Sometimes the plain and simple headline is the one that works best to capture attention. As such headlines go, "Academic Science Isn't Sexist" fits the bill nicely. Flying in the face of a raft of studies and confounding a widely accepted narrative about the experiences of women in science and engineering fields, this op-ed in Sunday's New York Times by Cornell researchers Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci has launched a spirited Twitter thread and what is sure to be a growing series of responses; see Emily Willingham, Jonathan Eisen, and The Guardian, for a start.
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Can this be?
The money point - "the experiences of young and mid-career women in math-intensive fields are, for the most part, similar to those of their male counterparts." The research underlying this claim, laid forth in an article from an upcoming edition of Psychological Science in the Public Interest, finds generally comparable outcomes for men and women across realms of hiring, pay, promotion, persistence, research funding, and articles accepted and cited. Not much wiggle room left, once all these areas are catalogued.
Education and Lifestyle Preferences
The article explains under-representation of women in these fields as functions of early educational choices and occupational or lifestyle preferences. Girls prefer play involving living things - people or animals - while boys gravitate to machines, building, or object-centered play. With the right kind of encouragement and classroom feedback, girls will find success and satisfaction in math-intensive fields, especially when they bring well developed math and science skills with them to college studies.
Like many readers of this piece, I was bethumped. Without academic training in the field, I hesitate to draw conclusions about the validity of the research findings. They're certainly provocative. The researchers lay bare their methodology, review sources, and build their argument over 65 pages of dense academic prose; the piece has heft, no doubt about it.
Their conclusion, in sum, holds, "that although in the past, gender discrimination was an important part of the cause of women's under-representation in scientific academic careers, this claim has continued to be invoked after it has ceased being a valid cause."
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