Sex and science

Are women discriminated against in the lab? Or are gender imbalances due to intellectual differences?

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Cathy Young
April 12, 2001 11:14PM (UTC)

These days, it's not unusual to see women's names attached to major scientific discoveries. The team of physicists who succeeded in stopping a light beam earlier this year was headed by Harvard professor Lene Hau; astronomer Wendy Freedman was one of the three leaders of the Hubble Space Telescope Key Project, which measured the expansion rate of the universe.

Nevertheless, science remains an overwhelmingly male field: At some leading research institutions, the percentage of women faculty in science departments is still in the single digits.


Now, as the New York Times reports in its quarterly Education Life supplement, a movement that seeks to remedy bias against women in science is sweeping universities.

But is this effort, which the Times says could "change the face of science education," based on facts or myth? And is it championing gender justice or gender politics?

A major victory for proponents of women in science occurred in late January when top administrators and professors from nine major universities -- including Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Stanford -- met at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a symposium on gender equity in science and engineering. They issued a terse though vague statement recognizing that "barriers still exist" and pledging to work for change.

The location for the gathering was not chosen randomly. It was at MIT that the gender equity initiative was born a few years ago, from a study that has been both hailed as groundbreaking and assailed as "junk science."

The Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT, publicized in the MIT faculty newsletter in March 1999, brought the issue of sexism in science into the spotlight. It became a big story for two reasons: MIT's extraordinary admission that it had practiced unintentional but pervasive discrimination against women faculty, and the claim that the study had uncovered tangible proof of discrimination in pay and work space.

"It was data-driven, and that's a very MIT thing," MIT School of Science dean Robert Birgeneau, a champion of the women's cause, told the New York Times.

Other schools scrambled to follow MIT's lead; the Ford Foundation shelled out $1 million for similar studies. Columnist Ellen Goodman and others touted the MIT study as a rebuke to anyone who believed the battles for equal opportunity were over. The MIT women who had goaded the school into doing the study were hailed as heroines -- particularly biologist Nancy Hopkins, whose complaint started it all.

In April 1999, Hopkins was invited to a White House panel on equal pay, where President Clinton lauded the "courage [of] the administrators and women scientists" who "sought to make things right and ... told the whole public the truth."


But did they?

Anyone looking at the study should have spotted red flags. For one, the two committees that investigated gender bias at MIT were made up primarily of interested parties: aggrieved women professors. More important, the 150-page, single-spaced report that documented the committee's findings was kept under wraps. What MIT released was a data-free summary that broadly discussed disparities in allocation of resources (with a passing acknowledgment that these disparities did not exist in all departments) and the women's feelings of "marginalization" and misery. The published report also made no mention of rebuttals offered to specific charges of discrimination by several male professors and officials, which, according to Science magazine, were included in the full study.

In December 1999, the Independent Women's Forum, a conservative group based in Arlington, Va., published a sharp critique of the MIT report by University of Alaska at Fairbanks psychologist Judith Kleinfeld, who meticulously analyzed the study's methodological flaws and accused MIT of producing a "political manifesto masquerading as science."

MIT officials continue to defend their decision not to divulge information about differences in salaries, lab space and perks because of confidentiality. But that makes it impossible to evaluate the study's conclusions -- for instance, one cannot judge whether differences in rewards were partly due to differences in seniority or achievement. The MIT report angrily brushed aside the merit issue, declaring that "the last refuge of the bigot is to say that those who are discriminated against ... are less good."


However, a new IWF report, "Confession Without Guilt?" released days after the nine-university initiative was unveiled, bluntly states that MIT's senior women -- at least in the biology department, ground zero of the women's revolt -- were indeed less good.

The IWF report's authors, consulting behavioral scientist Patricia Hausman and Canadian psychologist and statistician James Steiger, looked at six male and five female faculty members who had earned their Ph.D. degrees between 1971 and 1976 and found that on average, the men had published twice as many research papers, received four times as many citations in scientific journals and raised more money in government grants. This cohort was not picked in order to stack the deck: Steiger notes that it didn't even include two of the department's three male Nobel Prize winners. (It is encouraging to note, however, that women who earned their doctorates between 1988 and 1993 were far more evenly matched with their male peers -- though, as the recent New York Times article asserted, they were not more productive. It is worth noting that according to the MIT study, junior faculty women perceived no unfair treatment.)

Hausman and Steiger concluded that if there were gender differences in compensation and resources at MIT, they may have been merit-based -- and that the school had "jumped the gun" in issuing its mea culpa to avoid litigation.

Is it possible that the senior women accomplished less because they were held back by sexism? "That's a reasonable question," says Hausman. "But why didn't they say that in their report? What they said was that there was no conceivable situation to explain [the disparities], that to even suggest that there are productivity differences is bigotry."

