Last week Nature published a short correspondence – and people got really angry. In case you missed it, here is a short summary of events. It started when Nature published an update on their efforts to reduce the gender bias in their publication. This was inexplicably followed by Nature also publishing an ill-conceived short correspondence criticizing their efforts and blaming the inequality on women’s decisions to have children. A number of people responded to the piece (including here, here, and here) and in response, Nature issued a strongly worded mea culpa.
I find that the most frustrating part of this whole fiasco is not that top tier journals sometimes publish things they shouldn’t (I think we already knew that), but that it sidetracks the discussion away from the types of conversations that we should really be having. The underrepresentation of women in top tier journals (as well as math and science fields in general) is a real problem. When half of our brightest minds aren’t being fully represented, we all lose out, regardless of the cause. However, understanding the cause allows us to implement the appropriate solutions.
There also happen to be people studying this issue and producing (data-based) publications. For example, there was an interesting article published in PNAS in 2011 by two researchers at Cornell that investigated the current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science.
In the article, the authors make the argument that efforts to correct biases against women in publishing, grants, and hiring over the last 30 years have been a success story. So much so, that most of the discrimination that we saw in the past has disappeared. (However, please note that there is also data, published in the same journal, that suggests we still have a ways to go.)
The conclusion that they draw from their analysis of the data is that women are, in fact, still under-represented in top-tier journals. They also conclude that, for a large part, this occurs because women’s career decisions do tend to conflict with family decisions. As a result, many female scientists do not end up in positions in which they have equal available resources. Thus, despite our efforts to reduce discrimination in publishing, funding, and hiring, there are deeper issues that are still maintaining the disparity.
However, IMPORTANTLY, they do not stop there. As the authors so eloquently put it:
“To the extent that women’s choices are freely made and women are satisfied with the outcomes, then we have no problem. However, to the extent that these choices are constrained by biology and/or society, and women are dissatisfied with the outcomes, or women’s talent is not actualized, then we most emphatically have a problem.”
Even more importantly, there are strategies for reducing the degree to which women’s choices are constrained. Suggestions include:
“The GAO report lists strategies, such as stopping tenure clocks for family formation and tenure-track positions segueing from part-time to full-time. Gender Equity Committees have suggested adjusting the length of time to work on grants to accommodate child-rearing, no-cost grant extensions, supplements to hire postdocs to maintain momentum during family leave, reduction in teaching responsibilities for women with newborns, grants for retooling after leaves of absence, couples-hiring, and childcare to attend professional meetings.”
And there are good examples of universities that are implementing this type of policy:
“The UC-Berkeley’s “Family Edge” provides high-quality childcare and emergency backup care, summer camps and school break care, and reentry postdocs and instructs committees to ignore family-related gaps in CVs.”
I think that we should start by asking ourselves why women need to make a choice at all. To the extent that our system is incompatible with the familial constraints, we should ask why. Is it because it is necessarily that way or is it because it is traditionally that way? For example, there is evidence that, in Biology, female scientists that have lower productivity early in their career (when they have a young family), have a greater impact later in their career. Should we reduce the opportunity for women to contribute to science in their 40’s and 50’s because of constraints they faced earlier in their life? Is it necessary that taking a year or two off completely derails one’s career?
What do you think?
(For more on these issues, you can also check out Sarah Hird’s post: Self-confidence of women in science and a camel.)
Shen, Helen. (2013) Inequality quantified: Mind the gender gap. Nature 495: 22–24.
Ceci, Stephen J. and Wendy M. Williams. (2011) Understanding current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science. PNAS 108: 3157–3162.
Moss-Racusin, Corinne A. et al. (2012) Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. PNAS 109: 16474–16479.
Long, J. Scott. (1992) Measuring sex differences in scientific productivity. Social Forces 71: 159-178.