Was Gender Bias in Science All Just a Dream?

Good News for Women in Science

Marie Curie

Marie Curie

“The anti-female bias in academic hiring has ended … women in academic science are seen as more desirable hires than equally competent men.”

Bad News for Women in Science

“Scientists, both women and men, viewed the female applicant as less competent and less hirable than the identical male applicant and were less willing to mentor the female candidate than the male candidate.”

So say two recent studies of hiring attitudes at work in academic science.

Now What?

The first quote comes from Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci, Cornell University psychology professors recently known for research seeming to confute widespread views about gender biases in academic science. This passage was the rhetorical fulcrum on which their recent op-ed on CNN.com turned, announcing results of research into gender bias based on a simulated hiring scenario in academic science.

The second quote comes from “Solving the Equation,” a just-released publication from the American Association of University Women about women in engineering and technology fields. Amid a profusion of research and data consistent with the gist of these words, the report summarizes the findings of research by Skidmore College professor Corinne Moss-Racusin into gender bias based on a simulated hiring scenario in academic science. The AAUW report was rolled out recently on a Google+ hangout to a couple hundred participants.

“Man bites dog,” meet “woman gets science job.”

Speaking "Truth" to STEM Power

The findings of Williams and Ceci fly in the face of one of the dominant narratives about STEM study and work – namely, that gender biases, often unconscious, corrode girls’ and women’s experiences studying and working in STEM fields. These biases are correlated with – relative to boys and men in STEM – weaker test results, fewer women choosing STEM majors, lower degree completion rates, fewer entrants in STEM work fields, and shorter stays in STEM careers.

It is (probably) a matter only of provocative coincidence that the ballyhooed Williams and Ceci results surfaced so closely on the heels of another high-profile flouting of a dominant STEM narrative. Fareed Zakaria’s widely syndicated column lamenting America’s “dangerous obsession” with STEM education also stood current views about STEM education on their head.

It argued that the current, strong emphasis on STEM education bid fair to render liberal arts education, the unacknowledged engine of the innovation economy, moot and nugatory in the minds of students, parents, and employers alike. In the piece, Zakaria rejects general views about the economic, civil, and intellectual benefits to the country of more students doing better in STEM studies in preparation for entering the workforce. Because study in these fields does not teach the appropriate creativity and critical thinking skills, “obsessing” about STEM education represents a mighty whiff on the true challenges posed by a technology-driven, innovation-prizing, globally integrated economy.

The Hot

In a measure of how entrenched are these narratives about STEM education, both the Williams-Ceci research findings and Zakaria’s editorial received wide distribution and high visibility for going against them. In addition to the CNN piece, stories also appeared in Nature, the Washington Post, Inside Higher Ed, and elsewhere. Zakaria’s piece shows up in a different publication almost every day in my Google alert for news about “STEM education.”

As all stories contrarian are cat-nip for social media, too, traffic on Twitter and in blogs surged in response to the release of Williams and Ceci’s views. A late-April search for “Williams Ceci” turned up nearly 600 tweets over the two weeks following the release of their findings.

The Cool

By contrast, a search for “Solving the Equation” yielded 385 for the entire month. And many of these tweets were actually addressing algebra problems or other “equation”-related topics.

Voices Far and Wide

Even so, activity is the not the same as persuasiveness. Much of the traffic arose to refute the findings (see especially this item in Slate by Matthew Francis), with a hub forming around @kejames, the Twitter handle of Karen James, a Maine biologist/activist. The responses she has collected (e.g., here, here, and here) to Williams and Ceci show that both the methodology and logic of their research are, at a minimum, open to question.

The Meaning of STEM

Not just to critique media platforms or add a voice in disagreement, I put forward the Zakaria and Williams/Ceci examples also as indicators of how STEM registers in so many different spheres of discourse and value. Their arguments gain visibility because they tap into deep passions over vexing matters – economic and technological competitiveness, social equity, access to intellectual and material capital, identity issues writ individually and collectively. STEM has become an area, much like education as a whole, where these issues bubble up in a roiling, complex stew that heats up in varying, unpredictable ways.

Beware the Hype

The “man bites dog” quality of their arguments certainly plays to truisms of market-driven media. We should remember to situate them within this sphere as commercially useful commodities.

But it’s worth remaining skeptical about “man bites dog” stories in general. They often don’t have legs. Just because something is widely believed over a long time, confirmed by volumes of research, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at eiversen@start-engineering.com

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEngNow.

And don’t forget to take a look at our popular K-12 engineering outreach books, Start Engineering, and Dream, Invent, Create.