Claire Lehmann

Activists should calm down. Science is not so sexist


 “Academic Science isn’t Sexist” declared Wendy Williams’ and Stephen Ceci’s op-ed in The New York Times last October. Their piece summarised a 67 page review published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest called “Women in Academic Science: A Changing Landscape”[1]. Working alongside two economists, they compiled data from several hundred analyses of women’s participation in sciences – from the life sciences such as psychology – to the more math-intensive disciplines such as engineering and physics.

The biggest barrier for women, they found, was that they saw academic jobs as being in conflict with family formation. Despite this, they found that the picture painted was one of “gender fairness, rather than gender bias”. Women across the sciences were more likely to receive hiring offers than men, their grants and articles were accepted at the same rate, they were cited at the same rate, and they were tenured and promoted at the same rate[2].

Just two weeks after Williams’ and Ceci’s op-ed was published, the online fracas ‘shirtstorm’ happened. The lead scientist of the Rosetta Mission, Dr. Matt Taylor, was ridiculed online for wearing a celebratory shirt with pictures of scantily clad cartoon women. After tens of thousands of tweets were generated by the subject, Dr. Taylor broke down in tears on a television interview and apologised. After his tearful appearance many high profile figures came to his defence including Richard Dawkins and the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. Even the prominent UK feminist Julie Bindel wrote a concerned op-ed in The Guardian warning that “feminism is in danger of becoming toxic”.

Yet the tweets which sparked the online vilification of Dr. Taylor did not originate from professional agitators. They originated from a segment of the online science community. And this community is now publicly smearing the work of Williams and Ceci. Science blogger Emily Willingham reacted to their paper with incredulity, “how could anyone with any actual experience in academic science say something like that with a straight face?” PZ Myers took to his blog to liken male academics to ISIS, and female academics to refugees fleeing Iraq. Several commentators described their work as “victim-blaming,” trying to impart moral value to their empirical data. And Rebecca Schuman, education editor of Slate, declared that “work like [Williams’ and Ceci’s] will do little more than help to ensure that institutional bias in the academy endures for years to come.” [emphasis mine].


What exactly is going on here? To the general public, Williams and Ceci’s data simply confirms the obvious. Across the professions, such as law and medicine, women are not required to produce a tenure dossier to keep their jobs. Young women upon graduation are able to find permanent employment, and if or when they decide to have families, they tend to take maternity leave and arrange part-time hours on return. It’s not rocket science. Negotiating a biological clock at the same time as a tenure clock is simply not an appealing option for many intelligent women.

Yet while many female grad students opt-out of the academic career track early on (especially within the life sciences) evidence suggests that once women are in the pipeline, they are likely to persist[3]. And in a paper from Williams and Ceci published just this month, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), it was found that within controlled experiments tenured academics had a shocking 2:1 bias for preferring hypothetical female job applicants[4].

Williams and Ceci are far from the first scholars to be wary of narratives of oppression when it comes to women in science. Fifteen years ago Science published a paper in which Linda Gottfredson and Judith Kleinfeld questioned the ethics of trying to achieve parity in the sciences through social engineering[5]. And in 2002 The Blank Slate was published. Steven Pinker wrote:

Certainly there are institutional barriers to the advancement of women. People are mammals, and we should think through the ethical implications of the fact that it is women who bear, nurse, and disproportionately raise children. One ought not to assume that the default human being is a man and that children are an indulgence or an accident that strikes a deviant subset. Sex differences can therefore be used to justify, rather than endanger, women-friendly policies such as parental leave, subsidized childcare, flexible hours, and stoppages of the tenure clock or the elimination of tenure altogether.[6] (p358).

Some eleven years after the publication of Pinker’s seminal text, the scholars Mary Ann Mason, Nicholas Wolfinger and Marc Goulden asked if family formation mattered in the Ivory Tower. Their book was called Do Babies Matter? And they answered their question with a resounding “yes”[7]. Their research found that, in general, women who were successful in the academy delayed having children and had fewer children than they had hoped for[8]. And a significant proportion of women who had hoped to form families at some point forewent parenthood altogether[9]. Among graduate students that Mary Ann Mason surveyed, more than half of men and more than two thirds of women viewed academic careers as being in conflict with family life[10]. And when female graduates were asked why they didn’t continue on with academic careers after PhD completion, the most commonly reported reasons were having “other life interests” and “wanting to focus on children” [11].

