Don’t. Piss. Elena. Off.
My response to John Tierney’s article in the 6/8/10 NYTimes
Dear Mr. Tierney,
In the spirit of full disclosure, let me note that I am a Professor of Biology in the Dept. of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard, Chair of the FAS Standing Committee on Women (SCW), and a former member of the 2005 Presidential Task Force on Women in Science and Engineering (WISE). The opinions expressed below are mine and not those of Harvard, my department or the SCW.
I feel compelled to write because I am afraid you’ve missed the point completely. In your article, you focus on the politicized football of whether men are somewhat over-represented in the top 0.01% of math aptitude. Frankly, I think it’s possible that this is in fact the case. Men and women are different, I’m over it. Also, it bothers me not one whit since having this exceptional level of math skill is utterly irrelevant to my ability to do my job. Given that the vast majority of science faculty in the U.S. are in the biological sciences, particularly the biomedical sciences, and that being able to comprehend the complexities of pure math is unnecessary to most fields of biology, why does this argument matter? I can only think that people return to it over and over again because 1) they would actually like to argue about identity politics and 2) they are seeking to reassure themselves that bias does not actually exist in the academy. If women just aren’t as good at math, then it’s no one’s fault that we don’t have gender parity in the faculty, right? Well, the question isn’t why don’t we have gender parity (50:50 gender ratios), it’s why the faculty pools, even at the junior levels, fail to reflect the PhD pools (which for 5-10 years have been at or close to gender parity in biological sciences). The problem is the pipeline – brilliant young women in all fields of science, not just biology, drop out of academia on their way from getting their PhDs to becoming senior faculty members. There are plenty of reasons for this but not being good at math isn’t one of them.
Of course, I am not suggesting that math skills aren’t important to being a good scientist and I’m sure that most, if not all, professional scientists have above average math skills. Likewise, there are subfields in every science discipline, some disciplines with more than others, where having extraordinarily high math skills are an important asset if not a prerequisite. My point is that being in the highest 0.01 percentile, or even 0.05 percentile, of math skills is not a prerequisite for being a scientist, so any aptitude differences that do exist at the highest levels cannot explain the vast majority of disparity in gender balance within different fields. Given your apparent dislike of misinterpreted statistics, I was surprised to see that you placed great emphasis on the observation that “someone at the 99.9 level is more likely than someone at the 99.1 level to get a doctorate in science or to win tenure at a top university.” This may well be true but the critical question is How many tenured science faculty at top universities actually have a 99.9 level of math aptitude? Unless the overwhelming majority do in fact have that level (which I doubt), the observation is irrelevant to the problem. Of course, it is also important to note that even if disparity exists at the extreme tail of the distribution, that doesn’t mean that the average math skills of men and women are different or that the women who do occupy the extreme high end of the distribution are any less qualified than their male peers.
