Women Scientists' Academic-Hiring Advantage Is Unwelcome News for Some, Part 4

06/01/2015 06:22 pm ET | Updated May 31, 2016

This is Part 4 of a five-part response to critics of our recent study showing STEM faculty prefer to hire women over identically-qualified men (link). In previous responses, we described the main findings (link), and addressed various claims by critics (link and link). In what follows we address remaining claims by critics, starting with the assertion that we neglected important analyses.

We failed to report analyses

Some bloggers suggested our statistical analyses were improper: "When they analyzed their results, they seemingly did not control for the rank of the faculty respondents, which is crucial because more men hold senior-level positions and have more hiring power" (link). With rare exceptions, throughout our analyses, neither the faculty member's rank, experience on search committees, gender, or discipline interacted with the pro-woman preference. Senior faculty were just as pro-female as were junior faculty.

Some critics challenged our use of gendered adjectives (e.g., female adjectives such as creative, socially-skilled vs. male adjectives such as analytic, powerhouse) to disguise the purpose of the experiments. They argued these could be responsible for the pro-woman preference. But because these adjectives were counterbalanced across gender of applicants as well as across gender of faculty respondents, they could not account for the overall pro-woman preference. Multiple colleagues emailed us, asking if the candidates described with male adjectives were preferred (it was always assumed that male adjectives would be preferred), or whether a gender congruity effect was found. Surprisingly, everyone's assumption about the superiority of male adjectives was the opposite of what we found. Female adjectives were strongly preferred over male adjectives (a strong main effect, with no interaction)--even when used to describe male applicants. And when female applicants were described with female adjectives, 80.4% of faculty preferred to hire them over males described with male adjectives. Elsewhere we have described these findings in more detail (link).

Criticisms that were meanspirited and wrong

Numerous meanspirited comments were made about us, calling us incompetent and unscholarly (e.g., "They are not serious scholars"). So it is worth noting that our work went through rigorous peer review by seven anonymous experts plus an eighth review by the editor, an eminent psychologist. This represents a level of peer scrutiny to which few scholarly studies are subjected. Personal attributions were made about us as human beings, about our alleged political orientation and sociocultural values. Posters labeled us as sexist ("Nothing like a good bit of sexism to keep Twitter well fed") right-wing homophobes, secretly machinating to overturn affirmative action. Consider: "Ceci and Williams are beloved of right-wing columnists. We need to approach their work with skepticism, as commentators have largely done."

One blogger wrote that we controlled the journal in which our prior work had been published: "There's no exploration of the fact that the first study by Williams and Ceci, that generated so much publicity, was published in their own journal, even though the study was fatally flawed on several levels. There's no discussion of the fact that Williams and Ceci run a research centre that is putting out numerous publications with the same narrative: that sexism in science is a 'myth'...." (link).

The allegation that we run a center that publishes research all with "the same narrative: that sexism in science is a 'myth'," is factually incorrect. Our articles, chapters, and authored and edited books have covered sociocultural obstacles to women in STEM, and have argued against sex differences in math competence as the reason for women's underrepresentation (to the dismay of researchers who believe otherwise). We have reviewed all empirical research on the topic, concluding that women and men are equally likely to get their manuscripts and grants accepted, and we now have shown that women are favored in hiring; if compelling counterevidence exists to these positions, we have not seen it. Readers can form their own opinions of our values by perusing articles and videos on our center's website (link; Moreover, we have papers under peer review, one of which documents female disadvantage and one which shows the limit of female hiring advantage. Whenever the data come out this way, we are eager to report the findings. Had our national hiring experiments revealed anti-woman bias, we would have published the findings--and we suspect critics would have embraced them.

As for the allegation that we publish our work in our own cottage press: One of our many publications was in a journal that one of us co-founded and co-edited from 1998-2007. Although still on the editorial board, neither of us had any role in the peer review of our article, which was conducted by the editor. She and her board recommended that we partner with scholars with views divergent from ours, so we asked two highly-regarded economists to join us in producing a consensus report. We have never met either of these women. We believed that if the four of us could come to a consensus it would advance the debate.

Our mammoth (47,000-word) report, with hundreds of analyses, is the result of different-minded scholars agreeing on important matters. Once we finished this consensus document, the editor commissioned critiques from anonymous reviewers who raised concerns that we responded to before our article was accepted. This is how peer review is supposed to work and these blind reviewers and the editor performed admirably. To insinuate that because one of us co-founded this journal 17 years ago and co-edited it until 2007 that we somehow got a free pass on peer review is scurrilous. And if this work really is "fatally flawed on several levels," its flaws are ones that both sides of the debate agreed were the most scientifically-supported conclusions possible. The anonymous peer reviewers praised our scholarship, as have many researchers. Our other publications on women in science have also appeared in top journals that are rigorously peer-reviewed (Psychological Bulletin, 2009; Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2010; PNAS, 2011 and 2015), and we likewise have no control of their peer-review process. In short, there is no truth to the claim that our work was published in our own journal or that it is fatally flawed.

One blogger remarked that "The authors note their 'surprise' at their findings, and in a Nature article describing the study, Williams says she was 'shocked' by the data. This strikes me (and Helen de Cruz on FB) as strange, and possible disingenuous, given than W&C have been publishing articles purporting to show the absence of gender bias in the academy for years" (link). Indeed we were shocked. We would not have been shocked if the data turned out like our prior analyses, revealing gender-neutrality; previously we found no sex differences in awarding of grants and journal acceptances. But in the current hiring study we found a 2-to-1 preference for women, and this genuinely surprised us.