Recipe for a flawed conversation on sexism in STEM

I’m a little late (as usual) and the debate has been raging for a few days now over a new paper in PNAS showing a strong hiring bias at faculty level IN FAVOR of women. Even if they have – wait for it- kids. Can you believe it?

Actually, I couldn’t (and I wasn’t the only one). Given the amount of literature showing opposite bias (i.e. favoring males) in science and other fields, including the now-famous Moss-Racussin paper, I found the result quite puzzling. These were my first raw thoughts, by order of appearance :

– In a context where such studies using fake applications are becoming commonplace, the participants were likely aware to participate in such a study : they might have consciously favored women in order to NOT  appear biased.

– Even if the methodology was flawless (which it isn’t), and it was actually believable that he bias favors women, this doesn’t solve the problem of sexism in STEM. The problem arises from a constellation of factors (randomly : gendered education, lack of mentoring, lack of role models, micro-aggressions, impostor syndrome, grant attribution bias, salary bias, lab space bias, award bias, sexual harassment, boy’s club effect, etc)(but but let’s not digress too much) among which hiring bias is MINOR.

-This paper, especially given the way it was covered in the mainstream media, will be used to downplay or negate the influence of sexism in science and its role in the leaky pipeline (ie the progressive diminution of the proportion of women along the academic track). This was actually the concern of the friend who brought the paper to my attention.

It turns out a lot of people have had similar first thoughts… After reading a bit a lot more about this, I think besides the mere -questionable- results and the methodological issues, what got a lot of people angry at this study was something that makes a lot of people angry in science : over-interpretation. By the scientists, chorus, the media. (Interestingly it seems that the authors of the study are familiar of simplistic over-intepretation since they recently authored an op-ed column in the New York Times very humbly titled “Academic Science Isn’t Sexist”. Yeah, right…) The interpretation being here that the times are extremely favorable to the careers of women in science.  And this would be awesome!! But we know it isn’t and how dangerous it is to claim it is when it isn’t. That’s how we end up in the uncomfortable position of having to prove again and again that sexism IS STILL a thing in science (and elsewhere), before we can even focus on solutions.

On this last point, Dr. Acclimatrix wrote a very touching/infuriating piece on Tenure She Wrote. You should really read the whole thing but this part specifically  resonated with me:

I am not disappointed by articles claiming sexism is dead because victimization gives me a leg up and I worry that I’m losing my edge. I get upset because those articles are biased and flawed and their authors claim that women are unhappy with their findings because we have a vested interest in maintaining our victimhood. As though pseudo-inequality was a job that came with really cushy benefits and perks and a company car. As though there were no opportunity costs, or emotional costs, or personal costs to a real, tangible thing.

So, I have a vested interest.

I have a vested interest in convincing you that sexism and misogyny are real, because they are.

For a thorough criticism of the methods of the Ceci & Williams paper, including heated debates in the comments, you can check Dr Zuleyka Zevallos’ blog, The Other Sociologist.

If you have a few hours before you or an urgent need to procrastinate, Karen James made a Storify that compiles all that’s been written about this on blogs and medias plus the twitter discussions (#StillAProblem #GasLightingDuo). Have fun, people!

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