Interrogating the evidence: women in academia


Lots of women have experienced individual instances of discrimination in academic settings. Women are underrepresented, relative to their half of the population, in some academic fields. Most people naturally conclude that one reason women are underrepresented is either (a) direct discrimination or (b) women being dissuaded from entering due to perceptions of an unwelcoming 'culture of discrimination'. A new paper argues that neither is a plausible explanation in philosophy, one of the fields most heavily criticised for its relative dearth of women. Authors Neven Sesardic and Rafael de Clercq, in the paper "Women in Philosophy: Problems with the Discrimination Hypothesis" present a strong case that there may well be bias in favour of women in the academic philosophy hiring process, with institutions going out of their way to try and find qualified women for positions if they can.

They point to a raft of previous work:

[At the University of Western Ontario 1991-1999] On average: 5.4% of female applicants were appointed compared to 2.9% of male applicants; 21.7% of female applicants were interviewed compared to 15% of male applicants; and 24.9% of female applicants who were interviewed were hired whereas 19.2% of men who were interviewed were appointed. Again, the results in each of the years are remarkably consistent. Women had almost twice the chance of being hired as did men.[9]

Similar results were obtained in a recent comprehensive study commissioned by the U.S. Congress to assess gender differences in the careers of science, engineering, and mathematics faculty—the area with the highest underrepresentation of women.[10] Conducted under the auspices of the National Research Council, Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Faculty included two surveys of major research universities, focusing on almost five hundred departments and more than eighteen hundred faculty members.

The authors reported that among those interviewed for tenure-track or tenured positions, the percentage of women interviewed was higher than the percentage of women who applied for those positions, and that tenure-track women in all disciplines received a percentage of first offers that was greater than their overall percentage in the interview pool.[11] The situation was the same with tenured positions in all disciplines except biology.

They attack the anecdotal evidence of discrimination presented in popular debate around the issue, and suggest that rather than discrimination either at the university level or perceptions of discrimination, biology and culture are to blame. Women end up, for whatever reason, with skill sets and preferences that don't favour the hard sciences and philosophy.

They document that existing studies showing bias have been overturned:

After re-examining the analyses, Nature has concluded that "[a study finding gender bias in journal acceptance of article submissions] can no longer be said to offer compelling evidence of a role for gender bias in single-blind peer review. In addition, upon closer examination of the papers listed in PubMed on gender bias and peer review, we cannot findother strong studies that support this claim. Thus, we no longer stand by the statement in the fourth paragraph of the Editorial, that double-blind peer review reduces bias against authors with female first names."[32]

It looks at evidence on research grant applications in the UK:

The authors looked at 1,741 grant applications to the Wellcome Trust and 1,126 grant applications to the Medical Research Council (in the UK). They concluded that “this study has shown no evidence of discrimination against women.”[35]

And across the developed world:

More recently, Ulf Sandström and Martin Hällsten investigated 280 grant applications submitted to the Swedish Medical Research Council in 2004.[36] Their conclusion is that “female principal investigators receive a 10% bonus on scores.”[37] More generally, Ceci and Williams report that “the weight of the evidence overwhelmingly points to a gender-fair review process” in grant funding.[38] Their conclusion is based on a number of smaller studies from different countries (including the abovementioned study by Grant et al.) as well as on six large-scale studies, including one by Herbert W. Marsh et al. that “found no significant gender differences in peer reviews of grant applications.”[39]

There is a huge amount more by way of evidence for their conclusion that neither (a) nor (b) is substantially true. Men and women sometimes want different things, and that's OK.