In response to the new IWF attack, some women at MIT have questioned the group's political motives and suggested that the MIT report was just an internal memo, not a study to be judged by scientific standards. Yet the report was so highly acclaimed precisely because it was supposed to be, as Hillary Clinton gushed at the White House meeting, the work of "some of the best scientists in the world," who used "scientific method" to get the facts.


Dissenters on the MIT faculty -- and they do exist -- are keeping mum. In 1999, physicist June Matthews, who sat on the first of the two gender committees, was quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education as saying that there was "a lot of hype and hysteria" along with some well-founded complaints. Matthews now says that she "regrets" the Chronicle article and that she was misquoted. (Author Robin Wilson stands by the story.)

Matthews also told me that while she "did not agree with everything" in the MIT report, she "strongly disagreed" with Kleinfeld's critique -- which she hadn't read.

To Kleinfeld, these comments suggest a climate of orthodoxy and intimidation. Whatever the reasons for Matthews' apparent retraction, it's clear that the real story about the gender bias allegations at MIT is shrouded in the kind of secrecy one might expect to encounter when writing about, say, Russian moles in the FBI.

The plot thickens if one tries to pin down the details of the events that sparked the women's complaint in 1994.

It has been widely reported that after years of struggle, biologist Hopkins felt she'd had enough when she was removed from a course she had founded. She drafted an angry letter to President Vest about MIT's mistreatment of women, then showed it to female colleagues who asked to cosign it -- and the rest was herstory.


But there are several very different versions of these events. According to the initial story in the Boston Globe, MIT told Hopkins that "it would discontinue a course she had designed" and that "a male professor [who] had joined her in teaching it ... was going to turn the course into a book and a CD-ROM -- without her." According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Hopkins' "department took away a course she had helped develop" and gave it to "a male colleague."

The most recent version, in the New York Times Education Life quarterly, says that Hopkins "was dropped from a course she had developed with a male professor. He wanted to teach it with another professor, a man; they planned to turn the course into a CD-ROM and book."

MIT will not comment on the episode. But the records of past courses in the catalogs available at the MIT library don't quite match any of these accounts. They indicate that in the fall of 1991, Hopkins started co-teaching an introductory biology course with a revised curriculum emphasizing "the general principles of biochemistry and modern genetics." In 1994, she was replaced by a male professor who later published a textbook and CD-ROM on molecular biology. (He was also the principal author of two earlier editions of the course's textbook.)

A source at MIT told me this was Hopkins' "stolen" course. Yet it's hard to tell how much of a role she had in developing the new curriculum. In spring 1991, a slightly different version of the same revamped introductory biology course was taught by two other professors. In 1993, the two introductory biology courses were turned into two units of one course, both based on the same core curriculum but each covering some distinctive material.

Also in 1994, MIT canceled a graduate course in animal virology that Hopkins had co-taught for several years, usually with two men; however, it had existed long before she became involved.


When I e-mailed Hopkins asking for clarification, she declined to comment, saying that she had "no desire to embarrass any individual" -- despite my promise not to disclose names or identifying details. Perhaps most remarkably, she suggested that the specific facts were less important than the larger patterns of sexism: "The particular events are almost irrelevant in fact. If it had not been those -- it would have been others."

Hopkins' story has another curious wrinkle. She has claimed that before her consciousness-raising experience, she "shunned" all things feminist, not wanting to be associated with "angry" women. Yet, for several years before she complained of discrimination, Hopkins had co-taught a reproductive biology course that dealt with sociopolitical as well as biological issues -- and was cross-listed in women's studies. That's not a crime, but it does contradict Hopkins' self-creation as a "reluctant feminist" (to quote the title of the New York Times article).

Perhaps Hopkins was ill-used, whether it was sexism or simply academic politics. Clearly, at worst, she was nudged out of a course she had helped develop, not robbed of a course she had single-handedly designed as the early coverage implied. In any case, as Hausman, coauthor of the IWF report, points out, if a male scientist had accused female professors (unnamed but easily recognizable to colleagues) of serious misconduct, it's doubtful that any media outlet would have unquestioningly aired such charges. Yet Hopkins' tale of woe became a symbol of the indignities suffered by women scientists.

Kleinfeld, Hausman and Steiger are careful to note that they are not claiming that women at MIT didn't suffer discrimination, only that there's no proof that they did. The IWF, known for its skeptical scrutiny of claims of women's oppression, may have an ideological agenda; but so did the authors of the MIT report, and at least the IWF has been upfront about its numbers and methods.

The MIT study aside, what's the big picture?


Reliable information on the treatment of women in science is hard to come by, partly because private institutions do zealously guard their data on salaries and benefits. Princeton's recent statement that its bias investigation found no disparities was just as evidence-free as MIT's "confession." State universities are more open. Last fall, UCLA's gender equity committee released a detailed report showing "small or nonexistent" salary differentials for men and women with the same rank, seniority and specialty. In physical sciences, seniority-adjusted compensation was actually somewhat higher for women; in life sciences, women were paid less but rose faster to the rank of full professor.

