One of a series of 36 posters by Pamela Davis Kivelson for the PDK Poster Project on Women in Science.
The title of the article on women in science was a little bit odd, "Why Can't a Woman Be More like a Man?" and there were some other clues as well. But my misgivings were allayed by the following sentence that appeared close to the beginning. "The research on gender and vocation is complex, vibrant, and full of reasonable disagreements; there is no single, sensible answer." I experienced a pleasurable crisp feeling as I read that.
I have been somewhat less condemning of the Lawrence Summers escapade (transcripts of his comments) than most of my colleagues at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis. (See also) As a scientist I feel that even controversial, "politically incorrect" data should get an airing, especially if it speaks to critical cultural controversies. However, I have to acknowledge that I cannot say how I would have reacted had I been at his presentation.
The facts seem clearly stated in the third paragraph of the article. “ Women comprise just 19% of tenure-track professors in math, 11% in physics, 10% in computer science, and 10% in engineering. And the pipeline does not promise statistical parity any time soon: women are now earning 25% of the Ph.D.'s in the physical sciences---way up from the 4% of the 1960s, but still far behind the rate they are winning doctorates in other fields." This apparently clear statement of the facts along with the crisp sentence cited above helped set me up (primed me) to be more accepting of the author's argument than I otherwise might have been.
She argues that the low percentage of women in these fields reflects the female tendency to prefer careers connected to nurturing. She cites, for example, a survey in which 1500 professors (gender breakdown not given) were asked what accounts for the low percentage of women and 74% chalked it up to differences in interests. She also cites work by Baron-Cohen suggesting that autism is the far end of the male spectrum. He feels that the male brain on average is wired to be better at systematizing and the female brain better at empathizing.
In a skillfully presented case, the author suggests that the campaign to get more women in these as well as other aspects of science is not just a con, but a juggernaut completely out of control. Those on the gender equality in the sciences bandwagon have hoodwinked university presidents, the NSF, and now even Congress into making a nonexistent problem a cause célèbre. A Title IX program for the physical sciences analogous to the Title IX program for sports is in effect (although its requirements have apparently been unevenly enforced). They have been able to do this, she claims, because of:
… a body of feminist research that purports to prove (emphasis added) that women suffer from “hidden bias.” This research, artfully (emphasis added) presented with no critics or skeptics present, can be persuasive. A brief look at it helps explain the mind-set of the critics and their supporters. But it is a highly ironic story. For the three recognized canons of literature are, in key respects, travesties of the scientific method, and they have been publicized and promoted in ways that ignore elementary standards of transparency in objectivity.
Since I only had the information the author gave me, at first reading I found her arguments plausible against two of the three sources used to bolster the feminists perspective (see below however). Introducing the third source, she wrote “How in the face of women's clear tendencies to choose other careers and more balanced lifestyles, can one reasonably attribute the scarcity of women in science and engineering to unconscious bias and sexist discrimination? Valian showed the way.” Quoting Valian, she continues:
In white, Western middle-class society, the gender schema for men includes being capable of independent, autonomous action...[and being] assertive, instrumental, and task oriented. Men act. The gender schema for women is different: it includes being nurturant, expressive, communal, and concerned about others.
Continuing to describe Valian's work, she says:
Valian does not deny that schemas have a foundation in biology, but she insists that culture can intensify or diminish their power and their effect. Our society, she says, pressures women to indulge their nurturing propensities while it encourages men to develop "a strong commitment to earning and prestige, great dedication to the job, and an intense desire for achievement." All this inevitably result in a permanently unfair advantage for men.
I recognized some deep resonance with Valian’s claims. However just as I was starting to reconsider the easy pass I was giving the argument of the author of the article I was reading, I learned about mandatory gender bias workshops in which interactive theater about exaggerated situations is used to try to raise the consciousness of physicists and engineers who get government grants. This did seem over-the-top. I was also kept in line by a report of a Title IX review requiring a female physics professor to make a list of all the equipment in the lab and indicate whether women were allowed to use each item.
I finished the article and then noticed that what I had been reading was published in the American Enterprise Institute bimonthly newsletter. I also recognized that the author Christina Hoff Sommers had written an intensely antifeminist book (while claiming herself as a true feminist). Uh-huh, I thought to myself.
In retrospect, the last paragraph of the article made perfect sense.Sommer's wrote, "Americans scientific excellence is a precious natural resource. It is the foundation of our economy and of the nation's health and safety" She then points out that people from MIT have started more than 5000 companies in the past 50 years. She asks, "Will an academic science that is quota-driven, gender-balanced, cooperative rather than competitive, and less time-consuming produce anything like these results?"
Cooperative science works, and more of it sounds great to me. Moreover, as current events strongly argue, the well-being of our economy and our health and safety as citizens depends considerably more on having leaders capable of objectivity and willing to assure adequate government regulation and than it does on resisting any hypothetical decline in scientific and technological innovation that having more women in these fields might bring. Besides having more women might increase innovation!
Without thinking more about the article, I went on to my real task for the evening. It was once again rereading a paper by John Bargh and Melissa Fergerson on the automaticity of higher mental processes. They reviewed studies showing that researchers can prime all kinds of higher level behavior most of us generally assume depends primarily on conscious processes. For example just by giving subjects scrambled sentences containing several words relating to a stereotype they can prime subjects to identify with a stereotype and thereby influence their behavior. In one study subjects were primed with the stereotype of university professor or hooligan. In a second apparently unrelated task, those primed with the professor stereotype answered more Trivial Pursuit questions than those primed with hooligan.
Even as I have appreciated the growing body of work in Social Psychology on automatic behavior, I have been a bit resistant to it. For one thing, it seems that random priming influences would more or less cancel out in real life. Also this work is often used to make the point that introspection is useless since our behavior is governed by extraneous influences of which we are unaware. Certainly introspection, like anything else, has its limits, but it is often invaluable.
