Women Scientists' Academic-Hiring Advantage Is Unwelcome News for Some, Part 5

06/05/2015 04:53 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2016

Co-authored by Stephen J. Ceci

Our recent article reported results of five national experiments revealing a 2-to-1 hiring advantage for female applicants for entry-level professorships over identically-qualified men (link). We assumed this would be welcome news for advocates of gender diversity. We were wrong. Here we address criticisms of our study not covered in earlier responses to critics (link; link; link; link).

We Ignored Criticisms of Female Bloggers

We begin with a bizarre criticism. We were chided in two blogs for citing criticisms by men while ignoring women who made the same criticisms: "I note that though the authors could have referenced and linked to any one of a couple dozen critical blog posts... the three they chose are all authored by men. I'm genuinely curious to know if this was purposeful" (link). Also, "in the Huffington Post rebuttal, Williams and Ceci only respond to articles written by men (including me). That's very interesting and problematic....To put it mildly, there are plenty of female scholars and analysts who have commented, but Williams and Ceci chose not to respond to them" (link).

We did not sift through comment threads searching for those written by men. But why is this even an issue? When multiple people raised the same criticism, our usual practice was to cite the highest-profile source, which in this case was a blog by a man in Granted, others made the same criticism, but they did so in personal webpages or less-trafficked blogs. Criticisms themselves have no gender (e.g., that our experiments did not resemble actual academic hiring), and since our rebuttals had 1,000-word limits, we could not cite multiple critics making the identical point as we would do in a comprehensive academic review. If the reverse were true, and we countered only criticisms by women, we would have been chastised for picking on women. Our intention was to address every serious criticism, regardless of its proponent's gender. It is the validity of the criticism that matters. Frankly, until we read these two bloggers' claims we had never differentiated criticisms according to the gender of the authors. And why should we?

We Have an Agenda to Set Back Affirmative Action

We began our program of research by asking a straightforward question, and throughout myriad national experiments and multiple side validations, the answer was usually the same: faculty preferred to hire women over identically-qualified men -- just as they do in real-world tenure-track hiring, as we reviewed. We did not anticipate a number of outcomes, such as there being no difference between faculty at small vs. large institutions, and no difference between junior and senior faculty, in pro-female hiring attitudes. We also suspected, but did not find, major differences in hiring preferences between math-intensive and non-math-intensive fields. We would have been happy regardless of how the data came out, and it might have been easier to publish our findings had they shown bias against women. But we published what we found. Anyone attributing anti-female attitudes to us is wrong because we endeavored to design an experiment that would be interesting regardless of the outcome. Yet numerous critics accused us of being on a jihad to undermine affirmative action hiring: "suffice to say Williams and Ceci are likely giving aid and comfort to those who want to set back women's progress in STEM,[2] while missing many of the more relevant issues of academic sexism" (link); "publicising them may make the situation for women in science worse" (link); "the danger is that investigations like this can be used as a canard and a dangerous one that may just keep us in academia from addressing the real problems for diversity in STEM" (link); "Williams and Ceci are lulling us in a false sense of complacency, and might even give reason to stop serious attempts to redress gender imbalance" (link); "W&C have a research program...I'd call it 'why you shouldn't pay attention to all these liberal worries' really is quite pernicious" (link).

Contrary to such claims, we have no agenda nor do we advocate becoming complacent about the real challenges that women scientists face -- a point we make repeatedly in writing, in our video series, and in interviews, not to mention daily with our three daughters. A week following the release of our findings, we responded to a British reporter's question of whether we consider our finding of a pro-female hiring bias a good thing: "In America we have had an Affirmative Action campaign for many decades. It basically argues that if two otherwise identical applicants compete for a job, the preference ought to go to the one who is a member of an underrepresented group. Given this goal, then a female preference among identical applicants is consistent with it. In addition, many faculty express the view that having female faculty serves important purposes beyond the conduct of research, particularly serving as teachers and role models for their undergraduate (first degree) and postgraduate students. Elsewhere we reported some positive effects of having female faculty" (link).

Would any reasonable person conclude from this that we are on a jihad against liberal values or that we are "giving aid and comfort to those who want to set back women's progress"?

We Did Not Condemn Anti-Male Sexism

Many who posted comments on various blogs railed at what they viewed as our disregard for the plight faced by men who lose out to identically-qualified women: "I won't hold my breath waiting for an initiative to correct this blatant discrimination against men" (link). Many took us to task for not labeling this result as representing reverse discrimination against men; they object to non-academic factors being inserted into what should be a decision based solely on academic qualifications. We certainly can see their point, but we believed that the journal PNAS is not the appropriate place in which to delve into policy and philosophical discussions related to affirmative action, and we possess no special wisdom in this domain. In our article's General Discussion we suggested that professional societies should engage in national dialog about this issue: "it is worth noting that female advantages come at a cost to men, who may be disadvantaged when competing against equally qualified women. Our society has emphasized increasing women's representation in science, and many faculty members have internalized this goal. The moral implications of women's hiring advantages are outside the scope of this article, but clearly deserve consideration" (link).

We end this fifth blog with a plea to focus on research methods and interpretations rather than on personal attributions about our presumed motives and politics. Based on our experimental findings -- coupled with data on real-world hiring which also show a preference for hiring female assistant professors in math-intensive fields -- we have concluded, for example, that gender sensitivity training for search committee members may no longer be warranted. The money and energies expended on such practices could instead be used to address challenges facing women scientists today. This is the most scientifically responsible conclusion, until and unless compelling counter-evidence is presented. Nothing critics have written alters this conclusion.