Williams’ and Ceci’s analysis posits that early socialization – combined with the biological and emotional realities of motherhood – probably play a larger role in constraining women’s career trajectories than sexism. Yet their hypotheses are just that – hypotheses. It is plausible that social engineering will not produce anymore female physicists and computer scientists than what we already have. Why? Evidence regarding occupational preferences has found very large sex differences. While women in the aggregate tend to prefer social and creative work, men tend to prefer theoretical or mechanical work[12]. (This does not mean that women or men are any less capable in these areas, but simply that they are less interested in them). These sex differences become more robust the more people are surveyed. In a meta-analysis of over half a million people, the effect size of what is described as the “People–Things” dimension (where women prefer working with people and men with things) was found to be very large (d = 0.93)[13]. Even within professional fields the “People–Things” gender split can be found. In medicine, more women go into general practice and pediatrics and listen more empathically to patients[14] while men are more predominant in surgery. These sex differences don’t vanish when policies for gender equity are implemented, either. In fact, the evolutionary psychologist David Schmitt has marshaled cross cultural data across 21 sources which finds that sex differences on a range of variables are larger in nations with greater social and political gender equality[15]. For example there are more women graduating from computer science in Iran than in Norway or Sweden[16]. This is despite the greater gender egalitarian norms and policies of Nordic countries.

Fifteen years ago Gottfredson said that “if you insist on using gender parity as your measure of social justice, it means you will have to keep many men and women out of the work they like best and push them into work they don’t like”[17]. And Kleinfeld, declared:

We should not be sending [gifted] women the messages that they are less worthy human beings, less valuable to our civilization, lazy or low in status, if they choose to be teachers rather than mathematicians, journalists rather than physicists, lawyers rather than engineers[18].

Fifteen years later, perhaps it’s time we listened.

[1] Ceci, S. J., Ginther, D. K., Kahn, S., & Williams, W. M. (2014). Women in Academic Science A Changing Landscape. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 15(3), 75-141.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Miller, D. I., & Wai, J. (2015). The Bachelor’s to PhD STEM Pipeline No Longer Leaks More Women Than Men: A 30-Year Analysis. Name: Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 37.

[4] Williams, W. M., & Ceci, S. J. (2015). National hiring experiments reveal 2: 1 faculty preference for women on STEM tenure track. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201418878.

[5] Holden, C. (2000). Parity as a goal sparks bitter battle. Science, 289(5478), 380-380.

[6] Pinker, S. (2003). The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. Penguin.

[7] Mason, M. A., Wolfinger, N., & Goulden, M. (2013). Do Babies Matter?

[8] Ibid.

[9] Mason, M. A., Wolfinger, N., & Goulden, M. (2013). Do Babies Matter?

[10] Mason, M. A., Goulden, M., & Frasch, K. (2009). Why graduate students reject the fast track. Academe, 95(1), 11-16.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Su, R., Rounds, J., & Armstrong, P. I. (2009). Men and things, women and people: a meta-analysis of sex differences in interests. Psychological bulletin, 135(6), 859.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Hojat, M., Gonnella, J. S., Nasca, T. J., Mangione, S., Vergare, M., & Magee, M. (2014). Physician empathy: definition, components, measurement, and relationship to gender and specialty.

[15] Schmitt, D. P. (2015). The Evolution of Culturally-Variable Sex Differences: Men and Women Are Not Always Different, but When They Are… It Appears Not to Result from Patriarchy or Sex Role Socialization. In The Evolution of Sexuality (pp. 221-256). Springer International Publishing.

[16] Galpin, V. (2002). Women in computing around the world. ACM SIGCSE Bulletin, 34(2), 94-100.

[17] Holden, C. (2000). Parity as a goal sparks bitter battle. Science, 289(5478), 380-380.

[18] Ibid.

14 thoughts on “Activists should calm down. Science is not so sexist

  1. Feminism is wayyyyyyy beyond “in danger of becoming toxic”. Feminism is more toxic than fucking Mexican well water laced with arsenic.

  2. Pushing for mindless by-the-numbers 50-50 equality in every field of human endeavor is pretty simplistic and self-defeating anyway. My opinion FWIW is that everyone should be treated as an individual and given maximum opportunity to develop their full potential. Everyone should be exposed to STEM, arts, etc. and encouraged to follow up on whatever they find interesting, and nobody should be steered into or away from a particular career just because of their gender. If you still see gender imbalances in some fields, so be it. I’ve seen universities trying in a very heavy-handed way to push more women into computer science careers, and many of them ended up dropping out so it was a wasted investment while also denying opportunities to male students who were very keen on CS.

