Saturday, November 1, 2014

Academic science is sexist: We do have a problem here

The New York Times has featured an op-ed in the Sunday Review with the provocative title, "Academic science isn't sexist." For the limited percentage of US readers who give a shit, that title probably set all sorts of antennae aflutter. After all, how could anyone with any actual experience in academic science say something like that with a straight face?

I can't speak to the symmetry of the faces of those who penned the op-ed, but I can certainly highlight their inability to align their own words with their own data, or even their own words with their other own words. Their editorial and their paper are riddled with self-contradictory observations and internal inconsistencies. They seem to be arguing that the problems with gender imbalance in science aren't the fault of sexism in the academy but instead trace to kindergarten and grade school and to the 'choices' that women (actually, girls) make. I'm all good with recognizing the problems with early inculcation in gender stereotypes, but that doesn't exculpate the academy, and neither do these authors' data. It's also unclear to me why they believe the 'academy' needs a rousing defense against these valid accusations of sexism--and worse--as though it were a much-beleaguered long-suffering warrior fending off an undeserved piling on. 

In their op-ed and their paper that they tout therein, Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci offer some variation on their theme. I begin with a showstopper:
As children, girls tend to show more interest in living things (such as people and animals), while boys tend to prefer playing with machines and building things. 
First ... link, please? From what I understand, girls are very flexible in their choice of play and toys, and the gendered nature of play is more complex than "Girls, living things; boys, wheels." And second ... have these folks ever heard of David Attenborough and Ada Lovelace? Finally, are they aware of which sex is (still) responsible for the vast majority of scientific research published about living things? This statement evokes girls going gaga over furry bunnies while the boys operate mini-ditch diggers in the background. If anyone wants to look for the sexism in the academy, this op-ed looks like a great starting point.

They go on to state:
Our analysis reveals that the experiences of young and midcareer women in math-intensive fields are, for the most part, similar to those of their male counterparts: They are more likely to receive hiring offers, are paid roughly the same (in 14 of 16 comparisons across the eight fields), are generally tenured and promoted at the same rate (except in economics), remain in their fields at roughly the same rate, have their grants funded and articles accepted as often and are about as satisfied with their jobs. Articles published by women are cited as often as those by men. In sum, with a few exceptions, the world of academic science in math-based fields today reflects gender fairness, rather than gender bias.
Emphasis mine. Eliding words like "roughly" and "generally" and "for the most part" set my antennae atingle. So I looked for some examples of supporting data for these statements. Look at Table 3, which contains the data to support the statement that articles published by women are cited as often as those by men (obviously, this can't be a raw numbers comparison). Take a look at Figure 14 in their paper. The analysis suggesting that women are cited as often as men is weird and selective, but this graph is pretty clear: Men are still published significantly more than women. There are so many significant difference asterisks on those graphs, they look like a tiny galaxy. I know the H index is a hot new thing, but which one matters more still on your CV: Your citation count or your publication list?

Check out Figure 15. Go ahead. Just for fun. And scroll on down to Figure 16. Look at the salary values on Table 4. Look at Figure 18. See the job satisfaction results in Figure 19. Take a gander at Figure 5. Figure 4. I don't understand how they wrote the paper or the op-ed they did while looking at the same results I see in their paper. Nothing about these data says, "OK, folks. Our work in the academy is done. Let's focus on those kindergartners."

And evidently, the implications weren't manifest to them, either. Even as these authors say there's no sexism in the science academy, they write:
... we actually found a greater exodus of women from non-math-intensive fields in which they are already well represented as professors (like psychology and biology, where 45 to 65 percent of new professors are women) than from fields in which they are underrepresented (like engineering, computer science and physics, where only 25 to 30 percent of new professors are women). Our analyses show that women can and do prosper in math-based fields of science, if they choose to enter these fields in the first place.
Emphasis mine. See, the problem here is that women don't choose to enter these fields in the first place. But that's not because academia's not unwelcoming to them or anything.