Of the nearly 30 women professors or doctoral candidates at top research universities whom I have interviewed, about three-quarters believed they had not encountered any bias worth mentioning. Some were emphatic about it: "Nope, I've never experienced any discrimination [or] discouragement ... and I'm not worried about any," Emma Goldberg, a graduate student in physics at the University of California at Berkeley, wrote in an e-mail.

Several younger women said that, if anything, being female was a plus, and a couple worried about receiving unfair advantages.

Janice Jenkins, a senior professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan, who became the first woman in her department in the 1970s, recalled being introduced by a dean at a meeting as "Ms. Jenkins" while others were addressed as "Professor," and being casually asked by a colleague to photocopy some papers. Yet she unapologetically dismissed such minor insults as quaint things of their era, insisting that, overall, she had seen nothing but fairness and respect from male professors.

The women who did see gender bias as a serious issue almost invariably spoke of problems that they themselves describe as "fuzzy" and nearly impossible to quantify, such as men's tendency to feel more comfortable around one another and to think of "the boys" when considering someone for a symposium or a high-level position. Pamela Bjorkman, a biologist at the California Institute of Technology, mentioned incidents in which "if a woman is in charge of a project and someone needs information, they'll talk to a man who's not in charge ... it would generally be just that they're calling up a friend or something." Ironically, as proof that all these intangibles have real effects, some women cited the MIT study.


Do the intangibles matter? "People have grievances, and whether they're attributed to the correct things or not is difficult to tell," said Jennifer Widom, a professor of computer science at Stanford. "I tend to believe hard facts when they're produced correctly, and I'm more skeptical of these nebulous things." Jenkins was more explicitly scornful of "all these petty stories" and of the handwringing about the "climate" for women.

Some critics of gender-bias claims may be too quick to dismiss issues raised by advocates for women in science. Hausman scoffs at the notion of men helping each other get ahead, since "men often treat each other abominably." Yet it's entirely possible for men to compete ferociously with some men and form cliques with others.

Still, given the triviality or amorphousness of many complaints, it's hard not to conclude that women would be better served by Jenkins' no-nonsense approach. So what if a man who needs information on a research project calls a male friend on the team rather than the female team leader? Surely, too, women may in fact misattribute personal or professional conflicts to sexism.

Biologist Bjorkman, who is convinced that women face significant gender-based barriers, nonetheless concedes that "most academics feel they're getting a raw deal." Competition in science may be especially rough. A 1999 New York Times article about feuds in science featured tales of bitter fights over credit for joint work and of debates so acrimonious that some of the combatants stopped attending scientific conferences.

When women get embroiled in such disputes, there is little doubt that at least sometimes, the gender card is played. Take an episode recounted in the 1999 Science magazine article on women's struggles in science, involving Margaret Geller, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.


Under the rules of the center, its members who are Smithsonian employees, including Geller, are not eligible for Harvard tenure. Yet, in 1997, Harvard offered Geller the Mallinckrodt chair, normally given to outstanding tenured researchers.

Far from being pleased, Geller was furious when she learned that tenure wasn't part of the package; she refused to accept the chair and accused the university of sex discrimination, even though six men at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center were in the same boat. At one point, Harvard considered granting tenure to all Harvard-Smithsonian professors; this only further enraged Geller, who felt that she shouldn't have to share the honor.

It may seem insulting to suggest that brilliant female scientists may see sexism where there is none or, worse, exploit baseless allegations of sexism to their advantage. But why not, if we are ready to believe that brilliant male scientists are capable of Archie Bunker-like behavior? Bright and talented people of either sex can be thin-skinned, abrasive egomaniacs; women just have the option of giving such behavior a feminist gloss.

Most women scientists, including those who are confident that they have not run up against gender-based barriers, welcome gender equity initiatives. Harvard biologist Joan Brugge believes that the publicity surrounding the MIT study may have made many women more willing to walk into a department chairperson's office and talk about salary and perks -- just as many men have done for years.

Even if the past inequities have been exaggerated, is there anything wrong with the current crusade to make things better for women in a heavily male-dominated field? There may be, if this crusade ends up sacrificing science to politics. If concern about unfair treatment boosts some women's assertiveness, it may cause others to develop a hypervigilance that does them little good. One black female professor told me that if she encountered a situation that seemed unfair, she couldn't tell if it was due to her gender, race, girlish appearance or imagination -- and concluded, "It could drive a person completely batty."


Nor is it much of a prescription for collegiality if men feel they must walk on eggshells around women. And ostensibly pro-feminist talk about the need for special "sensitivity" to women can sound disturbingly like old-style paternalism.

