Thursday, August 31, 2006

So Many Ceilings

In just the past week or so, there have been front page articles in the New York Times about the general lack of women ministers of large churches and the decrease this year in the number of women Supreme Court clerks. In the first article, the scariest part was when parishioners were quoted as saying they just didn't like to see a woman up there preaching. In the second article, the scariest part was when one Supreme Court Justice (Souter) said that, alas, none of the top applicants for his clerk positions were women this year. I believe (though of course disagree with) the first sexist statement -- it's the same with other professions, including academia, that many people prefer to get information from deep-voiced, authoritative-sounding men -- but I don't believe the second statement. How lame. I've heard the same excuse for why 0.014% of the math faculty at my university are women. The 'top' candidates are always men. Amazing! If a Supreme Court Justice hired only women clerks, would people assume that the 'top' candidates just happened to be all women? Unfortunately, I cannot set aside my deep cynicism for even a second to believe that would be the case.

When I was in grad school, one of the few other female grad students in my department failed her prelims because her committee just didn't think she was "ready" to complete her degree. Her committee told her that they just couldn't "see" her as a professor yet, but because she'd done so well with the exam, they were willing to give her another try later. (happy ending: she did try again, passed, got a tenure-track position at a large university, and became a prominent researcher in her field). Her research contributions have far surpassed those of contemporaneous male grad students who easily passed their prelims. Why should women continue to be held back because men lack imagination? Why are we hearing the same thing today that men have been saying for centuries?

The article about women ministers had many parallels with the situation of women in academia, including perhaps the implicit equating of 'success' with being hired by a large church (= large research university?). Of course bigger isn't really better for either churches or universities, but in both cases, bigger place = more people, more money, and more prestige, and that's where women leak, fall, or are forcibly ejected from the so-called pipeline.


Anonymous said...

I've heard the same excuse for why 0.014% of the math faculty at my university are women. The 'top' candidates are always men. Amazing!

Yeah, this one really burns me too. In my field it usually takes the form of "But we just want to hire the BEST person." They don't seem to get that their assessments of what "the best person" means are inherently biased (whether they're male or female, whether or not they hold sexist beliefs! It's human nature, people!). No, we couldn't possibly be biased. We're Scientists. We do things Objectively!

B said...

I read a follow up article on this dilemma on slate magazine,

Dahlia Lithwick regularly writes about the supreme court so I believe her. She had some interesting ideas about how the problem starts with where the clerks come from and how that is also a biased process in and of itself against women and minorities.

Anonymous said...

I am not sure anyone agrees with me on this. Among many reasons why women aren't as successful as men, idealism should be one of them. Women in our chosen professions, no matter it is science or any others, are much more idealistic than men. We love and devote to what we are doing. We want to do better work more than we want a success. This, many times, contradicts politics at most work places. As a result, women are more likely be rejected.

Anonymous said...

I assume you're asking for a redefinition of the concept of "top candidate"?

Honestly asking the following...

Are you suggesting that the we should start specifically adding gender into the selection process? It sounds to me (as a man) that what you're saying is that we either redefine the way to categorize "top" to include things that bode better for women and worse for men, or we give extra points to women and minorties simply because they're women and minorities in order to help balance the field.

Hopefully you disagree with the second one. Hopefully you're getting at something closer to the first.

Again, honestly asking.


Anonymous said...

I think the Science Professor is suggesting that we actively counteract the unconscious bias that is inherent in society that diminishes the importance of women's ideas accomplishments. This inherent bias is slowly disappearing, but it's taking a long time. Students are still faster to challenge a female teachers' authority than a male one's. Male colleagues more easily rationalize that a woman's original idea (as opposed to a man's) that they discussed was really solely his. In many areas, a woman still has to do work that is leaps and bounds better than her male colleagues in order to receive the same credit.

To wit: despite a relatively high proportion of accomplished women in my division of the physical sciences, a female elected president of the national professional organization, and a large population of naturalized scientists of Asian origin (domestic minorities are also suffering in the pipeline), the overwhelming majority of said professional organization's awards - for both early- and end-of-career successes - are given to white men. While there are more young women in my field than older women, the regular lack of recognition garnered by the older women suggests some bias in the selection criteria. While the plural of anecdote is not data, I'm sure you can see how this situation might look suspicious.

Quota systems are not the answer to this bias, as that makes both the majority and the quota-enhanced populations wonder if they only got the job because of the quota, as well as fostering resentment on both sides. A double-blind system (no names, just applicant numbers, and sex/race-identifying information only in extra-curricular activities lists) would do a lot to eliminate the unconscious biases of the individuals doing the evaluations. This is hard to do in some occupations, especially academia, due to the integral nature of publication records and on-site interviews in the hiring process. However, for an application to clerk at the Supreme Court, any law students' writing samples and publications could certainly be redacted to conceal the name of the student.

I agree with the point that the small sample size leads to large percentage changes for small changes in the populations of women and minorities, but one might also think that the pool of the best applicants for clerks must contain more than 10% women if the pool has a much greater percentage.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Denise.

I think the definition of "top candidate" is more subjective than anyone wants to admit. In a faculty search in particular, there is ALWAYS some consideration of factors along the lines of "How well does this person fit with our department and its needs?" This covers considerations like research specialty, lab/startup requirements, general collegiality, etc. I am proposing that a departmental goal like "We would like to have a more diverse faculty in order to attract a wide variety of talented students to our program" is an entirely appropriate factor to add to these subjective criteria. I would like to see people acknowledge that the search is really for the "best fit" candidate, instead of perpetuating this myth that there is an absolute, objective standard for the Best Person that everyone can agree on.

More generally, I would advocate making the whole process more transparent by spelling out (at least for the committee members) the specific criteria on which the candidates should be judged, rather than leaving these unspoken.

Anonymous said...

Jake, I don't think she is talking about standards that favour men so much as unconscious bias. Most of us (including women) unconsciously associate men with authority, and also judge subjective achievements (eg, how well was that talk given? how well was that music played?) more positively if we see a man doing it than a woman.

There is a very interesting set of Implicit Association Tests at, where you can test your own unconscious biases. You will almost certainly have some (not necessarily about women) if only because they tend to get drummed in by, eg, sheer volume of exposure to media stereotypes. I believe the best way to fix them is by exposure to positive role models.. which is the cycle of gender preference in a nutshell!