Friday, July 30, 2010

"The Literature vs. Tierney

Posted on behalf of the author, Elizabeth D. Freeland.

I recently read the article "Legislation Won't Close Gender Gap in Sciences" 6/7/10 by John Tierney. Tierney argues that requiring scientists to attend workshops to enhance gender equity is a waste of money because gender bias does not exist. I find flaws with how he draws his conclusion, take issue with his lampooning of the NSF ADVANCE program, and believe that actively addressing bias can help reduce it. That said, Tierney’s first claim is that people who believe gender bias exists only dredge up a study of the Swedish Medical Research. That’s a bit unfair, although it is true that, as physical scientists, we often don’t do as good a job as we should in using the research in economics, psychology, and sociology to support our arguments. To help remedy this, and simultaneously take on Tierney, I briefly review the studies he brings up and throw in a few I’ve heard about elsewhere. Admittedly, towards the end I have fewer sources. Perhaps, though, others can respond and let us all know of recent studies which could fill the gaps.

There have been many studies on bias. Two that are often mentioned are the effect of screens on gender balance in hiring of musicians [1]; and the effect of gender-identifying names on resumes [2]. There is also V. Valian’s book "Why so Slow?," which discusses the cognitive origins of gender bias [3]. Finally, a more recent study focusses on implicit bias and demonstrates evidence for it [4]. One concludes from such studies that learned policies and procedures can diminish bias. For more articles, see Refs. [5].

(click on "Read More" to see full post)

Tierney cites a number of studies that find there is no gender bias in grants and opportunities at universities, and then suggests that to consider it is a waste of time and money. It is clear though that he did not take the time to fully understand these studies.

The Sandström and Hällsten study [6], a follow-up to the earlier Swedish grant study [7], does show that women were rated higher than men in the year 2004. This does not negate the previous study, as Tierney implies, since "a shift in policy" was implemented after that first study. In fact, the original researchers see the change as a result of "[I]ncreased knowledge on how prejudice influences peer decisions" [6]. The goal of the authors of Ref. [6] is to investigate the role of nepotism (affiliation with a reviewer), which they find to have as significant effect on an applicant's success as gender. (Note also, that these studies focused on medical research grants, not physical sciences.)

The RAND study [8] states that overall there is no bias in funding at NSF and USDA, but they carefully and clearly discuss a bias in the NIH data and significant holes in their understanding of gender differences in funding due to the limitations of their data. Tierney misrepresents the findings of this study. I was not able to obtain the study by the "Australians." For Marsh et al., I found a recent review paper stating that indeed they found no gender bias in grant awards by the Australian Research Council [9]. Finally, a summary of the NAS study [10] was given by Fran Bagenal in the January 2010 issue of AAS’s STATUS. My summary of her summary is that once women apply to faculty positions, they are as likely as men to get the job, but women don’t apply at the same rate as men. Why is still an open question.

Tierney then latches on to a recent book [11] which, he says, finds "differences in aptitude are not the primary cause of the gender gap in academic science" and "point(s) to different personal preferences and choices of men and women, including the much-analyzed difference in the reaction to parenthood."

The role of personal choice is, indeed, one of the current areas of research in the study of occupational segregation [11, 12, 13]. Again, though, Tierney has put a spin on the researchers' findings.  I quote from their preface [11, pg xii] "...the major causes [...] include sex differences in occupational preferences and work-family conflicts that limit women’s entry into these professions far more often than they do men’s [...]. Women are also far more likely to be equally talented in both math and verbal domains simultaneously, giving them more options to enter non-math fields than are available to men. And women pay a child penalty that is greater than men’s: they are less likely to be promoted in some physical sciences if they have a young child than are comparable men."

Sounds to me that "workshops to enhance gender equity" would be useful.

Continuing, Tierney says the study’s authors "urge universities to make it easier for a young scientist to start a family and still compete for tenure, but they don’t expect such reforms to eliminate the gender gap in academic science." *He* then writes "[...] the difficulty of balancing family and career is hardly unique to science, and academia already offers parents more flexible working arrangements than do other industries with smaller gender gaps." I agree that a tenure-track position does offer a substantial amount of flexibility, and that the job pressures and demands are probably no worse than in other high-powered careers. Grad students and especially post-docs, though, do NOT have such flexibility, and the timing of such positions, as we know, coincides with the (physiologically) optimal time for women to bear children. Anyone know of clear studies that look at this effect?