That night the words of the article almost danced on the page. I really got it, or the version of it that makes sense to me. Even very subtle consistent environmental influences can over time have a powerful and long-lasting effect on the psyche. Once again, the message about the power of conditioning hit home. Wow!
The next morning as I lay in bed, I was quite astonished when I recognized the relevance of the work on automaticity to the women in science problem. No wonder the words danced on the page! The women in science article had in a sense primed me to get the social psychology material on environmental priming (and vice versa as well--- why not reverse priming since things stick around in our head?).
As I lay there, my thoughts kept coming back to the female junior physics professor who Sommers claimed had been required to list for Title IX reviewers whether women were allowed to use each piece of equipment. I wondered whether she had instead been asked to report, on the basis of equipment logs, the percentage of time women got to use important pieces of equipment versus men? Such a question could provide data on one aspect of potential implicit gender bias in laboratories. (The other question, if it makes sense that all, would look at explicit bias.) So I decided to check out Sommers sources. Yes, I found that the female junior physics professor, not shy about her hostility to Title IX review,really did tell a reporter for Science Magazine that she was required to list all her equipment and say if female lab members could use each piece. (I still suspect this is not the whole story.)
I will not consider the second gender-bias-in-science source Sommers critiques, as the story is too convoluted. However Sommers was less than judicious in her comments about the summary of the in-house MIT report made available to the public---which was what got the "gender equality in science" movement going in the first place. For example, she quotes from an ungenerous source, conservative anti-feminist Judith Kleinfeld who calls it “junk science” for not obtaining confidential informationin some cases and not revealing it in others.
In contrast I was struck by the judicious and sincere tone of the report. For example, on page 8, it says, “Data reviews revealed that in some departments, men and women faculty appear to share equally in material resources and rewards, in others they did not.”
Sommers in addition claims that the summary, which was publicized as showing objectively that there was a woman in science problem, failed to do so. I disagree since it documented the most important piece of information. It shows that from 1985-1994 the proportion of women in senior faculty positions in MIT’s School of Science remained constant at roughly 8%.
She also suggests the authors of the report might be misconstruing the broader problem in a critical way. Quoting from the report, she writes: [The summary concedes]“Junior women felt included and supported by their departments." Sommers continues: "Instead of acknowledging that the problem might be generational and confined to a small group of senior women from three departments, Hopkins and the other authors of the report claimed that the Junior women were naïve and simply did not know what was in store for them: [Again quoting the report] "Each generation of young women began... by believing that gender discrimination was solved in the previous generation and would not touch them.”
Quite to the contrary, the scientists place this paradox close to the core of their understanding of the problem. It is what we call the glass ceiling.
An important finding to emerge from the interviews was that the difference in the perception of junior and senior women faculty about the impact of gender on their careers is a difference that repeats itself over generations. Each generation of young women, including those who are currently senior faculty, began by believing that gender discrimination was "solved" in the previous generation and would not touch them. Gradually however, their eyes were opened to the realization that the playing field is not level after all, and that they had paid a high price both personally and professionally as a result. (p. 9: from section called: What the Committee Learned)
Implicit gender bias increases as women climb the academic latter . [From the summary of the report by the chair of the MIT faculty, p. 3:] "It was only when they came together, and with persistence and integrity, that they saw that as their careers advanced something else besides competence came into play, which for them meant an accumulation of slight disadvantages, with just the opposite for their male colleagues.
Two other paragraphs struck me as I read the report, especially after having "got" the work on priming.
...While the reasons for discrimination are complex, a critical part of the explanation lies in our collective ignorance. We must accept that what happened to the tenured women faculty in the School of Science is what discrimination is. It defines discrimination in the period from the 1970s up till today. But we, including for a long time the women faculty themselves, were slow to recognize and understand this for several reasons. First, it did not look like what we thought discrimination looked like. Most of us thought that the Civil Rights laws and Affirmative Action had solved gender "discrimination". But gender discrimination turns out to take many forms and many of these are not simple to recognize. Women faculty who lived the experience came to see the pattern of difference in how their male and female colleagues were treated and gradually they realized that this was discrimination. But when they spoke up, no one heard them, believing that each problem could be explained alternatively by its "special circumstances." Only when the women came together and shared their knowledge, only when the data were looked at through this knowledge and across departments, were the patterns irrefutable.
They found that discrimination consists of a pattern of powerful, but unrecognized assumptions and attitudes that work systematically against women faculty in the light of obvious goodwill. Like many discoveries, at first it is startling and unexpected. Once you "get it," it seems almost obvious. Of (p.10-11: from section called: How Did Inequality Come about? “Gender Discrimination” in 1999).
By 1999 when the summary of the 1995 report was released as a result of its recommendations the percentage of female tenured faculty at MIT in the sciences had increased to 13%, representing a 40% increase. However as far as I can ascertain, the percentage seems to have remained relatively steady since. Certainly there are fewer women than men who want to go into these fields, no doubt in part because of innate preferences. But implicit bias against women in science, which women as well as men harbor, exacerbates the situation. (By the way, you might might want to test and see if you have unconscious bias that associates science more with men than women.)
Finally this brings us back to those over-the-top workshops on gender bias mandated by Title IX. Implicit gender bias, like other implicit bias, is nearly impossible for us to become aware of on our own. Workshops on gender bias using interactive theater and exaggerated situations, rather than indicating a feminist agenda out of control, may make sense as a way to shake up implicit as well as explicit bias. However I feel it might be even more important to have workshops in junior high, high school, and college that help counteract the bias against becoming a scientist in the young women themselves harbor.