Michael Brownstein on Williams and Ceci

A guest-post:

Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci have just published an article in PNAS titled “National hiring experiments reveal 2:1 faculty preference for women on STEM tenure track” (here). The article is striking, and seems to show a great deal of progress in gender equity in hiring (notwithstanding worries that some have expressed that this study demonstrates “reverse discrimination”). There has been interesting discussion of the article on Facebook (FB), the Daily Nous, and New APPS, and most of what I say here is a reworking of points that others have already made. First I’ll make a couple positive points about the article; then raise a worry about the authors’ interpretation of their data; and then raise a few questions about the data.

On the positive side, W&C’s data tells us more than we knew before about how gender attitudes and gender discrimination work. As Edouard Machery said on FB, we need to know the facts in order to create effective interventions. This seems right. The question, I think, is what exactly the study shows, and whether it shows what the authors think it shows.

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It’s Halloween and they’re back! Williams and Ceci again

Recent  research reports significant faculty bias against women students in science.  

However, Williams and Ceci have an op-ed piece in the NY Times stating a conflicting conclusion from their recent research:  there’s no bias aainst women in math-intensive fields in STEM.  Their piece links to a forthcoming article by them.

Are they right?  If you have the time, you might try to analyze their work.  I don’t have the time, so let me simply urge a lot of caution when you read about the recent work.  They published a similar conclusion in 2011, and there turned out to be serious problems with their reasoning.  We discuss some of them here.

SWIP UK on York’s International Men’s Day Statement

UPDATE: York has now withdrawn the statement about International Men’s Day.

UPDATE 2: Their new statement says they’re dropping their participation entirely.  The new statement is somewhat unfortunate, especially because it gives no indication of what people had objected to, instead leaving the reader with the impression that we found paying attention to men’s mental health to be objectionable.  Withdrawing the event entirely is also unfortunate– as noted, there are indeed real issues worth attending to, that can be attended to in a way that does not minimise the issues facing women.  I very much hope, for example, that they will find another occasion for encourage men to avail themselves of mental health care.

The Society for Women in Philosophy UK has sent the following letter to York:

I am writing as Director the Society for Women in Philosophy UK, to express concern about the text you have published in advance of your planned International Men’s Day. We agree that there are many serious issues facing men, largely stemming from the narrow and oppressive gender roles to which all have been confined. For example, men who wish to take a career break for caregiving reasons are likely to face social and institutional barriers different from those that women face. We do not by any means object to a university attending to these issues: indeed we welcome it.

Our worries stem from the statement issued by spokespeople for your Equality and Diversity Committee. This includes a quite sweeping, unreferenced claim: “In academic staff appointments, the data suggests that female candidates have a higher chance of being appointed than men.” (http://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2015/events/mensday-gender-equality/) We don’t know what data is being referred to here. While there is one study that has been seen by some as supporting this conclusion, it is very controversial and there are many more studies that support the opposite conclusion. (For one critical discussion of the study see here.) To endorse this so blithely is highly irresponsible in the face of the continuing under-representation of women in many fields of academia. The under-representation of women is one that most universities in the UK have come to see as a serious and worrying one. Improving hiring processes to increase the abysmal percentages of women in fields like engineering or philosophy has been widely accepted as an important goal. It is disturbing to learn that York has– flying in the face of this widespread consensus– instead gives the impression of having decided that men are the ones disadvantaged in academic hiring.

We recognise that you include a brief statement at the end noting that women will remain the key focus of your efforts. But this is deeply at odds with your sweeping dismissal of concerns about bias against women in academic hiring.

Messages like yours do immense damage to the hard-fought gains that we have only begun to make through initiatives like Athena SWAN or the BPA/SWIP Guidelines in Philosophy.

We very much hope that you will reconsider and make a more careful and less counterproductive statement. Men do face real issues that deserve attention. But dismissing the issues facing women is no way to go about addressing those that face men.

University of York marks International Men’s Day. Sigh.

