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'An Unwanted Consequence'

March 25, 2011

After Ben Barres delivered a lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, another scientist was overheard making a telling remark.

"Ben Barres gave a great talk today,” the scientist reportedly said, as Barres related the story to the journal Nature in 2006. “His work is much better than his sister's."

That colleague didn’t realize it, but when he compared Barres to his sister, he was actually talking about the same person. Barres, a professor of neurobiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, had undergone a sex change operation, from female to male, not long before he gave his talk at MIT.

Though Barres’s gender has changed, he says that the quality of his work certainly has not. But the underlying assumption the comment reflected -- that women have less innate intellectual prowess or ability to conduct scholarship, both in science and in academe more broadly -- is alive and well even as women are gaining a stronger foothold in academe, according to a recent MIT report on the status of women in science and engineering.

Those attitudes sometimes spill out into the open, as they did in 2005 when Larry Summers, who was then the president of Harvard University, posited that "issues of intrinsic aptitude” may be a more significant factor than discrimination in explaining why women are underrepresented in the top tiers of science and engineering. But these views typically surface in more subtle ways. As recounted in the MIT study, these beliefs find expression, instead, in offhand comments, including remarks suggesting that women were hired or promoted because standards were lowered to accommodate them. And, despite the real gains made in the number of women entering the professoriate, researchers on the subject say that these biases persist and can do damage over time.

Upward Swing

The MIT study celebrated a trend that has been seen across the country's institutions of higher education. The number of female faculty members in science and engineering at the institute has nearly doubled since researchers there produced its first influential report in 1999. Elsewhere, the trajectory also has been on an upward swing: women now account for 43 percent of faculty members nationwide, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

At MIT and elsewhere, these numbers reflect a concerted effort. The institutions have trained members of search committees about unconscious bias that may lead them to screen out women and members of minority groups. Some have encouraged those on committees to seek applications from women, or take steps to widen the pool of potential applicants.

But if the MIT report lauded these gains, its authors also described “an unwanted consequence” of such efforts -- the perception that hiring and promotion standards are more relaxed for women than they are for men. “In discussions I hear others saying ‘oh, she’ll get tenure … because we need to have women,’ ” the report quotes one professor as saying. “Makes it sound like the standards of excellence are not the same for men and women.” Some women found themselves questioning whether their own hiring was due to their sex and not their abilities. “I felt I was invited to interview because I was dazzling,” one said, “but now I wonder….”

Some faculty members at MIT have rebutted the notion that women enjoy differential treatment. “For all the appointment and promotion cases I know in recent years, I am certain this is not true,” Edmund Bertschinger, head of the physics department of MIT, wrote on his blog. “The women to whom we have made faculty offers, promoted and granted tenure all meet the very high standards of MIT, and it has always been so.” Doubters, he said, ought to consult the roster of full professors at MIT’s school of science who were members of the National Academy of Sciences last year: 31 percent of men and 40 percent of women, by his count.

If anything, women are held to higher standards, said some who were interviewed. “I always feel that female candidates are not treated the same,” one MIT professor related. “People give male candidates the benefit of the doubt. The demands for women candidates are higher, they are more scrutinized.”

This mismatch in perception of abilities, and these notions of unfair treatment and double standards, are, to some, the inevitable price of progress. But many scholars who study gender and academe dispute that the efforts to recruit women have sparked a backlash against women. “Backlash is the wrong word," said Joan M. Herbers, professor of evolution, ecology, and organismal biology at Ohio State University, and president of the Association for Women in Science. “It’s exposing what’s been there all along.”

‘Mountains Are Molehills Piled One On Top Of The Other'

To women like Herbers, who earned her Ph.D. in 1978, tensions over unfair treatment and double standards are not new. A self-described “50-ish scientist,” Herbers said that questions about women being hired for academic jobs because it was fashionable to do so were prevalent when she began her career. Then, as now, these questions prompted self-doubt among the women who benefited from the purportedly fashionable hiring. “I wondered, too,” she said, though her uncertainties faded as she advanced in her field and earned honors, such as being named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Ultimately, when women confront accusations that they were hired because standards were lowered, they will react in different ways, she said. “Sometimes the message to women is ‘just get over it’ and for others it’s, ‘it’s a real issue here,’ ” said Herbers. “Deciding which is which is a matter of context.”

