The Thinking 

Oh, the Woes of Women in Science

February 16, 2012


LOOK at the opening paragraphs of this article at ScienceDaily:

Women with advanced degrees in math-intensive academic fields drop out of fast-track research careers primarily because they want children – not because their performance is devalued or they are shortchanged during interviewing and hiring, according to a new study at Cornell University.

“Motherhood – and the policies that make it incompatible with a tenure-track research career – take a toll on women that is detrimental to their professional lives. Even just the plan to have children in the future is associated with women exiting the research fast-track at a rate twice that of men,” report Cornell human development professors Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci in the March-April issue of the journal American Scientist.

These two paragraphs appear contradictory. In the first we are told that motherhood by its nature interferes with a scientific career no matter what policies are in effect. In the second, we are told that women are deliberately kept out of scientific careers by unfair policies. But then the authors of the study go on to explain:

“It is time for universities to move past thinking about underrepresentation of women in science solely as a consequence of biased hiring and evaluation, and instead think about it as resulting from outdated policies created at a time when men with stay-at-home wives ruled the academy,” said Williams, who founded the Cornell Institute for Women in Science, a research and outreach center that studies and promotes the careers of women scientists.

This is plainly ridiculous. Universities have long wooed women with flexible hours and day care. After all, they are desperate to make these fields appear egalitarian. What are they supposed to do? Provide every female math professor with a full-time nanny and cook?

Women in math and science now are the beneficiaries of outrageous favoritism. Male academics are routinely passed over by less qualified women for academic positions. Even so, the numbers of women remain relatively low. Universities cannot overcome the inherent disadvantages of these careers for women, as well as the greater ability and competitiveness of men in these fields.


— Comments —

A Grateful Reader writes:

“For the study, Williams and Ceci analyzed data related to the academic careers of women and men with and without children in academic fields, including math-heavy ones. They found that before becoming mothers, women have careers equivalent to or better than men’s. “They are paid and promoted the same as men, and are more likely to be interviewed and hired in the first place,” Williams said.”

Williams admits that women are more likely than men to be interviewed and hired. This has been so for some time.

Many years ago, while I was a graduate student and having lunch with all eight of the professors in the physics department, I observed that they were all blue-eyed men with fair hair or no hair, who had received their degrees from prestigious universities. That year and the next, the university administration denied tenure to the two who were associate professors, both experimentalists who were well respected in their fields for their research and well respected by the tenured professors for their teaching, while at the same time, the administration interviewed women. The woman who was awarded the tenure-track position in the physics department held a degree in “physics education” from a no-name university. Although she, too, was blond and blue-eyed, she was unable to teach any course above the freshman level. The summer before I graduated, at the last minute, I was asked to teach the University Physics course because she did not think that she could teach a calculus-based physics course. She kept candy in her office for prizes for her students and gave them elementary demonstrations worthy of elementary school. She received tenure.

On the other hand, I know one woman with children who is highly competent in her field of theoretical physics and performs excellent research at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. She has a nanny, a maid, and her husband works from home. You hit the nail on the head. In order for women to thrive in academia, the university should “provide every female math professor with a full-time nanny and cook” and a stay-at-home husband.

Laura writes:

I want to emphasize what G.R. is saying here. A woman who was a non-scientist (she had a degree in physics education) was awarded a tenured position at a top university while men with genuine qualifications were passed over.

The trend in higher education is to award women with math education and science education degrees to tenured positions so that the illusion of equality is created.

Thus the fields of science and math research are clearly harmed.

Laura adds:

There should, of course, be opportunities for women in the sciences, but not favoritism in hiring or retention and not job conditions that make motherhood easier.

Grateful adds:

To set the record straight, the university that I attended was not a top university; however, its faculty was once culled from Ivy-League-educated men who were competent in their fields of research and able to pass down their knowledge with rigor. Today the faculty needs remedial calculus lessons.

The university which paid the competent woman enough money to have a nanny, a maid, and a stay-at-home husband is one of the most prestigious science centers in the world. In a society which did not unreasonably favor women over men, the competent woman might be hired by a second-tier university (sans nanny and maid – after all, she is not greater than most men in science, just most women), and the calculus-challenged woman might be competently teaching elementary school.

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