Friday Ephemera
Gushing for Gotham

Bias Undetected

If you’ve followed the recent discussion about alleged “male privilege” and the “holding back” of women, this article by John Tierney may be of interest.

You’ll find sweeping assertions of discrimination in academia against female scientists if you read the executive summary of the National Academy of Sciences’ 2006 report, which was issued by a committee led by Donna Shalala. But if you look in the report for evidence of bias, you find studies showing that female graduate students in general (and those without children in particular) are as likely as men to finish their studies, and that they’re as likely to have mentors and assistantship support. According to the report, there were some differences in productivity — male graduate students published more than female students, and tenured male professors published about 8 percent more than female tenured professors — but when men and women were up for tenure, they received it at similar rates.

Tierney’s conclusion is that, contrary to some claims (and some dubious use of statistics), the data in question doesn’t actually demonstrate any widespread bias against women studying for Ph.D.s and faculty jobs. However,

[T]here are obstacles that keep women from wanting to study science in graduate school or pursue a career in academia… I suspect the chief one is the difficulty of balancing their careers with family responsibilities, particularly childrearing.

Which is, of course, a different issue.

What’s interesting is that Tierney still frames the question in terms of women being “underrepresented” in certain professions and areas of study. But this rather begs the question. How do we know that 1:1 gender parity is some natural, default state, from which any deviation must be construed as evidence of bias? On what basis – besides ideology – can we determine that there “ought” to be a particular ratio of male and female chemists, or mathematicians, or engineers? How can we assume that, were all cultural obstacles miraculously removed, men and women would be roughly equal in number in any given profession? Whether or not meritocratic selection has been achieved cannot be determined simply by whether or not gender parity results, since we have no solid basis on which to say that gender parity should be the meritocratic outcome.

Surely what matters is that suitably capable and motivated women who wish to become engineers, mathematicians or whatever can compete as fairly as possible? Whether that leads to a roughly 50/50 gender split in any given profession seems entirely beside the point. The gender bias, if any, of an academic department or a business cannot be determined by whether or not it employs an equal number of men and women in positions of comparable status. If there are other dispositional variables to consider, statistically, in who pursues a subject to advanced levels, or other factors regarding the availability of suitable female candidates or their persistence in the field, then a gender parity of employed engineers or mathematicians might just as plausibly indicate an anomaly, or a bias in favour of women. To assume that, magically stripped of all disagreeable influences, the male and female population “should” be perfectly symmetrical in interests, skills and dispositions is just that – an assumption. A prejudice, if you will.

And, following the logic of “representation,” couldn’t we also say that women are “underrepresented” in mining and construction, or in the military? Could similar claims be made regarding the “over-representation” of women in, say, healthcare or primary school teaching, or gay people in the arts?

Related. (h/t, The Thin Man.)