Politics & Policy

Is Science Saturated with Sexism?

New evidence suggests the opposite.

The voice of reason is easy to shout down but hard to vanquish altogether. This week it turned up in an unlikely place: an academic paper about gender bias in the sciences. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a coolly objective paper on the hot, politicized subject of bias against women in academic science.

In “Understanding Current Causes of Women’s Underrepresentation in Science,” Cornell professors Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams provide a thorough analysis and discussion of 20 years of data. Their conclusion: When it comes to job interviews, hiring, funding, and publishing, women are treated as well as men and sometimes better. As Williams told Nature, “There are constant and unsupportable allegations that women suffer discrimination in these arenas, and we show conclusively that women do not.” Put another way, the gender-bias empress has no clothes.

For more than a decade, passionate activists in groups such as the American Association of University Women, the National Council for Research on Women, and the Committee on Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science have insisted that women scientists are victims of pervasive sex discrimination, and they have produced a mountain of advocacy research to prove it.

But many scholars have questioned the cogency of their studies, most recently in a 2009 article entitled “Gender Difference at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering and Mathematics Faculty,” sponsored by the National Science Foundation, and in a 2009 collection that I edited, The Science on Women in Science. But the NSF authors and other critics proved no match for the women’s groups, who ignored the evidence and aggressively promoted their own agenda through government lobbying and a mystifying number of conferences, retreats, and summits.

Ceci and Williams’s new article will be impossible to ignore. The featured article in one of science’s premier journals, it is a systematic demolition of most of the studies that sustain the science wing of the gender-bias movement. Celebrated bias research — including a much-vaunted 1997 Swedish study alleging massive discrimination in peer review — is shown to be seriously flawed, marginal, and “superseded by larger, more sophisticated analyses showing no bias, or occasionally, bias in favor of women.”

What is more, Ceci and Williams demonstrate that the real problem most women scientists confront is the challenge of combining motherhood with a high-powered science career. This issue, they say, will never be solved by the “misplaced focus on discrimination.”

But a misplaced focus on discrimination is now the law of the land. At the behest of the women’s groups, Congress held several hearings throughout the last decade on the “crisis” of sexism in the sciences. Scholars like Ceci and Williams played no role — only true believers were brought in as expert witnesses. Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.), an early convert to the view that American science is saturated with sexism, was successful in bringing the Title IX equity program into the science lab.

“The most common misconception about Title IX is that it applies only to sports,” said Wyden in 2005. “That’s just not true. . . . Title IX should be a guiding principle in hiring, tenure, scholarships, and lab space for all scholars.” By the late 2000s, Wyden’s vision had prevailed: Wide-ranging Title IX investigations were underway.

Members of Congress, from both parties, also gave strong support to a hard-hitting NSF equity program called ADVANCE. ADVANCE has awarded millions of dollars to activist scholars in universities for anti-bias centers, workshops, tutorials, and interactive theater groups. To cite just one example, gender activists at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law were awarded a $300,000 grant to develop Gender Bias Bingo, an online game that raises players’ consciousness about the “four patterns of gender bias.” But if Ceci and Williams are right, the premise behind all of this taxpayer-funded agitation — from games and skits to Title IX investigations — is false.

Congress should hold hearings on the merits of continuing to spend hundreds of millions on Title IX science reviews and the ADVANCE grants. This time skeptics like Ceci and Williams must be included. It is hard to see how the gender-bias empire will stand once reason and truth are given a place at the table.

— Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


The Latest