We don't have a problem here, do we?
As we found, when the evidence of mistreatment goes beyond the anecdotal, it is limited to a small number of comparisons of men and women involving a single academic rank in a given field on a specific outcome.
We don't have a problem here, do we? Oh, except this. And this. And this. And this
The transition from graduate programs to assistant professorships shows more pipeline leakage in the fields in which women are already very prevalent (psychology, life science, social science) than in the math-intensive fields in which they are underrepresented but in which the number of females holding assistant professorships is at least commensurate with (if not greater than) that of males. That is, invitations to interview for tenure-track positions in math-intensive fields—as well as actual employment offers—reveal that female PhD applicants fare at least as well as their male counterparts in math-intensive fields.
It's as though that poor, evidently badly constructed pipeline were so flooded with women (at 50% representation, y'all) that those gals simply overflowed the limits and slipped right outta there. What about the other 50% of the people in that pipeline, the ones who aren't women? Do they slip right out, too? 

If we have a plumbing problem here, it starts in kindergarten, it seems. Sure. These gendered assumptions and obstacles start early. But just as these authors blamed women for not pursuing math-intensive science degrees, they throw the blame for the earlier loss from the pipeline on the girls themselves and their choices:
As adolescents, girls express less interest in careers like engineering and computer science. Despite earning higher grades throughout schooling in all subjects — including math and science — girls are less likely to take math-intensive advanced-placement courses like calculus and physics.
That poor warrior academia needs defending, see.

But soft! It's not the girls' fault. Indeed, in their paper, the authors write:
The results of our myriad analyses reveal that early sex differences in spatial and mathematical reasoning need not stem from biological bases, that the gap between average female and male math ability is narrowing (suggesting strong environmental influences), and that sex differences in math ability at the right tail show variation over time and across nationalities, ethnicities, and other factors, indicating that the ratio of males to females at the right tail can and does change. We find that gender differences in attitudes toward and expectations about math careers and ability (controlling for actual ability) are evident by kindergarten and increase thereafter...
So, as it turns out, it's not the girls who are expressing less interest. Society is expressing less interest in the girls' potential interest... very early on.

Yet, in their op-ed, the authors write that the biggest culprits in the absence of women from science tracks in academia are
rooted in women’s earlier educational choices, and in women’s occupational and lifestyle preferences.
It's our choices, you see. Our preferences. Not anything to do with institutional sexism. Except for all of those differentials in their own paper showing that academia overwhelming favors being male. 

But we don't have a problem here, do we?

In spite of the authors' assertion that the problems arise outside of and before the academy and that the academydoesnothaveaproblemnothingtoseehere, they then say:
Women are also less likely to declare college majors in math-intensive science fields... 
....and also show data in which women drop out of the academic track after the bachelor's degree in greater numbers than men. 

So sure, there's a root to this problem that starts early on. But women aren't being hindered only from kindergarten and only outside of the ivory tower. It's silly to argue that society inflicts these biases on girls from an early age but that somehow, those biases stop at the doors of the august, gender-blind academy. They don't, and as many women can and have and will continue to attest, the manifestations of these biases range from daily microaggressions to unconcealed contempt and misogyny.

There's much more of this kind of thing in the op-ed and parts of the paper--an assertion alleging an inference from the data that those data don't seem to support and statements that demonstrate a clear presence of sex bias within the academy but that the authors don't seem to realize do so. And, of course, they don't address the opening issue that they lay out in the lead paragraph of their op-ed:
Our country desperately needs more talented people in these fields; recruiting more women could address this issue. But the unwelcoming image of the sexist academy isn’t helping. 
Their data show lower salaries for women in academic STEM compared to men, almost across the board (Table 4 and Figure 17; note the drop in salaries for female assistant professors from 1995 to 2010 and that they're at 85% of what male assistant professors were paid); lower job satisfaction for women (Table 19); fewer publications than men across fields (with one exception) in early career, whether we have children or not (Figure 16); fewer publications than men in most fields even when we're full professors (Figure 14); more hours worked than men (Figure 15, not significant); scarcely breaking 30% representation in the "math-heavy" STEM fields (Figure A1; damn you, kindergarten! and Figure 1--note the lumping of life sciences with psychology and social sciences--I have a problem with that, and this paper is one example of why); and a dropping off of women from the pipeline between BS and PhD (Figure 2). Where I come from, we call that institutional bias. I gotta say, though, that when it comes to psychology, women sure are representin'.

