Tierney in the NY Times: Wrong again!

Poor John Tierney, every time he opens his mouth he sticks a lead foot in it.** 

In his follow-up on his first severely flawed attempt on the topic of women in science, Tierney says:

A 2005 report by the American Institute of Physics pointed to figures (from 2002) showing that women constituted 15 percent of full professors …

In fact, he is just flat wrong. The report says 5%. So how does he get 15%? Well, the report says that women in astronomy hold 10% of the full professorships. So 5+10 equals 15? Oddly enough, no, at least to the extent that that does not give you the correct figure for the percentage of women full professors in two fields that are often taken together in data charts.

The AIP does sometimes go in for spin, and their newer report can illustrate that.  It does give us the rather lovely news that:

 It should be noted that most physics departments have relatively few faculty members of either sex.

(Unfortunately, this probably doesn’t mean that physics departments have somehow become socially very accepting of inter-sexed people.)  At least as misleadingly, it remarks

As Figure 3 shows, physics departments that do not grant graduate degrees (median number of faculty =4) are less likely to have women faculty members than larger, PhD-granting physics departments.

As I noted in a comment on our earlier discussion of Tierney, from the point  of view of doing first-class research, it is not such a good thing for a scientist to be at a non-PhD-granting department; NSF has been worried that women get clustered there, and this suggests that isn’t so.  Unfortunately, their statistics tell the  opposite story.   Women form 10% of the faculty of PhD granting departments and 19% of the other.

There are a lot of comments floating around about how physics does not show much attrition as women move from a BS to a PhD and on to faculty positions, including full prof.  So I decided to look at some of the statistics from NSF on Physics, first on degree distribution according to gender and then on employment.  I didn’t find much data from that agency on employment in physics by rank, but one report puts the general percentage of women full profs in the physical sciences at 7%.  The newer report of the AIP puts the latter figure for physics at 6%.

So what about attrition through the degrees.  It is reasonable to think that if it is very hard from women to survive in physics, those who get a BS may be particularly bright and dedicated.  So a lack of attrition is not an indicator of a lack of bias.  In any case, there are indication of attrition in the NSF data, but not as large as in the sciences more generally.  It takes 7 years on average to get a PhD in physics.  In 1997, 19% of the bachelors degrees in physics went to women.  In 2004, 15% of the PhDs went to women.

 For all that, it is very important to notice that there seem to be real signs of progress in physics.  In 2004 22% of the bachelors degrees went to women, which is up by 5 percentage points.  And the AIP reports that over 25%  (as I remember the figure) of the  new assist profs are women.  There have been about 10 years of enormous social and governmental pressure on the sciences and engineering departments to open up their gates and it looks to be having a significant impact in physics and, one can expect, elsewhere..

And I’d feel real cheered up if I weren’t in philosophy.

**In memory of the  late Ann Richard’s remark about W’s silver foot.

I’m indebted to Debra Duncan’s comment on the earlier Tierney post for alerting me to this further discussion.