To the Editor:
Your recent article, “Research Finds No Gender Bias in Academic Science,” by Katherine Knott, provokes with a title that doesn’t accurately reflect the actual results of the research your article describes. But more importantly, the underlying research itself, because of its “adversarial collaborative” approach, is constrained in what conclusions it was able to reach and, I believe, fails to accurately reflect the current state of the gendered disadvantages women in science face, with concomitant effects of their success. Hence your article’s celebration of these limited results is highly likely to mislead readers about the current state of women’s equality in science.
I am an applied mathematician and woman in academic science, and over a 30-year career have served as chair of my department and as Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in the Faculty of Science at Simon Fraser University. Your title proclaiming “no gender bias in academic science” caught my attention in large part because it does not reflect my own experience, nor does it do justice to the struggles experienced by the many women scientists that I have interacted with in my administrative, advisory, and mentoring capacities.
The title has also caught the attention of various far-right fora. It is deeply unfortunate that in the current political environment, where institutional efforts towards DEI are under attack, Inside Higher Ed chose a sensationalistic title, which does not even accurately reflect the published results. “Exploring Gender Bias in Six Key Domains of Academic Science: An Adversarial Collaboration” by Ceci, Kahn, and Williams (2023), surveyed 6 key domains of historical disparity between men and women in science, and found two of the six to be biased against women.
Although Wendy Williams, one of the research’s authors and a skeptic of claims of gender bias in academic STEM, suggests that we are “90 percent of the way” to an “equitable landscape,” a more critical reading of the Ceci et al. paper should raise doubts about this triumphalism.
The very nature of the adversarial collaboration means that, in the authors’ own words, they “abandoned irreconcilable points, so that what survived is a consensus document.” One consensus they had to reach was what constitutes bias and what does not. The authors note that there are significant systemic and societal barriers impeding women’s progress. They also note “[r]easonable people differ in their views about such broad societal construals and whether they should be called bias, and such difference exist among the authors of the present article.” Thus, they proceed with a mutually agreed upon and, I would argue, very narrow definition of bias. Essentially, their canonical test for bias is when, given a man and a woman with the same CV, their outcomes (e.g., in hiring, grant awards, or higher salary) diverge based on gender. What this standard neglects are the biases and barriers that women must overcome in order to achieve an “equivalent” CV.
As an applied mathematician, I look at this paper and ask: is what the authors are measuring significant? There are numerous forces working against the full participation of women in STEM which the authors themselves mention but do not include in their measurements of bias. These include sexual harassment, the collision of the tenure clock with the biological one, chilly climate, masculine heteronormativity, early socialization differences, and unequal distribution of family care-taking responsibilities, among others. Additionally, there are many remaining domains of potential bias in academic STEM which were not evaluated by Ceci et al., such as levels of grant funding, tenure and promotion, prestigious awards, etc.
By contrast, what the authors are measuring, while not trivial, strikes me as much less significant than your headline warrants or would justify the article’s acclaim from voices hostile to EDI. Finally, the authors’ desire to provide evidence to best direct “substantial resources […] toward reducing gender bias in academic science … when and where it exists” may be admirable but as the Association for Women in Science point out in their recent statement in response to this study, “the current levels of parity may backslide.” In closing, I would also highlight the devasting effects COVID has had and will continue to have for some time on the careers of women and other underrepresented groups in STEM. This is not the time to change course on institutional efforts towards equity in academic STEM.
--Mary Catherine Kropinski
Professor, department of mathematics
Simon Fraser University