But we don't have a problem here. Right?

As for that "unwelcoming image" of the beleauguered academy that women keep pushing on the poor, gullible world in the absence of all of the data sitting right there: Geez, ladies, if you'd just stop with the "almost daily reports" about hostile workplaces and physical aggression, maybe academic science could move on already and shine up its image.

Evidently, the selling point for that image is the closing words of the NYT op-ed: "We are not your father's academy any more." Hmm. While I'll accept that the data indicate some improvements on my "father's academy," it still looks a whole lot like my mother's academy has done for decades. When do "we" just get to call the academy our own?

What we have here, it seems, is still a problem.
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Update: Thanks to a full-time job, a family, and Halloween, I missed an entire conversation about this article on Twitter yesterday. Luckily, Alberto Roca @minoritypostdoc Storified it. Pay special attention to the deep critiques from @kevinshawnhsu and @othersociology, who are particularly well acquainted with this literature.

34 comments:

  1. This "post-gender-bias" talk is damaging - as long as multiple male colleagues still think it is cute to invite female colleagues onto (decision making) boards with the words "oh, and we still needed a female member (wink wink, nudge nudge, since you are one of the boys now, we totally can make that joke, right right?!), we still have a big problem...

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  2. THANK YOU for writing this. I'm terribly worried that people (men) will see the title, not read the article, and then use this as ammunition to show that all problems are solved. You've made my life so much easier by summarizing many of the flaws, and giving me a place to point to.

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  3. Academia is full of prejudices and change is retarded by the inertia of tenure.
    It doesn't help much but it isn't just women who get a raw deal. Just try getting your work published if it tangentially disagrees with the prevailing climate science paradigm or the holy writ of red-shift cosmology.

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    1. Roger, this statement is a lovely example of the tu quoque fallacy. The existence of one type of wrong doesn't somehow make another right. Furthermore, judging academic work on the basis of its content is fundamentally different from judging it on the basis of immutable and irrelevant features of the person who produced it.

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  4. Women. This post is about women.

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    1. Isn't EVER gender issue about "women"?

      After 50 years, feminists are still bellyaching. But not about men not getting half of all custody awards. And certainly not about women not being half of all those coal-mining, bridge-building, crab-boating, etc.

      Nopers. Rough, tough, equal women must have half of all the cushiest jobs and the Patriarchy (in the form of government AA) must make it so.

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    2. To answer your question, no. But this post is.

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  5. Thanks for writing this. One sentence in the Op-Ed I found odd and contradictory was the following: "However, if they do take introductory science courses early in their college education, they are actually more likely than men to switch into majors in math-intensive fields of science — especially if their instructors are women." Meanwhile, higher up in the article, they acknowledge that a lower % of instructors are women: "...where only 25 to 30 percent of new professors are women..." and that is only talking about NEW professors. Where does that leave the CURRENT TOTAL professor ratio overall? How many of the old white males are retiring? I majored in math and graduated in 2009 from Duke. I had ONE female math professor (who was awesome), and she was a lecturer who was married to one of the male professors. Even if newer professors are being hired at a ratio of 30% women, many schools only have one new tenure-track math professor in a given year (if that), which means we will be waiting a while for things to get even close to balanced out. The article itself states that women who have women instructors will be more likely to stick with it, but claims there is no longer any bias affecting women in the academy....? While I acknowledge this is not an easy problem with a quick solution, it seems silly to suggest that everything is different now, when the slow rate of turnover means student exposures to female faculty in the here and now are only marginally increasing year over year.

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    1. Thanks for identifying and highlighting another internal inconsistency here. As I've seen pointed out on Twitter, when you don't have a role model for a career track, it's harder to define what a career track might be. All kinds of factors interacting here, all squarely in the realm of academia.

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  6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20232129

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    1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23933180

      http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/new_scientist/2014/04/girl_and_boy_toys_childhood_preferences_for_gendered_toys_are_not_innate.html

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    2. That study shows that both male and female infants prefer human faces to objects. From the abstract of the study I posted:

      "We used a preferential looking task to examine preferences for different toys, colors, and shapes in 120 infants, ages 12, 18, or 24 months. Girls looked at dolls significantly more than boys did and boys looked at cars significantly more than girls did, irrespective of color, particularly when brightness was controlled. These outcomes did not vary with age."