Tierney then goes on to discuss one person's (Christina Hoff Sommers) criticism of the NSF's ADVANCE program. He (she) implies that it sustains the myth of gender bias. Even if you could convince me that today, July 2010, there was NO gender bias in science, I would hardly argue that NSF ADVANCE was a waste. I'd be far more likely to attribute such a disappearance of bias to the existence of the NSF programs like ADVANCE. Tierney (via Christina Hoff Sommers) criticizes "Gender Bias Bingo" and what I am guessing is the University of Michigan's CRLT players, a theater group. I've seen both and they both motivate people to think about and discuss gender and other biases. The CRLT player skit I saw was interactive, very enlightening, and was hardly "arrogant men mistreat(ing) female colleagues who are clearly their intellectual superiors" - it was an educational experience about the politics of humans and helped one learn how to address these realities. Again, does anyone know of studies assessing the efficacy of these programs? The ADVANCE centers themselves must have some record, right?

Tierney also writes "researchers and advocates have developed theories that women are being held back from pursuing careers in engineering and physics by 'stereotype threat,' by 'implicit bias,' and by a shortage of female role models and mentors. Yet none of these theorized barriers prevented girls and women from dominating the fields that most interested them." This comment seems to miss the point. First, these ideas are backed up by research and are discussed by sociologists studying other areas of bias (not just gender). Second, none of these "theories" would play a role in a field where women dominate! He does claim that life science and social sciences were once male bastions, and this seems to be what he uses to draw the conclusion that stereotype threat etc., are not relevant. I would question his claim though. *Academic* positions in life and social sciences were once solely a male domain (by default if you refuse to hire women), but there were and are many places where women could legitimately take up a career in these fields (nursing, education, home economics). So, I think a closer look is due Tierney's criticism and comments here.

All in all, I feel Tierney's second article was written by a person who has grumpily sat on the sidelines of the bias debate (gender or otherwise), has never attended an NSF ADVANCE meeting, never shared hushed conversations with female post-docs about when to start a family, and never spent day after day after day in groups overwhelmingly dominated by the other gender. He does not seem to have a feel for this topic. And in any case, as a journalist, he has not done the job he should have in understanding his sources.


[1] Goldin, Claudia and Rouse, Cecilia; "Orchestrating Impartiality: The Effect of 'Blind' Auditions on Female Musicians" (September 1999), published in American Economic Review (September 2000).

[2] Steinpreis, Rhea E., Anders, Katie A., and Ritzke, Dawn; "The Impact of Gender on the Review of the Curricula Vitae of Job Applicants and Tenure Candidates: A National Empirical Study," Sex Roles, Vol. 41, Nos. 7/8, 1999.

[3] Valian, Virginia; "Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women," MIT Press, Cambridge MA, (1999).

[4] Nosek, B. A., et al. (2009). "National differences in gender-science stereotypes predict national sex differences in science and math achievement." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, 10593-10597. Information can be found at .

[5] Harvard’s Project Implicit has a tremendous amount of information on implicit bias. For a listing of their papers, see .

The papers of Claudia Goldin and her colleagues also address some of the issues of interest to scientists wondering about the gender gap in career paths. See

[6] Sandström, Ulf; Hällsten, Martin; "Persistent nepotism in peer-review," Scientometrics, Vol. 74, No. 2 (2008) 175–189.

[7] Wennerås, C., Wold, A. (1997), "Nepotism and sexism in peer-review," Nature, 387 (6631): 341–343. The authors of Ref.[z] seem to have high regard for this paper calling it "landmark" and referring to its "methodological excellence." A follow-up study is Wold, A., Chrapkowska, C. (2004), Förbjuden frukt på kunskapens träd. Atlantis. [in Swedish]

[8] The study, and the results I mention, can be found on the first page of

[9] Marsh, H., Jayasinghe, U., Bond, N., "Improving the Peer-Review Process for grant Applications"; American Psychologist, Vol. 63, No. 3, 160-168 (2008). Let’s remember though that lack of bias in one country can not be equated with lack of bias in another country, and the point here is the U.S.

[10] National Research Council of the National Academies, "Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Faculty" (2010)

[11] Ceci, S. and Williams, W.; "The Mathematics of Sex," Oxford University Press (2010).

[12] Ceci, S., and Williams, W.,  Editors; "Why Aren’t More Women in Science?," American Psychological Association (2007).

[13] Claudia Goldin,  personal communication. This has also been discussed within the computer science community; e.g. see the Fermilab Colloquium by Maria Klawe 2/26/06