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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Women in science: the narrow band of acceptable behavior

The NY Times today has a piece about several recent conferences about the inclusion and exclusion of women in/from top-tier science departments. At Columbia, Harvard, Rice and CUNY, speakers offered explanations for why relatively few women who study science in college land professorships, particularly (especially?) at high-prestige schools:

One issue is negotiating skills, said Daniel R. Ames, a psychologist who teaches at Columbia University’s business school and who spoke last month at a university-sponsored symposium, “The Science of Diversity.” Dr. Ames said that when he asks people what worries them about navigating the workplace, men and women give the same answer: How hard should I push? How aggressive should I be? Too little seems ineffective, but too much comes across as brash or unpleasant.

Answering the aggressiveness question correctly can be a key to obtaining the financial resources (like laboratory space or stipends for graduate students) and the social capital (like collaboration and sharing) that are essential for success in science, he said. But, he told his mostly female audience, “the band of acceptable behavior for women is narrower than it is for men.”


Even today, [said Madeline Heilman, a psychologist at New York University], the idea that women are somehow unsuited to science is widespread and tenacious. Because people judge others in terms of these unconscious prejudices, she said, the same behavior that would suggest a man is collaborative, judicious or flexible would mark a woman as needy, timid or flighty.

The article mentions research that found that employers, prefer resumes with male names than female names. Google came up with nothing on that research, but it did point me to reports of a fascinating study by professors Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan that found that resumes with identical content generated 50% more responses if they carried a typically white name than a typically black one. The study was called "Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? : A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination" [link to abstract], which suggests that there may be illuminating findings with regard to gender as well as race, though they never summarize the results according to gender. They seem to have collaborated on many fascinating papers with appeal in the Freakonomics vein (see four interesting abstracts) are hidden behind the great ivory firewall, but this one is freely available [pdf].

Though this study doesn't directly apply to the question of gender discrimination in academic appointments and tenure, a similar form of implicit bias may be at work here. For a white man, it's sometimes hard to believe that racism, sexism and other forms of oppression persist in causing widspread damage in America; and if I believe it in word, that doesn't mean I know it to be true intimately. But evidence like this is arresting (and I encourage you to try Harvard's implicit association test yourself). Clearly, vague and seemingly inconsequential learned associations in all of us hugely limit the ability of most Americans to chart the course of their own lives.

This study only looks at the bias involved in one decision: whether to call back a prospective job applicant. But that means more than just that black applicants need to send out a few more resumes than whites do. Bias may be involved in countless small decisions over the course of hiring and working: having responded, whether to schedule an interview; having interviewed, whether to interpret energy as eagerness or aggression, and whether to hire; having hired, whether to assume little contact is a sign of dedication or of low work output; having been convinced of dedication, whether to promote.

Daniel Ames, the Columbia prof quoted above, discusses one way this kind of compounded bias dogs women:

Women who assert themselves “may be derogated,” he said, and, possibly as a result, women are less likely to recognize negotiating opportunities, and may beapprehensive about negotiating for resources when opportunities arise. That is a problem, he said, because even small differences in resources can “accumulate over a career to lead to significant differences in outcomes.”

The framework of this explanation could be applied to the question of why women turn away from science and math in elementary school, high school, and college. Compounded expectations, assumptions and differences in treatment may mean that small differences in cultural treatment day-to-day cause large differences over the course of an education. Genetic differences in predisposition for interest in math and science could still play a role, of course, and if they do exist, could help fuel a viscious circle that props up stereotypes against contrary evidence and stacks the deck against women every time they make a decision--conscious or subconscious--regarding interests, dedication and career path.

A last note -- one speaker saw a silver lining to the Larry Summers gender-fender-bender:

At the end of her talk, [Yale molecular biophysics professor Joan Steitz] displayed a chart showing rises in the proportion of women in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology faculty. There were few until the passage of civil rights legislation 40 years ago, when the numbers jumped a bit and then leveled off, she said. The numbers jumped again in the late 1990s after a report criticized the institute’s hiring and promotion practices as they related to women.

“We now have another plateau,” Dr. Steitz said, “and it’s my fervent hope that Larry Summers, God bless him, and the report that’s just come out will have this kind of impact.”