      All infants are fascinated by faces. That doesn't mean that male infants and female infants are equally interested in everything.

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    3. "These results challenge claims of an innate basis for sex-related preferences for toy real stimuli and suggest that sex-related preferences result from maturational and social development that continues into adulthood."

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    4. The study I cited showed differences in how long male and female infants looked at different sorts of toys. The study that you (and the Slate article) cited showed that both male and female infants looked longer at faces than they do at objects. Male and female infants can prefer different toys while both preferring faces to toys.

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    5. It's satisfying to see you refuse to publish my last reply because you're so clearly wrong.

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  7. Thanks for this great post. When I read things like the editorial, I grasp for ways to articulate my feelings, and your post does a great job helping me do that. Like Hal I love that I can point people to this. I work at a school with an all male math department, an all male physics department, but a chemistry department that has recently become majority female. That leads to all kinds of differences in dealing with those departments (I'm the "administrative head" for all three of them, though I'm in the physics department), but the thing I notice the most is the number of strong, happy, intelligent women who are chemistry majors. We have a handful of women physics majors, all of whom I think I'd describe the same way, but the chemistry majors have a thriving community that supports them and helps them flourish in ways that the physics department doesn't. I wonder, as the administrative head, how I can achieve that in the math and physics departments where it would take a long time to change the gender balance of the faculty, just because we won't get that many new hires any time soon.

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    1. Thanks for the comment. This insight is coming up again and again: When girls and women have women as career role models ... something beneficial happens. And you bring up another important point: The wheels of academia grind slowly, which means change can be quite slow.

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  8. Thanks for this great post. When I read things like the editorial, I grasp for ways to articulate my feelings, and your post does a great job helping me do that. Like Hal I love that I can point people to this. I work at a school with an all male math department, an all male physics department, but a chemistry department that has recently become majority female. That leads to all kinds of differences in dealing with those departments (I'm the "administrative head" for all three of them, though I'm in the physics department), but the thing I notice the most is the number of strong, happy, intelligent women who are chemistry majors. We have a handful of women physics majors, all of whom I think I'd describe the same way, but the chemistry majors have a thriving community that supports them and helps them flourish in ways that the physics department doesn't. I wonder, as the administrative head, how I can achieve that in the math and physics departments where it would take a long time to change the gender balance of the faculty, just because we won't get that many new hires any time soon.

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  9. You are trying to move a lot of earth, changing things that have ghosts and barnacles all over them. It must be ruffling feathers or you would not get 'Everything is fine, now' stories in the New York Times, I think.

    But the wheels of everything grind slowly, and the ghosts won't be exorcised nor the barnacles removed without a fight. I left academia for industry, and while it is far from perfect, the experiences I hear from women scientists in industry do seem to be somewhat better than what I hear from women in academia, though it is a small sample of both that I encounter. I suppose that this is one place the hyper-litigious world I live in can be of some help.

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  10. A book plug: Cordelia Fine's 2011 book, Delusions of Gender, provides much discussion of the literature around the "girls are interested in caring things, boys in doing things" meme and provides excellent support for quite a bit of what you say. See http://cordeliafine.com/delusions_of_gender.html

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  11. Did you actually read the journal article they linked to? Have you read Ceci and Williams' book "The Mathematics of Sex'? It is as fair and balanced anything I have ever read in my 30+ years of studying gender. If you imagine that Ceci and Williams (a husband and wife team of highly respected psychologists) are biased against women, then you have never read their work. Based on what you say here in this article, I have to really wonder if you even read their linked report, to say nothing of the book. You seem to think that they are sexist themselves and now you have all those who read your article convinced too. I would be the first to cry foul on sexist articles but you are not convincing to me at all. By condemning them, you are basically saying that all their research doesn't count--research that put women in a positive light and condemned the sexism that they know has occurred in academia . If this is your attitude, then your position is a scientifically luddite position to take. You would be saying then that research you don't like doesn't count. As an academic myself who has taught psychology of women for many years, I find your article less than honest.