I am not one of those feminists who thinks it’s always wrong to talk about ways that men unjustly treated in our society. I think patriarchy causes injustice for many groups, including men, and that these are intertwined. For example, men have far less support (both social and institutional) for taking career breaks to do caregiving. This harms people of all genders, as well as anyone in need of care. Men who defy gender norms face sanctions– again a part of the general harms of strictly enforced gender norms. We should, as feminists, talk about these things and do something about them.

But it’s thoroughly unhelpful for a University’s Equality and Diversity Committee to put up a website blithely announcing that “In academic staff appointments, the data suggests that female candidates have a higher chance of being appointed than men.” There is, it is true, a rather controversial study which has been wrongly reported as establishing this. (Michael Brownstein discussed it here.) There are also masses of studies arguing the opposite. To toss this in as if it’s established, and in such a way as to suggest the people whose progress we should now worry about are men, is grossly irresponsible in the face of numbers showing that women are still massively underrepresented.  (There is a note at the end saying that obviously women should be the main focus, but since it’s already been claimed that women now have an easier ride in academic appointments, this rings hollow and sounds pro forma.) One wonders if they will soon be withdrawing from Athena SWAN.

By all means, let’s talk about the ways that patriarchy harms everyone. That’s good stuff, and we need to over turn the stranglehold of gender roles on men in order to achieve gender justice. But statements like York’s are very counterproductive. One expects better from an Equality and Diversity Committee.

UPDATE: Here is the open letter signed by York staff and students.

Women’s abilities in Math: a surprising conservative viewpoint

The authors on the paper from which the quote below comes include Ceci and Williams, with Ceci the corresponding author. Readers may be aware of complaints on this blog about their research, which tends to claim, for example, that there is no discrimination against women in STEM fields. Conservative columnists love them. Their following assessment, which in effect summarizes theses we’ve arrived at over the last 7 and a half years after considerable attention to the literature and help from readers, is happily surprising:

The results of our myriad analyses reveal that early sex differences in spatial and mathematical reasoning need not stem from biological bases, that the gap between average female and male math ability is narrowing (suggesting strong environmental influences), and that sex differences in math ability at the right tail show variation over time and across nationalities, ethnicities, and other factors, indicating that the ratio of males to females at the right tail can and does change. We find that gender differences in attitudes toward and expectations about math careers and ability (controlling for actual ability) are evident by kindergarten and increase thereafter, leading to lower female propensities to major in math-intensive subjects in college but higher female propensities to major in non-math-intensive sciences…

So where are the women and why aren’t they prominent figures at philosophy conferences?

In many ways, this blog has been concerned with the absence of women.  We have looked at conferences, book collections and degree and employment figures, where women are entirely absence or significantly underrepresented.   A recent article by Ceci and Williams has claimed that it is elements of choice, not discrimination, that are holding women back.  Their claim has gotten some attention, including attention on this blog, here and here  In the second post Jender picks up on an article by Alison Gopnik, and I’m going to highlight a quite different part of Gopnik’s article, one that relates to recent discussion here and on other blogs.

 It is easy to get the impression that there’s an element of choice significantly operating in the absence of women.  And surely that has got to be right in some way.  Some women seem to have too many invitations and they choose to decline some.  Some women also have strong family obligations that interrupt their participation in conferences, and lead to their declining invitations.  In addition, as Ceci and Williams point out, women often do not have the resources men have, and this impacts their participation and publications.   

But Gopnik highlights another that must be taken seriously.  If one reads the vignettes that show up on Jender’s blog about being a women in philosophy, it seems an almost inevitable conclusion.  As Gopnik puts it:


Why does gender lead to unequal resources? … Women drop out in ever greater numbers as they advance along the academic pipeline that leads from graduate school to first job and beyond. They often settle in jobs at lower tier schools with fewer resources and fail to even apply for publications, grants, or the best jobs at the best universities. Perhaps these women are simply choosing to have fewer resources. …. But as Ceci and Williams admit, …[experimental ] studies show that women are subject to bias from the very start of their careers. Is it any wonder that many of them, keenly aware that their efforts are being downgraded compared to those of men, would withdraw from a competition that is systematically unfair? 

