Ceci, Williams find 'changing landscape' for women in science

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Melissa Osgood

A newly published examination of reasons for female academics’ ongoing underrepresentation in math-intensive fields analyzes a very long list of purported culprits – before coming to a surprising conclusion.

Cornell’s Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams, both of the Department of Human Development, are joined by economists Donna K. Ginther of the University of Kansas and Shulamit Kahn of Boston University for a whole-issue report, “Women in Academic Science: A Changing Landscape,” in the October 2014 journal, Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

Ceci and colleagues address numerous factors alleged to be responsible for the shortage of women in math-intensive fields of academic science. The 67-page article first reviews older data, then undertakes new analyses of factors alleged to be responsible for the dearth of women in these fields.

Alleged factors include biased hiring, chilly climate, productivity, hours worked, math aptitude scores, average impact ratings, job satisfaction, and promotion and tenure rates. Their conclusion may surprise some readers whose opinions are based on media headlines.

They find that, with some notable exceptions, the playing field is now level for women and men in terms of hiring into tenure-track appointments, tenure, impact, promotion, job satisfaction and remuneration.

The single biggest change, the authors believe, has been time itself: In contrast to women’s status several decades ago, today women and men fare comparably in the academic science pipeline – again, with some exceptions that the authors describe.

Observed sex differences have their roots long before application to tenure-track jobs, starting in adolescence and amplified in high school (where fewer women take advanced placement courses in calculus and physics) and in college.

The authors summarize their findings by urging readers to go beyond the rallying cries of the past and focus on current challenges facing women: “We conclude by suggesting that although in the past, gender discrimination was an important cause of women’s underrepresentation in scientific academic careers, this claim has continued to be invoked after it has ceased being a valid cause of women’s underrepresentation in math-intensive fields.”

Consequently, the authors continue, “current barriers to women’s full participation in mathematically-intensive academic science fields are rooted in pre-college factors and the subsequent likelihood of majoring in these fields.”

They recommend that “future research should focus on these barriers rather than misdirecting attention toward historical barriers that no longer account for women’s underrepresentation in academic science.”


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