  3. Those proper citations though 😛 You’re making a really important in terms of feminism going too far and the fact that some differences between the genders should just be accepted as natural. Also I would like to add that at small liberal arts colleges like mine, women tend to outnumber men in every field. Including science and mathematics.

  4. Have you read this post that Scott Alexander wrote about the Williams & Ceci study (footnote 4)? There’s some pretty good discussion in the comments section about the methodology in that study and how much weight to put in the results versus other similar studies with different designs.

  5. “PZ Myers took to his blog to liken male academics to ISIS, and female academics to refugees fleeing Iraq.”


    Another brilliant post. I often see complains that “There aren’t enough women in X”, and that’s evidence of sexism. As if women don’t have a choice. What if women just choose NOT to participate in that field? Besides, I care less whether most scientists are male or female. I only care that scientists are judged solely on their achievements. Science, art, music, cinema – it’s a meritocracy. Gender is irrelevant. Skill is.

  6. Evidence regarding occupational preferences has found very large sex differences. While women in the aggregate tend to prefer social and creative work, men tend to prefer theoretical or mechanical work[12]. (This does not mean that women or men are any less capable in these areas, but simply that they are less interested in them).


    In addition to the aforementioned post by Scott Alexander, see also this post:

    Perceptions Of Required Ability Act As A Proxy For Actual Required Ability In Explaining The Gender Gap | Slate Star Codex

    Men have a clear advantage in mathematical ability relative to women, and interestingly the distribution of the sexes across various academic disciplines is exactly what you’d predict from this is disparity alone.

  7. “PZ Myers took to his blog to liken male academics to ISIS, and female academics to refugees fleeing Iraq.”

    PZ Myers is still desperately trying to get back in the spotlight and stay relevant after the colossal failure of Atheism+

  8. Pingback: ¿Es machista la ciencia? |

  9. I still don’t think a shirt that sexually objectifies women has any reasonable defense. How about a shirt with racist caricatures of black people with big lips eating water melon? Is it all just fun and games in the spirit of protesting political correctness? Because I think it’s just rude behavior in an environment that’s supposed to be more professional.

  10. Be fair. Men’s rights activists, pickup artists, and men-going-their-own-way on the opposite side are just as toxic. Checkout their blogs too.

    One side will constantly talk about “rape culture”. The other side will constantly talk about “false rape accusations”. They’re both obsessed, paranoid people with victim mentalities.

    The gender war is a nuclear, self-sustaining chain reaction, and I think it’s going to destroy the world.

  11. I’m not surprised scientific fields don’t discriminate against women, considering they are occupied by intelligent and educated people (who are less likely to be driven by petty politics).

    But I wonder whether the female employees of Walmart are treated as well as the men.

    Also, a few female scientists doesn’t make up for the Internet porn industry. You know, in sex ed (when I was in middle school like 5th grade) they never taught us that you’re supposed to ejaculate on a girl’s face. Do female scientists like it when men ejaculate on their faces? Do they find it romantic after a nice relaxing candle-lit dinner?

  12. Interesting article. You might also be interested in this article I wrote on this topic for PBS Newshour. Its major point is that women have reached parity in most STEM fields, with computer science and engineering being the exceptions. I also point out that when women’s interests differ from men’s (e.g., an interest in using science to study living things rather than objects), it is assumed that there is something wrong with women and we must be pressured into aligning our interests more with those of men.

  13. This is an excellent essay, and it hits home particularly strongly for me. Because academia was a second career for me, my tenure clock and biological clock clashed more strongly than most–and this was long before there were accommodations for giving birth to or adopting children (such as stopping one’s tenure clock or reducing one’s teaching load). As a result, I have spent most of my career outside the tenure stream.

    Nonetheless, I have accomplished an enormous amount with a fraction of the resources available to tenure stream faculty. And I would have accomplished even more had there not been such strong bias against hiring people back into the tenure stream once they’ve taken a “lateral move” to a nontenured-stream position to care for young children.

    I hope things change so that women entering graduate school today face a more equitable academic workplace–one that fully understands that the tenure clock was created at a time when men were bread winners who were not expected to be much involved in the care and raising of children. That was the domain of their stay-at-home wives.

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