Ceci, Williams find ‘changing landscape’ for women in science


ciws-header-home_3By H. Roger Segelken
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, November 4, 2014

A newly published examination of reasons for female academics’ ongoing underrepresentation in math-intensive fields analyzes a very long list of purported culprits – before coming to a surprising conclusion.

Cornell’s Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams, both of the Department of Human Development, are joined by economists Donna K. Ginther of the University of Kansas and Shulamit Kahn of Boston University for a whole-issue report, “Women in Academic Science: A Changing Landscape,” in the October 2014 journal, Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

Ceci and colleagues address numerous factors alleged to be responsible for the shortage of women in math-intensive fields of academic science. The 67-page article first reviews older data, then undertakes new analyses of factors alleged to be responsible for the dearth of women in these fields.

Alleged factors include biased hiring, chilly climate, productivity, hours worked, math aptitude scores, average impact ratings, job satisfaction, and promotion and tenure rates. Their conclusion may surprise some readers whose opinions are based on media headlines.

They find that, with some notable exceptions, the playing field is now level for women and men in terms of hiring into tenure-track appointments, tenure, impact, promotion, job satisfaction and remuneration.

The single biggest change, the authors believe, has been time itself: In contrast to women’s status several decades ago, today women and men fare comparably in the academic science pipeline – again, with some exceptions that the authors describe.

Observed sex differences have their roots long before application to tenure-track jobs, starting in adolescence and amplified in high school (where fewer women take advanced placement courses in calculus and physics) and in college.

The authors summarize their findings by urging readers to go beyond the rallying cries of the past and focus on current challenges facing women: “We conclude by suggesting that although in the past, gender discrimination was an important cause of women’s underrepresentation in scientific academic careers, this claim has continued to be invoked after it has ceased being a valid cause of women’s underrepresentation in math-intensive fields.”

Consequently, the authors continue, “current barriers to women’s full participation in mathematically-intensive academic science fields are rooted in pre-college factors and the subsequent likelihood of majoring in these fields.”

They recommend that “future research should focus on these barriers rather than misdirecting attention toward historical barriers that no longer account for women’s underrepresentation in academic science.”

Related Links

The Paper
New York Times: ‘Academic Science Isn’t Sexist’
Association for Psychological Science: ‘Gender Fairness Prevails in Most Fields of Academic Science’
Stephen Ceci
Wendy Williams
College of Human Ecology

High schoolers explore careers at 4-H conference


By Rebecca Harrison
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, July 1, 2013

“Life is not a straight line,” as a former NFL lineman-turned-engineering professor will be the first to admit regarding the direction his career took – similar to many of his students, and even his own daughter.

Matt Miller, professor in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and his daughter, Chaney Miller ’14, a Cornell civil engineering major, addressed prospective science and engineering students in a film for a seminar on “Thinking Like a Scientist,” one of many workshops held during this year’s annual 4-H Career Explorations Conference, June 25-27. The conference hosted 600 high school students and chaperones from 45 New York counties.

Growing up, Chaney Miller shared a similar quality to many engineering students: She always liked building things. Like many students, though, her path changed in high school. “I got really involved in Spanish,” she said. “I had a really great teacher. She really got me fired up on languages, so that kind of stemmed into Mandarin. It was something that I really liked and wanted to pursue at Cornell.”

Said Matt Miller: “After she was admitted [to Cornell], she had decided to reinvestigate the possibility of being an engineer.”

During her first semester, Chaney Miller said she “just kind of got body slammed by a few of the exams.” Reminded by her father that “This is the way it goes; this is the process,” she persevered.

Charlotte Sweeney ’04, M.A. ’08, Ph.D. ‘13, discussed with students at the workshop how Chaney Miller’s success in languages led to an aptitude for engineering and how this could apply to a many career decisions. As one student observed: “We don’t think of languages as symbols, but a sentence is a little bit like an equation. I don’t think her leap was that giant from Mandarin, especially to engineering.”

Through exploring many Cornell programs, Chase Thomas, a junior at Oneonta High School and aspiring engineer, “saw that Cornell was a beautiful campus with smart and engaging teachers, where students can learn literally anything. They even have a particle accelerator under the campus!”

According to conference coordinator Nancy Schaff, there is a tradition of 4-H members coming to Cornell in June dating to 1922. “Lots of kids say it has made a difference in their college decisions and ultimately their career,” Schaff said. “Students stay in the dorms, eat in the dining hall and learn what college is like.”

This year, 10th to 12th grade students had an opportunity to explore nearly 20 programs ranging from permaculture to computer science, while eighth and ninth graders participated in the “University U” program, a broader sample of career-oriented workshops.

At the end of the conference, Anthony Burrow, assistant professor of human development, advised students: “… understand that you’re on a pathway. It’s hard for us to think of it like this. Life feels like a photograph looking at you in one point in time. But, you’re a movie. It’s dynamic; you’re moving. You got here for a reason. You came to career explorations for a reason. Why? Think about that.”

Rebecca Harrison ’14 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.

Is motherhood the biggest reason for academia’s gender imbalance?



Cornell psychologists Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams with two of their three daughters

A new paper by two developmental psychologists on the dearth of women in academic science argues that the cause of the gender imbalance is much easier to identify than most researchers have posited. The solution is also more obvious, they say, although that doesn’t mean it will be easy to implement (see sidebar). Not surprisingly, their provocative assertions, in a paper titled “When Scientists Choose Motherhood,” have stirred the pot in an already contentious field.

