“Understanding current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science”

In the news today from PNAS (open access article):

“Understanding current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science”:

Explanations for women’s underrepresentation in math-intensive fields of science often focus on sex discrimination in grant and manuscript reviewing, interviewing, and hiring. Claims that women scientists suffer discrimination in these arenas rest on a set of studies undergirding policies and programs aimed at remediation. More recent and robust empiricism, however, fails to support assertions of discrimination in these domains. To better understand women’s underrepresentation in math-intensive fields and its causes, we reprise claims of discrimination and their evidentiary bases. Based on a review of the past 20 y of data, we suggest that some of these claims are no longer valid and, if uncritically accepted as current causes of women’s lack of progress, can delay or prevent understanding of contemporary determinants of women’s underrepresentation. We conclude that differential gendered outcomes in the real world result from differences in resources attributable to choices, whether free or constrained, and that such choices could be influenced and better informed through education if resources were so directed. Thus, the ongoing focus on sex discrimination in reviewing, interviewing, and hiring represents costly, misplaced effort: Society is engaged in the present in solving problems of the past, rather than in addressing meaningful limitations deterring women’s participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers today. Addressing today’s causes of underrepresentation requires focusing on education and policy changes that will make institutions responsive to differing biological realities of the sexes. Finally, we suggest potential avenues of intervention to increase gender fairness that accord with current, as opposed to historical, findings.

So, instead of forcing overburdened grant reviewers to attend gender sensitivity training sessions, what should we do? The authors put forward some recommendations, which I wholeheartedly endorse:

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. 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. Research into these strategies is needed to identify which are promising.

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

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