A Gender Problem?
In Academia?

Friday, an op-ed piece actually titled “Academic Science Isn’t Sexist” went up on the New York Times blog (a version appeared in the Sunday Review). It was about academic research and the lack of sexism therein. The two editorialists are co-authors on a recently released analysis on the subject (it is beautifully open access, and much of the raw data is available).

The piece and the paper claim sexism has largely waned in academic research, the result of shifts from a previously sexist, male-dominated academy. Further, that any remaining incongruities between male and female enrollment, advancement, and achievement are artifacts and anecdotal. Academic research is completely gender-blind now. Any differences are largely the product of society-at-large and earlier life decisions (like the choice to play with dolls/cute animals versus trucks/destructive robots).


The response from the science blogging community and Twittersphere was immediate and is still on-going. Jonathan Eisen responded Halloween night, soon after the piece was posted. His immediate critique was of the acknowledgement of reports of “physical aggression” in the op-ed piece, without ever addressing these in their data or analysis (even the 60+ page research paper is short on coverage). The assumption: they are also anecdotal? So everything is actually fine?

Probably not (<- this article details accounts of sexual misconduct in field work involving biology, anthropology, and other social sciences, disciplines the authors above highlight as largely welcoming and open to women). Emily Willingham provides excellent analysis of the data presented in the paper and in the broader debate at hand. It turns out there are numerous discrepancies and avoided topics of analysis (e.g. salary figures often had statistically significant differences by gender; women more often reported lack of inclusion; more details in her impeccable post).

Likewise, Matthew Francis covered the story, emphasizing the need to actively address these still-existent problems and not ignore them: the importance of even a little explicit encouragement of female students in the face of implicit discouragement (like he sees in his native field of physics) is often all that’s needed. The ever-emphatic PZ Myers rounds out the debate by breaking down the major reasoning and assumptions in the original paper, with characteristic gusto.

So what exactly were the original authors thinking?
A handful of distributed scientists were able to challenge the key arguments of their paper, using their data and citations, in free time over the weekend.
Talk about peer-review.

Seriously though, what were they thinking? I would like to think that this was actually a brilliantly orchestrated publicity stunt to get more attention on this critical issue. After all, who is going to blog/tweet/counter-op-ed “Academic Science is Slightly Less Sexist than when Male Academics could still Smoke in Their Offices”? Because when you look at the data, the background on this issue, and the immediate response from the community, it’s obvious academic research isn’t now some utopian meritocracy brimming with equality. There is still institutional and systemic biases. Whether its gender, race, sexual-preference, or need related, or tied up in the archaic publishing system that is all too easily gamed, we have a long way to go before things can be considered “fair”. What might a fair system even look like?

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