Nice Work If You Can Get It

Interesting: A paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Cornell researchers Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams has gained a great deal of media attention, as these things go. Reading the coverage, I’d say we’re definitely a culture split between those who want to put gender bias behind us, and those who want to put any discussion of gender bias behind us.

Ceci and Williams’ report indicates that “sexual discrimination” (the quote marks capture my uncertainty about what that term means in the report, not their own) is no longer much of a factor in the hiring, promotion, grant funding or journal publication of women in the sciences.  Substantive aspects of reviewing and hiring in STEM occupations are in recovery, no longer suffering from gender bias.  The authors do find that institutional and cultural factors may be limiting the attainments of women in science: the essential conflicts between tenure clocks and biological clocks, between child- or elder care demands and competitive funding structures, etc.  These conditions, which constrain women’s choices of  career and lifestyle,  still have to be addressed if women are to attain parity with men  in math-based fields.

I agree with that last point, absolutely. But as someone who studies ideas about identity in scientific workplaces, something seems not quite right to me in the very design of this study, so I worry about how likely it is to actually encourage reform. That is:  It seems to Ceci and Williams like a good idea to differentiate between the social character of  encounters between individuals in job interviews and manuscript review processes (no longer gendered, apparently) and that of institutional policies (still somewhat discriminatory).   That differentiation lets them cast women’s successes at the application or promotion stages as nicely firewalled from the ideologies that shape tenure and family leave and funding policies; daily relationships in  academic departments are apparently post-gender despite whatever is going on down the hall in the dean’s office or HR department or Office of Research.  

But that these are distinct realms within most institutions–with bias dissolved in one unit while it survives in others– seems highly improbable. Do successful employees  (say, tenured faculty) normally maintain functionally different value systems than their bosses (those who approve their raises, and new lines for their departments)?  On some ideological level, maybe,  but in the actual day-to-day operations of an institution? Not likely. Shared standards of good performance by definition connect the two spaces; short  CV’s and slowed tenure clocks are stigmatized throughout.  I’d be very surprised if the lowered rates of  successful tenure, promotion, and funding efforts by women faculty in STEM  fields are not deriving from distributions of opportunities and resources in their home departments; after all, that’s where opportunity and resources are garnered for faculty (or not, for some) .

And I just don’t think the disunity between institutional spaces that Ceci and Williams imply is characteristic of ostensibly meritocratic enterprises like science (or law, or medicine, or the social sciences for that matter!).  But it offers a picture of scientific labor that conveniently  lets Ceci and Williams suggest that money now being spent on, say, monitoring or improving gender bias in the university departments and labs, where decisions about merit are made,  is no longer needed. The Guardian accepts the empirical findings of the NAS study but nonetheless sees the potential danger in that presumption, headlining its coverage of the new report: “Women in science face a career structure and culture that is weighted against them, rather than straightforward individual sexual discrimination”(itals mine).

Others, sadly, are leveraging Ceci and Williams’ report for deeply conservative purposes.  Leave it to John Tierney’s New York Times column of Feb. 9 to embed this news in a larger indictment of  the “liberal” professoriate’s  lock on social science research topics. Tierney centers his column on the reductive and self-serving arguments of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt.  Haidt defends, to  Tierney’s apparent approval, beleaguered “conservative” social science projects,  like Larry Summer’s argument that men’s overrepresentation in math and science has a biological basis. The widespread critique of Summer’s comments and others of that ilk had awful ripple effects, we read in Tierney’s column:

“…the taboo against discussing sex differences was reinforced, so universities and the National Science Foundation went on spending millions of dollars on research and programs based on the assumption that female scientists faced discrimination and various forms of unconscious bias.”

According to Tierney,  Ceci and Williams  (like others before them we have regrettably failed to heed) correct that assumption.  But I would ask this: If institutional policies that favor men’s socialization and biology, such as those the new report points to, are not evidence of  “unconscious bias”  then what is?  Tierney’s logic  is selective, at best. I would love to know if Ceci and Williams see it that way.