Bias or Interest?

When polled privately, professors tend to explain gender gap in sciences as a matter of choices, not discrimination.
September 20, 2006

With much fanfare, the National Academies on Monday released a report suggesting that "unintentional" biases and institutional policies were the main reasons for a continued scarcity of women on science and engineering faculties. After the report was issued, universities released the typical statements -- expressing concern about bias and pledging to eliminate it.

Unpublished data, however, suggest that most professors don't agree that discrimination -- intentional or otherwise -- is the main reason that men hold so many more positions than do women in the sciences. Professors overwhelmingly think it's a matter of men and women having different interests.

The data come from a national survey of 1,500 professors at all kinds of institutions in the United States. Two sociologists -- Neil Gross of Harvard and Solon Simmons of George Mason University -- conducted the survey on a range of social and political issues. While they have not yet finished their analysis, they agreed to release the data on women and science because of the interest generated by the National Academies' study.

The professors they surveyed were asked the following: "In many math, science, and engineering fields there are more male professors than female professors. Do you think this difference is mainly (a) because of discrimination; (b) because of differences in ability between men and women; or (c) because of differences in interest between men and women."

Among professors, 1 percent cited differing ability levels, 24 percent saw discrimination, and 75 percent said that the issue was one of different interests. When broken down by gender, far more women (33 percent) than men (17 percent) in academe see discrimination as the main factor. By discipline, sociologists and English professors were much more likely to blame discrimination than were scientists. In terms of age, the responses were largely consistent, although professors over 65 are less likely to see discrimination as the main cause.

The scholars who did the survey said that they weren't prepared to analyze the results yet, but that it was striking that such small shares of professors see discrimination as a factor -- at a time when the National Academies has drawn attention to the continued role of bias.

Other experts on women and science said that the results of this survey say quite a bit about the state of the academy. "Discrimination exists, but it's gone underground, and that makes it all the more difficult for people to talk about," said Janet Bandows Koster, executive director for the Association for Women in Science. "If you read all the reports, all the way up to the one that came out yesterday, the theme over and over again is that discrimination still exists."

What the polling data show, Koster said, is that too many professors think anything short of explicit "I won't hire a woman" type behavior isn't discrimination. "No one is going to say that they discriminate these days," she said.

The idea that lack of interest explains the gender gap doesn't make sense, she said, when one considers the greater and greater share of AP science courses taken by women, the increases in graduate school enrollments, the parity in medical school enrollments, and many other developments. "The pipelines are full early on," she said, which would not be the case if this were a matter of interest.

There also continues to be evidence that talented female scientists, early in their careers, run into obstacles that might not be faced by men. She noted, for example, the case at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where a female neuroscientist who is considered one of the brightest minds of her generation was discouraged from taking a job there by a senior (male) scholar. Or there's the Oakland University biologist, a woman who won big grants and backing from her department, only to have the provost reject her tenure bid -- sparking widespread complaints. Koster said that these cases come up over and over again -- involving women with plenty of interest in science.

"There are some real cultural issues," she said, adding that what took place at MIT "would never have been allowed in the corporate sector today." (MIT is currently investigating what took place and the senior scholar denies doing anything wrong.)

Given all the evidence that women are interested in science and face obstacles, should colleges be concerned that so many professors view the problem as one of differing interests? "We've got a lot of education to do," Koster said.


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