To Molly Broad, president of the American Council on Education and a female pioneer in the ranks of university administration, lingering doubts about the merits and capacities of women reflect a carryover from an earlier time -- one that will eventually fade away. “It’s part of the process of the natural transformation,” she said, adding that efforts like MIT’s represent one of the best ways to bring such assumptions into the open and talk about them.

Broad, who is the first female president of ACE and also cracked the glass ceiling as president of the University of North Carolina, also counseled women to keep pushing forward -- whether they encounter such slights as being told they had received preferential treatment or, in a classic example, they find themselves at a department meeting, where they make a suggestion that is ignored only to hear a male colleague voice the same idea to rapturous acclaim.

“Keep your focus on the outcomes,” said Broad, who added that, in the latter example, women should have the courage of their convictions to try again. “Keep your eye on what is the best result … and not whose voice galvanized the group to take action.”

While such slights might seem minor compared to policies or attitudes that once kept women out of departments or entire universities, some say they exact a real toll as they accumulate.

“A lot of the things on a daily basis that are happening to men and women are very small things that people are inclined to shrug off and say not to worry about it,” said Virginia Valian, distinguished professor of psychology and co-director of the Gender Equity Project at Hunter College of the City University of New York.

But Valian disputed the notion that, just because such slights seem small, they are inconsequential. “Mountains are molehills piled one on top of the other,” she said. She noted that, while women may be hired more often than they used to be, they still aren’t progressing to full professorships as fast as or in the same proportion as men, in science or in other fields, such as history. Women also are not paid as much.

In part, seemingly minor episodes, such as whose ideas get recognized in a meeting or who gets invited to speak at a colloquium, start to snowball, Valian argued. “All of those things are adding up over time to give a man more advantage than a woman has,” she said. “You see this growing disparity as careers progress between men and women.”

Implicit Biases And 'Mind Bugs'

The expression of bias or favoritism, as described, is not the only thing that can be subtle or hard to recognize immediately, scholars say. Subtle dynamics are also at play in the hiring and promotions process, where notions of who is most qualified can be shaped by unexamined assumptions and perceptions.

It can be difficult to accurately gauge such subjective qualities as merit -- and job screenings don’t always reveal meaningful differences between candidates, said Wendy M. Williams, professor and director of Cornell University’s Institute for Women in Science. Given the decline in tenure-track positions, there are likely to be many applicants for every slot in a prestigious program. At high levels, many people can boast top grades, scores and letters of recommendation, she said. While differences within an elite group of applicants may reflect actual differences in ability, they also may reflect a range of resources or access to mentors who can help a candidate amass an impressive portfolio.

"In many cases, any person could be randomly selected from the top group and would have just as good a chance of making it in the position offered as would the other members of the top group," Williams said in an e-mail. "There are so many key skills that are simply not assessed at all -- and the ones that are assessed are imperfect predictors -- meaning that someone who is bypassed [including a man with stellar credentials] may not actually have any more talent for the position."

At the same time, she added that one reason that some men are skeptical of women in academe is that analyses have found that female scholars have, on average, produced fewer peer-reviewed publications and are cited less often than their male counterparts. "A man may potentially have valid reasons to question the records of women being hired around him, and may wonder if their honors and awards stem more from gender than from eminence," she said.

Such skepticism likely won't be dispelled until large numbers of female academics mature in their careers, many argue. Until then, anecdotes about failed female candidates will carry disproportionate weight and reinforce some men's impressions that women scholars are unqualified. Eventually, such questions ought to be resolved by analyzing empirical evidence, said Williams. "We should not assume or take for granted that the women hired are just as good," she said. "We should give them time to flourish and then see what they accomplish, and ultimately evaluate it and them critically."

Another complicating factor, however, is the phenomenon of implicit bias. In 2000, Laurie A. Rudman, a professor of social psychology at Rutgers University, published research in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin with her then-doctoral student (now an instructor), Stephen E. Kilianski, on people's unconscious attitudes toward women and authority. Using a tool called the Implicit Association Test, they brought to the surface people's "mind bugs," a term used by Mahzarin Banaji, the Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics in Harvard University’s department of psychology. These bugs reflect implicit or unconscious assessments of one's self or others.