There also is the issue of affirmative action, which most champions of women in science regard as absolutely essential. The policies they endorse include not only efforts to ensure that women candidates are considered but blatant "reverse discrimination," from "target of opportunity" hiring in which a search is limited only to women to special monetary incentives for departments to hire women.

Aside from the not entirely insignificant issue of fairness to men, there is the stigma that may cling to women as a result. Lynne Hillenbrand, an astronomer who recently got a junior faculty post at Caltech, is one of a number of women who find the idea of special accommodations offensive. "If you're given an opportunity for the reason of being female, it doesn't do anyone any favors; it makes people question why you're there."

One of the few specific goals outlined in the nine-university statement was "to work toward a faculty that reflects the diversity of the student body." But how realistic is that? In the physical sciences, even today only about a quarter of Ph.D. degrees go to women. Meanwhile, turnover in universities is notoriously slow. Professorial ranks are still full of people who started their academic careers 30 or 40 years ago -- nearly all of them men. (In 1960, women received 10 percent of doctoral degrees in biology and fewer than 4 percent in the physical sciences.)

A faculty that looks like the student body is, for the foreseeable future, a utopian goal; but, as Hillenbrand points out in a recent article in Status, the newsletter of the American Astronomical Society Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy, aggressive attempts to achieve it can create "an environment where women are clearly preferred over men in faculty/staff hiring" -- an environment in which she, for one, doesn't particularly care to work. The only fair solution, she concludes, is "to live with the historical inequities until they are slowly repaired with nonbiased hiring."

Some believe that female scientists will always face special problems as long as the numbers are so skewed. Why, then, are relatively few women still entering the sciences?

Conventional explanations include discrimination, gender stereotyping and general oppression. But it's not clear why these barriers would operate in science or engineering so much more than in other traditionally male fields like law and medicine, where women now earn close to half of professional degrees; psychology, where women's share of doctorates has gone from 15 percent in 1960 to a staggering 67 percent in 1998; and even biology, where women made up about a third of doctoral scientists in 1995, compared with 5 percent in physics.

Judith Kleinfeld believes that the explanation lies, at least in part, in innate intellectual differences between the sexes. She points out that while overall sex differences in mathematical ability are insignificant, males vastly outnumber females at the top of the scale; the gap is even greater in visual-spatial reasoning. Politically correct or not, many scientists (including women such as Canadian neurobiologist Doreen Kimura) believe these differences are influenced by hormones.

Even mathematically gifted girls are less likely than boys to pursue careers in the hard sciences. Kleinfeld is convinced that this is largely a result of free choice. She points to her own daughter, a mathematically gifted Rhodes scholar who now works in third world development projects. "I did everything to get her interested in a scientific career," says Kleinfeld. "She told me, 'I'm not your guinea pig for the advancement of women in science. I want to work with people.'"

Kleinfeld argues that interest in people and "living things" rather than objects and abstract ideas is more characteristic of women, as is an inclination toward careers that allow more room for family and for a balanced life.

Interestingly, some advocates for women in science recognize the role of these preferences. Their response, however, is to argue that the culture of science should change. A 1993 article in Science on women's attrition from scientific fields deplored such "outmoded stereotypes" as "an emphasis on scientific knowledge independent of real-world uses and an image of scientists as obsessed with science to the exclusion of other human endeavors."

But what if trying to jettison these "stereotypes" results in the loss of something essential to scientific pursuit at the highest level?

It's too early to tell whether the sex differences that make science a predominantly male field are impervious to societal change. Perhaps in the future, it will be more common for women to combine motherhood with a high-pressure career by ceding the primary-caregiver role to fathers. Perhaps we will shake off the still-lingering cultural message that a real woman must be a "people person."

In the meantime, girls and young women are already making dramatic strides in science. Female high school students now take more mathematics and science courses than their male peers; in recent years, girls have made up close to half of semifinalists, about 40 percent of finalists and about a third of the winners in the Intel (formerly Westinghouse) Science Talent Search. Remarkably, the last winners of the top award, sometimes dubbed the "junior Nobel Prize," have been girls -- two of whom did projects in physics.

Few would object to extra efforts to encourage girls to pursue an interest in science. But these efforts may not always pay off. While female science majors are more likely to continue in the field if they receive encouragement from parents and teachers, a study included in a 1998 National Science Foundation report also shows paradoxical evidence of the opposite pattern: young women picking a science major to please an adult authority figure, and then dropping out because their heart isn't in it.

Of course we should ensure that women with talent and passion for science have the same opportunities as men -- even if such women are fewer in numbers. What doesn't help is to insist that numerical imbalance, or some women scientists' feelings of unhappiness, is proof of inequity. In the end, such a mind-set may only ensure that many women scientists will never find true satisfaction in their careers.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is the author of "Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality."

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