Great News for Female Academics!

For decades female academics have been told that the deck is stacked against them by discrimination in hiring, funding, journal acceptances, recommendation letters and more. It’s dispiriting to be told that your career is not under your control and that, no matter what you do, you face an unfair, uphill battle. Why would any woman want to be a scientist when they are told things like this:

A vast literature….shows time after time, women in science are deemed to be inferior to men and are evaluated as less capable when performing similar or even identical work. This systemic devaluation of women women results in an array of real consequences: shorter, less praise-worth letters of recommendation, fewer research grants, awards and invitations to speak at conferences; and lower citation rates for their research…

The good news is that this depressing and dispiriting story isn’t true! In an extensive survey, meta-analysis, and new research, Ceci, Kahn and Williams show that the situation for women in academia is in many domains good to great. For example, in hiring for tenure the evidence is strong that women are advantaged. Moreover, women are advantaged especially in fields where they have relatively low representation (GEMP: geosciences, engineering, economics, mathematics/computer science, and physical science).

Among political scientists, Schröder et al. (2021) found that female political scientists had a 20% greater likelihood of obtaining a tenured position than comparably accomplished males in the same cohort after controlling for personal characteristics and accomplishments (publications, grants, children, etc.). Lutter and Schröder (2016) found that women needed 23% to 44% fewer publications than men to obtain a tenured job in German sociology departments.

…In summary, all of the seven administrative reports reveal substantial evidence that women applicants were at least as successful as and usually more successful than male applicants were—particularly in GEMP fields.

…In a natural experiment, French economists used national exam data for 11 fields, focusing on PhD holders who form the core of French academic hiring (Breda & Hillion, 2016). They compared blinded and nonblinded exam scores for the same men and women and discovered that women received higher scores when their gender was known than when it was not when a field was male dominant (math, physics, philosophy), indicating a positive bias, and that this difference strongly increased with a field’s male dominance. Specifically, women’s rank in male-dominated fields increased by up to 40% of a standard deviation. In contrast, male candidates in fields dominated by women (literature, foreign languages) were given a small boost over expectations based on blind ratings, but this difference was small and rarely significant.6

The situation is also very good in grant funding and journal acceptance rates which are either not biased or biased towards women. Similarly, “no persuasive evidence exists for the claim of antifemale bias in academic letters of recommendation.”

There is evidence of bias in student evaluations. Both female and male students rate male professors higher, even in situations where names are known but actual gender is blinded. Male students are more likely to write nasty comments. Most research universities, in my experience, don’t put much weight on student teaching evaluations, beyond do you pass a fairly low bar, but it can be disconcerting to get nasty comments.

There is also mild evidence of differences in salary, although less so when productivity is taken into account.

Some critics will say, but the real discrimination happens before a women applies for a tenure track job! Maybe so but that is a shifting of goal posts and we should take pride in the fact that in the United States today (and most developed countries) there is very little bias against women in high stakes, important decisions in tenure track hiring, journal acceptances, grant funding and so forth. This is a major accomplishment.

It should be noted that the Ceci, Kahn and Williams paper is an adversarial collaboration; Ceci and Williams have published previous work showing that women are, generally speaking, not discriminated against in academia while:

Kahn has a long history of revealing gender inequities in her field of economics, and her work runs counter to Ceci and Williams’s claims of gender fairness. Kahn was an early member of the American Economics Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession (CSWEP). Articles of hers in the American Economics Review (Kahn, 1993) and in the Journal of Economic Perspectives (Kahn, 1995) were the first publications on the status of women in the economics profession. She was the first to identify gender inequities as a concern in economics, something she has revisited every decade since then in her publications. In 2019, she co-organized a conference on women in economics, and her most recent analysis in 2021 found gender inequities persisting in tenure and promotion in economics (Ginther & Kahn, 2021). In short, gender bias in academia has been a long-standing passion of Kahn’s. Her findings diverge from Ceci and Williams’s, who have published a number of studies that have not found gender bias in the academy, such as their analyses of grants and tenure-track hiring in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNASCeci & Williams, 2011Williams & Ceci, 2015).

The Ceci, Kahn, and Williams paper covers much more material than I can cover here and is nuanced so read the whole thing but do also shout the good news from the rooftops!


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