Jeffrey MervisA new paper by two developmental psychologists on the dearth of women in academic science argues that the cause of the gender imbalance is much easier to identify than most researchers have posited. The solution is also more obvious, they say, although that doesn't mean it will be easy to implement (see sidebar). Not surprisingly, their provocative assertions, in a paper titled “When Scientists Choose Motherhood,” have stirred the pot in an already contentious field.
Writing in the March/April issue of American Scientist, Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci of Cornell University argue that the traditional view of female underrepresentation as a complex mixture of discrimination, differential abilities, and career preferences misses the mark. Instead, say the husband-and-wife team, the evidence from studies stretching back more than a decade points overwhelmingly to the primacy of “the dynamics of family formation in Western society,” or, in a word, motherhood.
Williams and Ceci are certainly not the first to note that the desire to have a family hives off a significant fraction of women who have made it through graduate school and postdoctoral training in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields and who stand at the brink of an academic career. Despite their clear interest and talent, the authors say, women in their prime childbearing years are often forced to make a stark choice between having a family and pursuing a career for which they have trained all their adult lives. “Why is it that women are given one 7-year interval in which to amass a research portfolio and have two kids?” Williams asks, referring to the typical time frame for an assistant professor to earn tenure at a major research university. “That's crazy. Men don't have to do that. It's this societal-designed unfairness that's rooted in biology.”
Researchers from nearly every scientific discipline have spent decades examining the reasons behind gender differences in math and science, from the nursery to the Nobel Prize. Some studies have found systemic bias and discrimination, whether deliberate or inadvertent, to be a major factor in the imbalance. Others argue that the slight edge for boys in mathematical ability among highly gifted students translates into a significant difference in adult success in math-intensive STEM fields. A third camp sees personal preferences—“working with people versus things,” as some describe it—as the driving force behind the divergent career choices by men and women.
In their new article, which builds on a 2011 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the authors assert that a “misdirection” of resources toward problems that no longer exist has slowed progress. In particular, they take issue with those who say that correcting the gender imbalance will require a wholesale revamping of societal attitudes toward women and a reworking of the nation's educational system. What is more important, they say, is to change the current rigid system at universities of rewarding academic excellence. “More flexibility in the early years would allow them to have a family and become full-fledged researchers, too,” says Williams, who notes that having three daughters influenced the couple's decision in 2005 to jump into this contentious field. “But the current system doesn't let them back in.”
It's no surprise that an aggressive attack on those analyses would trigger strong rebuttals from researchers who are passionate about the topic. In particular, many researchers think Williams and Ceci have oversimplified what they say is a very complex issue and selectively chosen data to bolster their case.
“There are many reasons why women are not succeeding at the same rate as men in academic math-related fields,” says Diane Halpern, a prominent scholar on sex differences and cognitive abilities and a psychologist at Claremont McKenna College in California. Although she agrees that “tenure and biological clocks run in the same time zone,” she questions how Williams and Ceci can place motherhood above the other factors, especially when those factors don't lend themselves to a quantitative comparison.
Halpern, a former president of the American Psychological Association, was lead author of a widely cited 2007 paper that took a sober look at the science of sex differences. “People were very unhappy with us when we concluded that lots of things are very important,” she notes. “They said, ‘So you mean you don't really know?’ But our response was, ‘That's the answer.’”
Donna Nelson, a chemistry professor at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, has spent 2 decades collecting data on hiring and promotion practices among U.S. research universities. She says she's worried that Williams and Ceci are making the same mistake that they accuse their critics of making: putting all their eggs in one basket.
“I think this article does have merit, for a subset of women, during one part of their lives,” Nelson says. “However, it has not uncovered a problem which, when solved, will create an equal environment for women.” Nelson says it would be unfortunate if departments “were to invest millions of dollars in things like in-house daycare centers” only to find that such investments improved conditions for “a relatively small number of women.”
At the same time, most researchers applaud Williams and Ceci for shining a light on an issue important not just to U.S. academic science but also to the country's economic well-being. And they welcome their call to action. “There has to be a sense that the outcome—more women in math-related fields—is desirable,” Halpern says. “There also has to be people willing to stand up and speak out on their campuses. Academia is really the only profession where people are faced with this early up or out. And it's incredibly expensive to lose talented people.”