 Obviously, choices depend on alternatives, and the factors influencing women’s alternatives in philosophy raise all of the issues we have been addressing.

Gopnik on Tierney

Awesome article.

[John Tierney, in the NY Times, cited] a new paper by Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that, he claimed, contradicts the “assumption that female scientists [face] discrimination and various forms of unconscious bias.” But, in fact, the paper’s authors make a narrower argument, and some of the evidence they present suggests that female scientists almost certainly do face discrimination and various forms of unconscious bias…

Here’s what Ceci and Williams show: That women with the same resources as men are just as likely to get their papers, grants, and job applications accepted. While this might appear to mean that women scientists don’t face discrimination, in fact, it’s quite compatible with the strong experimental evidence that there is bias against women….

They found that when you factor in women’s circumstances—for example, what kinds of teaching loads they have, whether they are at research universities, whether they have young children, and so on—then the correlation between sex and success goes away. Overall, female scientists have fewer resources than male scientists, just as poor people have less access to health care. But if you compare male and female scientists with identical resources you find that the women are just as likely to be successful. Ceci and Williams put it this way in their discussion of the number of journal articles women published: “The primary factor affecting women’s productivity was structural position. When type of institution, teaching load, funding, and research assistance were factored in, the productivity gap completely disappeared (which is not to say discrimination has not influenced these factors in the real world).”…

Science reporters are supposed to understand these complexities and explain them to their readers—not claim, in spite of the evidence, that sex discrimination is a figment of the biased liberal imagination.

Is bias “yesterday’s problem”? Addition

When I wrote this yesterday my computer was having one of those stubborn microscoft moments. I’m not sure what it was doing, but it kept on for over two hours, opening pages I had closed and vice versa. I was rattled enough to forget a very important source which, computer willing, I’ll put in at the current end of this post.

The staggering news that women form only 17% of full time philosopher professors might make one disinclined to believe there’s no bias against women in academic disciplines. But maybe the math-intensive disciplines are more advanced. Indeed, in a widely circulated paper, Ceci and Williams argue that biased judgments regarding paper acceptance, hiring and grant allocations are a thing of the past in science and engineering. As their abstract has it

We conclude that differential gendered outcomes in the real world result from differences in resources attributable to choices, whether free or constrained, and that such choices could be influenced and better informed through education if resources were so directed. Thus, the ongoing focus on sex discrimination in reviewing, interviewing, and hiring represents costly, misplaced effort: Society is engaged in the present in solving problems of the past, ra

ther than in addressing meaningful limitations deterring women’s participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers today

Their article cites lots and lots of data. So what could be wrong with it? Actually, a number of things:

1. Though they target math-intensive fields, most of their facts concern the life sciences, which are hardly the most theoretical and math-intensive and where women have made particularly significant strides. The two exceptions are data sets from extremely large, multidisciplinary groups, where individual differences in fields can wash out.  (Similar points are made by Female Science Professor.)

2. They employ a false dichotomy. If women are not flourishing in a field the possible explanations are not limited to quantifiable bias in hiring, etc., or choices women make. As posts on what it is like to be a woman in philosophy show, there are many ways in which sexism cancreate burdens for women.

3. An underlying assumption they make: They assume that if a field has X percent of women applicants, then if women get X percent of grants, we know bias is not operating. But is that right? Perhaps the women who survive training in a field where they have few mentors and surmount barriers most men may have little knowledge of, might actually be better. At least we cannot assume they aren’t.

One might object to the last claim that it would make showing that there is no bias quite hard.  Fortunately, that is not right.  We might have such evidence at some point if we find there are no longer any of the other signs of bias.  These include the anecdotal evidence from very reliable sources, and studies and testing, such as the IAT (https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/). For anecdotes, check out the links in #1 and #2 above.

Added: A very good source for some of the systematic studies of bias in here at NSF. Here is a pamphlet discussing some actions faculty can take to create a more equitable work place.