Rudman and Kilianski found that people of both genders automatically favored male authority figures over female ones -- even if they professed to hold the opposite view. Their subjects associated men with high-status traits, such as being competent or competitive, and women with communal ones, such as kinship and nurturing. They also tended to reject or dislike women who vied for authoritative roles. "And, no surprise, people who disliked them tended not to recommend hiring them," she said in an e-mail. "So yes, these deeply ingrained beliefs that people have about who is qualified to lead do play a negative role in their acceptance of female leaders." Women in academe negotiate similarly ingrained biases and assumptions, she said.

What Can Be Done?

By many accounts, the current situation -- in which women are hired in academic jobs but do not advance as quickly or as far as their male counterparts, and in which they chafe at being accused of benefiting from lower expectations -- is both a cultural and a policy problem.

The MIT report counsels hiring committees to point to specific reasons that a candidate is hired, in order to dispel notions that he or she received preferential treatment. “It must be transparent that women hired at MIT are exceptionally accomplished,” the authors wrote. Many who advocate either a cultural or a policy remedy also say that strong leadership is crucial to send a signal that sexism won't be tolerated.

But changing culture is not easy, said Valian, of Hunter. Addressing subtle expressions of bias when they happen is one way to do it. And, while some would argue that the sheer numbers of women entering academe will eventually overwhelm outmoded ideas about their competence, Valian struck a far more cautious tone.

The reason, she said, is the persistence of “schemas,” or overarching, deeply held theories that are often founded on stereotype (for example, that women lack the ability or desire to do scientific research). “They are extremely powerful and long-lasting,” she said. “It takes an enormous amount of evidence to overthrow a schema that gets so much support over so many years.” The best way to change attitudes, she said, is to couple a preponderance of evidence with a new narrative.

Herbers, of Ohio State, pointed to more direct strategies that can help shape the culture in departments and institutions. Work-life balance needs to be made into a universal issue, not one that touches only women. Sexism also needs to be talked about as a concern that involves both men and women, she said. Herbers suggested enlisting “alpha males” to take up the cause. “That’s the key strategy: make it everybody’s problem by getting spokespeople who aren’t in the affected group,” she said.

Another useful strategy is to link, as MIT has done, the notion of gender equity to something that is important to the institution as a whole. For example, said Herbers, an effort to retain women -- by changing the culture and work environment -- can be aligned with the goal of attracting and keeping talent. "The message we’re given at Ohio State is that gender equity is an integral strategy to the pursuit of eminence,” said Herbers. “That is a message that’s hard to argue with.”

But Joan C. Williams, distinguished professor of law and founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law, argued that it is not useful to address the issues that women raised in the MIT report as cultural problems. While implicit gender bias needs to be rooted out, she said, structural issues in academe also need to be addressed.

Stopping the tenure clock is one example of how the machinery of higher education has adapted to the larger presence of women, but more needs to be done, she argued. The expectation that junior faculty members should work 50 hours each week is designed, she said, for a man married to a homemaker. “Not too surprisingly, if you design your schedule and expectations around men married to homemakers,” she said, “what you get at the top are men married to homemakers, or women without children.”

One remedy, she said, is to shift the definition of an academic career and to vary the pace at which one can be pursued. Another step, she added, is to ensure that the people in colleges who render decisions about professors’ careers are aware of and in compliance with anti-discrimination laws. This can be accomplished by training department heads and deans, she said, or by reassigning to the human resources office the task of granting leaves, for example.

“Many of the key personnel decisions are made by people who have no training in human resources or basic employment laws. Mainly it’s other professors,” she said. As a result, women and some men encounter what she called open expressions of gender bias that would be much rarer in a corporation, where human resources staff members are trained. “Professors who are department chairs have no training in that,” she said. “The ignorance is breathtaking.”

Ultimately, many experts agreed that MIT was to be commended for asking questions about gender and advancement -- and for disseminating the findings. “I believe that what MIT has done is a truly remarkable work,” said Broad of ACE. “It’s probably the healthiest way I can imagine that organizations like universities can come up with to face up to old views and persuade people to modify them.”

 

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