I further ask your indulgence to let me speculate about the “evidence of bias against female scientists” that you promise to take a “hard look at” in your next column. Several studies have shown that the success rates for men and women applying to NIH and NSF are virtually equivalent (see Science 2008 322:1472-1474 for one example). However, these studies have also found that women submit fewer proposals, ask for and receive less funding, and leave the academic career path at significantly higher rates than their male counterparts (see also J Women’s Health, 2008 17:207-214). Why should this be so? The reasons are complex. Part of it is probably the “Women don’t ask” phenomenon, thoroughly discussed by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever in their 2003 book of the same title (yes, men and women are different, I’m still over it). Another component is a lack of encouragement by senior colleagues, which touches on the issue of unconscious bias (more on this below). Most relevant to this subject, studies have shown that informal mentoring – things like notifying your colleagues of new funding opportunities and offering encouragement to pursue them – occurs more frequently among members of the same gender (e.g., JAMA 1996 276:898-905). Since there are more senior men in academia, this factor disproportionally affects female junior faculty. Perhaps the largest factor, however, is the fact that female faculty have less time for grant writing. Numerous studies and surveys have found that compared to their male colleagues, female faculty perform excessive levels of routine service of all types as well as bearing increased teaching obligations (e.g., Acad Med 2010 85:631-639). A recent climate survey at Harvard found that 42% of tenured women serve on 4 or more departmental committees and 30% serve on 4 or more university committees compared to respective rates of 28% and 15% of tenured men. The divide was similar for professional service and student advising. This has two main causes – first, that women seem to be more willing to take on this service, and second, somewhat perversely, the administration’s desire to achieve gender parity in committee make-up combined with lower female representation on the faculty means that women do more work! Of course, things don’t get any easier at home. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on Jan. 19, 2010 that several studies have found that female faculty, regardless of academic rank, do much more housework and childcare than their male colleagues (Time Crunch for Female Scientists: They do more housework than men by Jill Laster). The Nobel Laureate Christiane Nusselein-Volhard has considered this issue to be so significant that she started a foundation with her colleague Maria Leptin to award grants to talented young female scientists to support getting household help (see Curr Biol 2008 18:R185-R187 and
OK, so putting funding rates aside, let’s turn our attention to whether women experience bias in other aspects of their career. Make no mistake, they do. This bias takes two forms: direct prejudice and discouragement on the one hand and what is broadly termed unconscious bias on the other. I am not going to dwell excessively on the first point but will just say that every female scientist I know has at least one story about being actively discouraged from staying in science. When I was on the WISE task force in 2005, one stunning aspect was the dozens of unsolicited testimonials we received from young women who were driven out of science, usually by being fired for getting pregnant as a graduate student or postdoc. All scientists must learn to steel themselves to significant disappointment and criticism, most notably rejection of grant proposals and manuscripts, but one should not have to repeatedly resist targeted advice that your gender makes you unfit to progress in academia. Do you really think that our male colleagues have to deal with that?
The subject of unconscious bias is more controversial (as you have discussed yourself, TierneyLab 11/17/08) but many studies have documented it for both gender and race. I gather from your previous writings on the subject that you doubt the existence of unconscious bias, but these studies have now taken so many different forms (e.g., TrenEcolEvol 2008 23:4-6), that I hope you can admit that there may be something to it. I have seen it in action myself: when letters from female evaluators are discounted relative to those from male counterparts, when male graduate students are nominated for awards more frequently than their equally talented female colleagues, in the language used in recommendation letters for equally accomplished female and male job candidates. As I’ve already noted above, this kind of bias can affect many different aspects of a woman’s career, from the advice and mentoring she receives, to her recommendations for positions and promotions, to what she gets paid (see also Acad Med 2010 85:631-639). A recent report by the U.S. National Academies demonstrated that in the critical fields of biology and chemistry, women are underrepresented at most levels of the hiring process: in the applicant pools, the interview pools, the numbers of offers and in their rate of being tenured (see Science 2009 324:1250-1251 – just as an aside, if you want to write about people having problems with math, check out the interpretations of these results. Despite the fact that biology and chemistry are still seriously lagging in terms of faculty representation relative to the pool of PhDs and the fact that these are the most common areas for women to receive a PhD in science, the interpretation is that there is “No gender bias in faculty hiring.” OK, if you’re a physicist or a mathematician, you’re in great shape but what about the majority of female PhDs who are in biology or chemistry?). I would argue that this is due to the combined effects of the “leaky pipeline” – female PhDs choosing to leave academia – and unconscious bias in the hiring and promotion processes.
There have been numerous studies on the causes of the leaky pipeline and they are undoubtedly complex, some seem almost intractable (see Science 2008 319:903-904, the recent report by the AAUW (, the work of Dr. Kathleen Christensen at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation ( It is interesting that among different fields, the main “leak-points” of the pipeline occur at different stages. In some fields, like math and physics, we often see women turn off the academic track between their undergraduate and graduate degrees. In others, particularly biology, there is a massive leak-point between awarding of the PhD and entering the tenure track – largely corresponding with women starting families. Of course, we can never expect every PhD to enter the tenure track, but the difference between the loss of men and that of women is stark.