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    1. Yes, I read the report. If you have some comment on the graphs and tables from that report that I highlighted in this post and a different interpretation of them, please share it. If all you have to hand is accusing me of dishonesty, we don't have a discussion here.

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  12. And BTW *editors* write the headlines and the authors have no say in them.

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    1. I'm pretty sure most of us in journalism already know that.

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  13. My sentence about headlines was NOT directed at you but at others who may not be aware of it.

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    1. My gratitude to you for taking the time to instruct the unaware reader of my blog knows no bounds.

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  14. I'm sure we can nitpick forever but these quotes below suggest you have somewhat over-exaggerated what you say are discrepancies :

    Here are some quotes from their New York Times article (NYT), the journal article (PSPI) and my comments (SP).
    NYT: In sum, with a few exceptions, the world of academic science in math-based fields today reflects gender fairness, rather than gender bias.
    PSPI journal article: “Within the GEEMP fields, engineering has
    shown the most remarkable growth, going from nearly
    0% female in 1973 to 30% in 2010.”

    SP: It can hardly be expected to go from % to 50% quickly because there is still a lot of stereotypes young girls are subjected to.

    NYT: So if alleged hiring and promotion biases don’t explain the underrepresentation of women in math-intensive fields, what does? According to our research, the biggest culprits are rooted in women’s earlier educational choices, and in women’s occupational and lifestyle preferences.

    SP: This is the reality in a world in which ToyRUs and Target consistently have sexist toys that people actually buy. It is not a condemnation of women, it is sadly the way culture still is—stereotypical socialization of many, though not all, girls.

    NYT: Moreover, in contrast to frequent claims that outright bias pushes more women out of math-intensive fields, we actually found a greater exodus of women from non-math-intensive fields in which they are already well represented as professors (like psychology and biology, where 45 to 65 percent of new professors are women) than from fields in which they are underrepresented (like engineering, computer science and physics, where only 25 to 30 percent of new professors are women).

    PSPI journal article: As we follow scientists through the pipeline, we can
    see that women have increased their representation as
    tenure-track assistant professors in LPS fields, rising from
    27.5% to 32.3%, and in GEEMP fields, rising much more
    markedly, from 14.3% to 22.7% (Fig. 1b)


    PSPI journal article: Another way to think of this is that far fewer women
    are interested in (or perhaps capable in, as we discuss
    below) GEEMP fields to begin with, but once women are
    within GEEMP fields, their progress resembles that of
    male GEEMP majors. In contrast, whereas far more
    women than men major in LPS fields, in 2011, the gender
    difference in the probability of advancing from an LPS
    baccalaureate degree to a PhD was not trivial, and the
    gap in the probability of advancing from PhD to assistant
    professorship was particularly large, with fewer women
    than men advancing

    However, by the beginning of the 21st century, girls
    had reached parity with boys—including on the hardest
    problems on the National Assessment of Educational
    Progress (NAEP) for high school students. As Hyde and
    Mertz (2009) concluded: Items from 12th-grade data categorized by NAEP as
    hard and by the researchers as requiring complex
    problem solving were analyzed for gender
    differences; effect sizes were found to average d =
    0.07, a trivial difference. These findings provide
    further evidence that the average U.S. girl has now
    reached parity with the average boy, even in high
    school, and even for measures requiring complex
    problem solving. (p. 8802)
    This parity was most likely the result of increased
    mathematics-course-taking by girls (Blair, Gamson,
    Thorne, & Baker, 2005) that by this time had closed the
    course gap, which had been sizable through the 1980s.

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  15. I haven't seen anyone else mention the fact that the authors of this primary literature article and the oped piece in the NYT (Ceci and Williams) sit on the editorial board for the Journal in which the article is to be published... a journal which describes itself thusly: "All articles are commissioned by the editors, and PSPI does not accept unsolicited manuscripts. An article is commissioned by the editors only after careful vetting of both the topic and the authors. Topics chosen for commissioning are nominated from many sources, including editorial board members, APS Board of Directors, and members of APS. All members of APS are invited to nominate topics (and names of potential authors).

    I think I'll start myself a journal and publish whatever the hell I please.

