STEM Equity: In Search of Trend Setters

Close your eyes and imagine a biology department or engineering school where every single one of the following policy changes has been implemented:

….universities might educate women graduate students about the downsides of alternative career paths, following partners’ career moves and taking time off. They could explore the use of part-time tenure-track positions for women having children that segue to full-time once children are older, and offer members of a couple the option to temporarily share a single full-time position. Further strategies include not penalizing older or nontraditional applicants for jobs; leveraging technology to enable parents to work from home while children are young or ill; providing parental leaves for primary caregivers of either gender and offering funding to foster successful reentry; and providing an academic role for women who have left professional positions to have children. Institutions could also try stopping tenure clocks for primary caregivers during family formation; adjusting the length of time allocated for work on grants to accommodate childrearing; offering no-cost grant extensions; providing supplements to hire postdocs to maintain labs during family leave; reducing teaching loads for parents of newborns; providing grants for retooling after parental leave; hiring couples; offering child care during professional meetings; providing high-quality university-based child care and emergency backup care; and instructing hiring committees to ignore family-related gaps in curricula vitae.

Amazing, right? This list, offered in Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci’s piece in American Scientist on “When Scientists Choose Motherhood,”  is striking for the variety of interventions it proposes: changes to hiring, tenure and leave policies; the introduction of new grant administration, childcare, and tele-commuting options…picture it: what a transformation!

But really, if we think about it, a good many of these institutional changes are in fact simply matters for HR.  There is not a lot here that threatens the essential features of teaching or research as those have been practiced in the academy for the last 120 years. Wait a minute: There is NOTHING here that undermines those practices in ANY way! It is the quality of life and levels of equity associated with academic work that would start to change if such policies were to be established.

So, why then does this list seem like fantasy?

Because, I suspect, any one of these changes, let alone the whole collection, would likely seem to many in the university today primarily like a gender-based accommodation,  a change to established institutional practice that derives from issues of practitioner identity. And American science is very, very reluctant to lend those issues any significant influence. We might feel bad about demographic imbalances in these professions, but we’re not going to let those “social” issues infiltrate our labs, classrooms, and other places where reputable, rigorous science is meant to be the order of the day.

That combination of impulses explains why the studies of race or gender inequity in STEM pile up, year after year, but the project of real inclusion in the academy just inches along.  (And of course, STEM is not alone in its cultural aversion to thinking about identity; thanks to Perri Strawn for making the connection to a similar critical discussion regarding business, by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox.)

So here’s an idea: What if we get prominent universities to leverage their existing reputations for rigor in STEM and model these very doable gender-equity reforms?  Our STEM disciplines are inherently aspirational, so it might only take one or two national or even regional leaders to make an impact in this way.  MIT under its now-retiring president Susan Hockfield took a few such steps; why not more steps, taken more conspicuously, to set in motion a large-scale transformation?

A second piece just out in Science (and summarized by Robin Wilson in the Chronicle of Higher Education) reminds us just how badly such shifts are needed.  Tracking careers of women in STEM fields, Deborah Kaminski and Cheryl Geisler  find that the high attrition rate among women STEM faculty in US universities largely offsets recent documented improvements in retention and promotion. Under existing conditions and hiring patterns, they report, university science departments would require nearly a century to attain gender parity.

A century?? We’re talking epochal time scales here! Yet go back to Williams and Ceci: there is clearly no shortage of good, creative thinking on what to do to change academic working conditions…on doable steps that would cost STEM programs money, but not rigor.

And we can’t let money stop the conversation, as it so often does: universities spend plenty of it on labs and salaries when they think those costs are merited to keep up their reputations. And that’s the key here: Again, STEM disciplines are by nature aspirational, judging all departments and programs in comparison to Big Guns like MIT, Stanford, Chicago, Berkeley, or Michigan.  If those leaders act, the much wider culture change may very well begin. Trend setters, step up: your to-do list is ready!

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.

MIT’s Report on Race and Diversity: A Template for Change?

MIT has just issued a lengthy report on its hiring and promotion of underrepresented minority faculty, a document several years in the making.  I will be writing more about this report in the next few days, trying to put it in historical perspective.  MIT may be one-of-a-kind, sitting well above almost every other technical institution in the country, but my first glances suggest that as I read it I’ll be thinking about how this report might shift thinking on diversity in other STEM higher ed settings.  Here’s why:

Like most other documents on diversity in STEM fields, this report works from the premise that because valuable science is produced by a pool of talented personnel, racial equity is desirable because it will enlarge that pool.  But at the same time, unusually, the report bluntly acknowledges that notions of scientific talent are themselves sometimes subject to biases. Even more promising, the report grants that something about science makes its institutions uniquely resistant to social reform:

Findings suggest, further, that in the MIT culture which embraces the scientific ethos — and claims that science is itself beyond identity and race — race, racialization and racism, or the perception of them, are very difficult for many to recognize, address and discuss honestly.

These kinds of acknowledgments are vital if a STEM diversity effort is to have an authentic social justice agenda.  And they are rare in educational policy and university self-studies, not least because they hint that exclusive venues gain their status in part from…exclusion. If MIT’s new report really does dig deeply into the ways that self-proclaimed meritocracies perpetuate social exclusion, it can have important ripple effects.  More soon on the report’s overall handling of these provocative ideas…