So what can we do about it? First, let me say that I share your negative reaction to Congress’ action. I’ve found that forcing people into a room to talk about diversity and their own inherent, if unconscious, bias is often ineffective and alienating unless the presentation is very, very good (and call me crazy, but I don’t have faith that a Congressionally mandated diversity workshop is going to be that fantastic, but perhaps I’m not giving them enough credit…). But, what about the success stories? What can we learn from them? In my own department, we were part of a huge hiring effort in the Harvard Science Division that pretty much spanned a full decade (2000-2010). We worked hard at running good searches, not with the express intention of hiring women but with the intention of hiring the very best young scientists. We paid attention to who was giving the best seminars at conferences and publishing the best papers. We actively solicited applicants who might not have applied if left to their own devices (I was certainly in that camp). There was no hand-wringing over gender and certainly no quotas. And what did it get us? A wonderful cohort of junior faculty who were, surprise, surprise, 50% female. It also gave us an internal promotion rate of 90% over the same period. While I can’t promise that we will keep up that promotion rate, the two facts put together have the potential to seriously change the make-up of our senior faculty over the next ten years. Of course, that process will be a slow one due to the nature of historical demographics (most senior faculty are men and a whole generation of retirements will be necessary before the senior faculty reflect the PhD pools of today). It doesn’t end with running your searches right, however; effectively addressing the leaky pipeline may take more revolutionary changes (e.g., maternity leave for graduate students, flexible tenure clocks, better childcare subsidies and support for travel with children). It also requires attentive mentoring of all of our junior faculty in order to ensure that they achieve their full potential and successfully navigate the sometimes mysterious world of academia. Furthermore, we can work to highlight those successful female scientists who have been equally successful at juggling their families and careers (for a beautiful example, although entirely focused on the European system, see Ottoline Leyser’s Mothers in Science This is particularly important for keeping young women in the pipeline through the postdoctoral period.
Lastly, I think it’s a useful exercise to ask, Why should we care if women are well represented in research science? Is it just some compulsive, misplaced sense of fairness, that everything has to be 50:50? Certainly not. Remember, I care about how the pool of PhDs compares to the faculty, not whether the faculty are strictly 50:50 in every case. Is it just liberal academics being overly PC? You may be able to level this accusation at some of Summer’s critics but that is not at the root of the argument for maintaining women in the science academic pipeline. Simply put, we need all the great minds we can get. If you care about the big questions in science – How did the universe form? How do new species evolve? What is the basis for protein structure and how can we predict it? What are the next clean energy sources? – you want brilliant young women to stay in science. If you care about your own health and that of your loved ones – treatments for cancer, diabetes, heart disease and numerous other ailments – you want brilliant young women to stay in science. There are simply too many pressing questions for us to throw away or let slip away any capable scientists.
Elena Kramer
P.S. – I can’t resist making two more points:
1) In regard to the several submitted comments on your article that suggest that the mere fact that there are no “Alberta Einsteins” is evidence of women’s lack of science skill, have they been paying attention to physics lately?? Just to name two, my spectacular colleagues Lisa Randall (an international expert in String Theory) and Lene Hau (the woman made light stand still for goodness sake). These women are no less intelligent than Einstein, they just don’t have as good as PR. Or as bad hair.
2) I’m just exhausted with people assuming that the women at Harvard are harpies who drummed poor Larry Summers out of a job (again this comes through in the comments). As with everything else, that was a very complicated situation and there were many reasons for his departure. Those of us who served on the resultant Task Forces wasted no time whatsoever Larry-bashing. We had no interest in it. Contrary to what many might believe, our starting premise was Women are different than Men (and for the last time, if we’re over it, can’t everyone else get over it too?) so what can we do to help female scientists succeed?