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  16. What a petty and foolish thing to say. That's not how psychology journals work. And it is not how the authors work. Their book "The Mathematics of Sex: How Biology and Society Conspire to Limit Women and Girls " is the most thorough and balanced treatment of this topic I have ever seen and I have read many books and research articles on gender issues. I have many criticisms of how gender research is done but not of this book or of the authors. And just to make sure you have no more petty ideas, I do not know Ceci and Williams and have nothing to do with that journal. I invite you to read their book and then come back and tell me they are charlatans, as you are implying.
    Criticisms need to be made of much research [read “Brain Storm Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences” by Rebecca Jordan-Young for an excellent overall of the problems] but Ceci and Williams are not among the ones whose research needs to be castigated. Educate yourself instead of making smart remarks that are not smart.

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  17. I don't think (except for the last sentence, which I probably should have omitted) that my comments were petty and foolish. Unlike the oped report in the NYT, my comments match the available data. This journal is invitation only, and does have these two sitting on it's editorial board.

    I do not know any more than that about the peer review that this article received. But I do know, from experience, what peer review is, from both sides of the desk, and I can't believe the jarring inconsistencies between the data shown in the primary literature article (yes, I've read it) and the conclusions that the authors have drawn.

    To then draw attention to their own work in the NYT OpEd piece as they have done was unconscionable.

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  18. For those who may be interested in reading more, I would also recommend the volume "Why Aren't More Women in Science: Top Researchers Debate the Evidence" edited by Ceci and Williams which contains articles by people on both sides of the fence (such as those by Elizabeth Spelke of Harvard).

    http://www.apa.org/pubs/books/4316085.aspx

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  19. Sheila: What?? They are substantiating their claims with research. That's what researchers do. Do you have a double standard? If the article said something you like would you be complaining about citations by the authors? I doubt it.The main problem I have with the article is that stupid headline that I'm sure they didn't write.

    Catherina: Your comments aare petty and uninformed. Both Ceci and Williams are well-respected researchers and professors who happen to be married to each other. It is NOT a case of pandering to be politically correct. They have earned their positions. You don't know what you are talking about, just lashing out with what you *imagine* is the case. That kind of attitude serves our cause ill.

    You are harming the feminist cause more than helping by making remarks based on insufficient information.

    I dare all of you to read "The Mathematics of Sex" and then try to tell me that these researchers have it in for women. I have read many many academic articles and books. Their book is one of the fairest and most balanced books I have ever read. I continue to think that you all just don't like what they had to say in the NYT article. It looks to me like you have a double standard or want to believe that women are still be treated badly everywhere. Well, many women ARE being treated badly in many different places and ways. I just don't see evidence that this is one of them.

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  20. http://pps.sagepub.com/content/9/2/225

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  21. "Men are still published significantly more than women. There are so many significant difference asterisks on those graphs, they look like a tiny galaxy. I know the H index is a hot new thing, but which one matters more still on your CV: Your citation count or your publication list?"

    You raise an important point in that publications are the most important factor in advancing in an academic career. The paper also makes clear that women's overall productivity is lower than men's, making is more difficult for women to progress. Sexist barriers to publication for women is an obvious explanation. So what do you make of Ceci, et al.'s finding that childless women's publication rate is the same as that of childless men, but women with children publish at the lowest rate of any group while men with children are the most productive (even higher than childless men)? What is the institutional sexism that produces this clear disparity? The data from childless men and women supports there not being sexist barriers to women's success, but can the same be said for women with children?

    My guess (and it is a guess since no data were included) is that this disparity reflects that women with children are much less likely than men with children to have a spouse caring full-time for the children. We know that house husbands are much rarer than are house wives, even among academics. We also know it is easier to have kids and a career if someone else is doing the lion's share of the child care. Even if the academic woman has an egalitarian spouse and they share childcare equally the woman will still likely have a greater child-care load than will a man with a stay-at-home spouse (or a woman with a stay at home spouse, but those are rare even in lesbian couples). So, is this sexism at work? Is the existence of stay-at-home moms sexist? Is men marrying stay-at-home moms sexist?

    I think this likely is an example of a clear disparity between men and women that reflects cultural conventions, but doesn't reflect sexism and certainly doesn't reflect sexism in science.

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