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Academic Image

Academic science doesn't deserve its sexist image, Cornell University's Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci write in a New York Times op-ed.

They argue that most negative descriptions of the academy are based on data from the 1990s or earlier and that recent evidence of sexism is either anecdotal or overgeneralizations.

Instead, they point to a new study of theirs, appearing in Psychological Science in the Public Interest in which they, along with some economist colleagues, examine hiring, job satisfaction, productivity promotion, and salary data from across more than half a dozen scientific fields. From this, they note that early to mid-career women have experiences similar to their male colleagues.

Williams and Ceci say in their op-ed that women are paid roughly the same, receive promotions and tenure at about the same rate, and are about as satisfied with their jobs as their male colleagues. "In sum, with a few exceptions, the world of academic science in math-based fields today reflects gender fairness, rather than gender bias," they say.

Instead, they argue that the underrepresentation of women in the sciences can be traced to educational choices made by women and girls as well as their occupational and lifestyle preferences.

Jonathan Eisen, however, points out at his blog that the authors seem to conflate career progression issues, such as hiring and citations, with workplace issues, such as hostility and aggression toward women. He notes that the researches present data on career progression and then make conclusions about workplace issues.

"Just because a women's career is doing OK does not mean that she did not experience workplace hostility or physical or sexual violence," he adds.

Indeed, Athene Donald adds in a blog post at the Guardian that a recent study reported that more than a quarter of female scientists working in the field had been assaulted, usually by a senior male colleague. "It is hard to believe that this does not amount to a sexist working environment, or that it doesn't affect women's desire to stick around in science," she adds.

Emily Willingham also argues that the researchers' own data don't quite support their conclusions. For instance, she writes at her blog that the researchers show in their report that men receive more publications than women, but then argue that men and women publish at roughly similar rates. "There are so many significant difference asterisks on those graphs [of average number of publications], they look like a tiny galaxy," she says.

Further, Willingham adds that "[i]t's silly to argue that society inflicts these biases on girls from an early age but that somehow, those biases stop at the doors of the august, gender-blind academy."