Gender Bias Bunk

April 2010

Over the past decade the National Science Foundation has funneled $135 million into a "gender bias program" called Advance. Its stated purpose: to advance women in science. In practice it does little to help women, but its potential to inflict lasting damage on fields that drive the American economy--engineering, physics and computer technology--is enormous.

Virginia Valian, a feminist psychologist at Hunter College, is credited with providing Advance with its "conceptual tools." With the help of a $3.9 million NSF grant, she and her colleagues developed the Gender Equity Project, which sponsors workshops aimed at transforming American laboratory culture. According to Valian, the compulsive work habits, single-minded dedication and "intense desire for achievement" that typify elite scientists not only marginalize women but also compromise good science. She says, "If we continue to emphasize and reward always being on the job, we will never find out whether leading a balanced life leads to equally good or better scientific work." A world where women (and resocialized men) earn Nobel Prizes on flextime has no basis in reality. But the Advance program is not about reality.

For many years NSF has sponsored admirable programs that truly help and encourage women scientists. But a 1999 MIT report alleging pervasive sexism persuaded NSF officials that encouragement was not enough: The culture of American science had to change. Scholars in the National Council for Research on Women were ready with an avalanche of advocacy research describing the "hostile environment" women face in the laboratory. One NCRW author lashed out at the "manliness of the scientific enterprise" with its obsessive single-mindedness, competitiveness and antagonism to family life. By 2006 former Clinton Administration official Donna Shalala would testify at a congressional hearing that gender bias in the laboratory was a national "crisis" requiring dramatic federal action. "Our nation's future depends on it."

But evidence for bias against women in science is weak. In a 2009 collection I edited, The Science on Women and Science, distinguished scholars such as Simon Baron-Cohen, Jerre Levy and David Geary point to data that suggest men and women, on average, have different career interests and propensities. Women are underrepresented in engineering but more than hold their own in sociology and biology Ph.D. programs. Is this because engineering departments discriminate against women while biology departments do not? Or is it because more women choose not to spend their lives with inanimate objects?

In another recent book, The Mathematics of Sex, Cornell researchers Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams politely demolish studies that are presented in NSF workshops as settled science. They note, for example, that the MIT report that inspired Advance was based on data never made public. Data from a much-quoted 1997 Swedish study "proving" sexism in peer review have somehow gone missing. The NSF itself sponsored a study in 2009 that admitted "that, at many critical transition points in their academic careers (e.g., hiring for tenure-track and tenured positions and promotions), women appear to have fared as well as or better than men."

There are brilliant women working in all areas of American science, and there is a need for reasonable and sound initiatives to help them succeed. But these efforts must be respectful, not contemptuous of the culture of American science. They should take into account the true state of the research on gender and science--not just the assertions of impassioned activists.

Advance marches on. Now any engineering, physics, math or computer-technology program that moves too slowly toward gender parity is inviting a government investigation and loss of funding. The nation's leading programs are under pressure to adopt gender quotas and to rein in their competitive, hard-driven, meritocratic culture--a culture that has made American science the mightiest in the world.