportunities to be egalitarian and for obstacles to be merit-based. Because some parts of science were male heavy for so long there is still not equality but it also isn't fair to fire older people who have done nothing wrong just because they are the wrong gender.  The key stat (to me, anyway) is that when the data is analyzed objectively, women are not penalized in pay and they are not penalized in hiring.  We can't do anything about the past but that means the present and future is looking pretty good.
    Gerhard Adam
    In one respect, the irony is that we're looking in the wrong places to try and fix this. 

    The issue isn't about women, but rather the expectations of men.  If men were granted the same opportunity to be with their families and participate, then there might be less inclination to view family care and child-rearing as a gender driven phenomenon.

    As long as men are expected to sacrifce family time for careers, then there will never be an opportunity for families to be treated as priorities over professional obligations.  After all, if the point is that men must sacrifice family for their careers, but women should have more supportive work environments, then it simply introduces an even more insidious division between the genders.

    Mundus vult decipi
    I guess you can't legislate culture.  Like I said, in Iceland they have paid child care and maternity leave for both but more women than men stay home by far - and because so many do despite the availability of child care, women get paid a lot less.  Their competitive value is driven down by being in childbearing years.  In that sense, America does better.  The pay gap in Iceland is much greater than here.
    I actually believe that this is fundamentally a problem of the tenure track system and not necessarily of biology or gender bias.

    The real problem is that we have a system in place that is distorted. If there was no tenure system, and this was a pure meritocracy, a woman could go on leave for 4 or 5 years, raise a kid, come back and still find a job provided she had the original talent for it.

    Of course that's not how it works! Instead, we encourage researchers with the golden prize at the end of the rainbow, and this entails working like an animal for 15 years straight building up your credentials so that finally a university will hire you permanently. If you drop out at any stage, you might as well kiss your career goodbye!

    It's just an innefficient system that is archaic and should go away.

    The real problem is that we have a system in place that is distorted. If there was no tenure system, and this was a pure meritocracy, a woman could go on leave for 4 or 5 years, raise a kid, come back and still find a job provided she had the original talent for it.
    A terrific point; intelligence and creativity do not plummet after five years but keep in mind when we are talking about tenure jobs or R01 grants, there is intense competition; only 10% of good applications will get funded in any given year.  Over 5 years, that is a lot of people who are also creative and intelligent and competing for jobs.   Yes, any scientists can get a job in a lab but that is not the same as a faculty job. In those jobs, the vacancy has to be filled.  It isn't sitting empty and they won't swap out a scientist in a university the way they would an aging athlete, the moment someone who may be better becomes available.   Scientists already get 1/100th the money of athletes, having chronic job insecurity would be even worse.

    My recommendations on fixing the tenure system mean little but I can defend liberal academia from aspersions of being sexist because we can at least compile data.  The best solution for women who want better family-work balance is to go into the private sector. But that also applies to men, since a lot of academics regret their choices later in life.