Writing in the March/April issue of American Scientist, Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci of Cornell University argue that the traditional view of female underrepresentation as a complex mixture of discrimination, differential abilities, and career preferences misses the mark. Instead, say the husband-and-wife team, the evidence from studies stretching back more than a decade points overwhelmingly to the primacy of “the dynamics of family formation in Western society,” or, in a word, motherhood. Read the full story

Women leave math-intensive science fields when they decide to have kids

women in math-th

By Susan Kelley
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, February 14, 2012





Women with advanced degrees in math-intensive academic fields drop out of fast-track research careers primarily because they want children — not because their performance is devalued or they are shortchanged during interviewing and hiring, report two Cornell professors.

Fewer women choosing such fields in the first place means children take an especially heavy toll on math-intensive departments, where women full professors number only between 4 percent and 13 percent, report Cornell human development professors Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci in the journal American Scientist (100:2).

Female postdocs are twice as likely as men to choose to leave the academic pipeline once they have children. “For those women in math-based fields, who had the ability and commitment to persist through doctoral and postdoctoral training, this loss to the academy is especially salient,” says Williams. “Moreover, we found that childless women fare as well professionally as men with or without children, while women who remain in the academy after having children fare worse.”

In other words, the researchers conclude: “Motherhood — and the policies that make it incompatible with a tenure-track research career — take a toll on women that is detrimental to their professional lives. Even just the plan to have children in the future is associated with women exiting the research fast-track at a rate twice that of men.

“It is time for universities to move past thinking about underrepresentation of women in science solely as a consequence of biased hiring and evaluation, and instead think about it as resulting from outdated policies created at a time when men with stay-at-home wives ruled the academy,” said Williams, who founded the Cornell Institute for Women in Science, a research and outreach center that studies and promotes the careers of women scientists.

The academic system presents women with a harsh reality: They face the most challenging period of their careers during their peak childbearing years, the authors say. Women must deal with pregnancy, childbirth and child care while simultaneously accumulating an impressive portfolio of work to earn tenure. “Women are making active decisions to leave academia in a world that juxtaposes biologically determined fertility opportunity with the period of critical, early career growth,” Williams added. “Due to the inescapable reality of biology, this is a choice men are not required to make.”

For the study, Williams and Ceci analyzed data related to the academic careers of women and men with and without children in academic fields, including math-heavy ones. They found that before becoming mothers, women have careers equivalent to or better than men’s. “They are paid and promoted the same as men, and are more likely to be interviewed and hired in the first place,” Williams said.

The study has implications for university policymakers, the authors assert. Universities could pump up the number of women in fields where they are in short supply by updating policies to accommodate childrearing. Strategies could include, for example, offering women with children part-time tenure-track positions that segue to full time once children are older. Colleges could also stop the tenure “clock” for parents who are raising children, reduce teaching loads for parents of newborns and offer emergency childcare. The authors also note the need for more research into gender-specific aspects of women’s professorial lives.

“In a time of limited resources, universities should direct attention toward solving the critical current problem: policies and procedures that make academic lives incompatible with motherhood,” Williams said.

The study builds on previous research by Williams and Ceci published in 2011 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that women in math-intensive fields did not face discrimination in hiring, publishing or funding.

The current research was supported by the National Institutes of Health.

Women in science research receives media attention

Several recent articles and interviews have covered research by Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci on the choices women in science make and how it is these choices, rather than discrimination, that affects their careers.

Quoted in Social scientist sees bias within, New York Times, February 7, 2011.

BBC Science in Action Series interview with Williams for a segment on Women in Science, March 11, 2011.

The myth of gender discrimination, interview by Ceci and Williams for New Hampshire Public Radio, February 15, 2011.

Universities need to do more for women in math fields, interview by Williams and Ceci for The Innovation Trail, March 22, 2011.

Family Planning Issues Siphon Women From Sciences, interview by Williams for WNED-AM 970 NEWS, April 11, 2011.

Choices – not discrimination – determine women scientists’ success

scientist 70x70


Wendy Williams


Stephen Ceci


It’s an incendiary topic in academia – the pervasive belief that women are underrepresented in science, math and engineering fields because they face sex discrimination in the interviewing, hiring, and grant and manuscript review processes. In a study published online Feb. 7 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Cornell social scientists say it’s just not true.

It’s not discrimination in these areas, but rather, differences in resources attributable to career and family-related choices that set women back in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, say Stephen J. Ceci, the H.L. Carr Professor of Developmental Psychology, and Wendy M. Williams, professor of human development and director of the Cornell Institute for Women in Science, both in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology.

The data show that women scientists are confronted with choices, beginning at or before adolescence, which influence their career trajectories and success. Read the full story

Explaining the complicated women + math formula

female mathematicianWhy aren’t there more women math professors? Or engineering professors, or physics professors, or professors of computer science or economics? Why aren’t there more women tech entrepreneurs? If a field involves lots of numbers, why does it seem to involve so few women? Some people say it’s discrimination, others say socialization and few, including a former Harvard university president, have said ability has something to do with it. (That’s largely why he’s “former.”)

Now a husband and wife team, both academics (with three daughters), have analyzed the cognitive data and decided it’s not really any of these. It’s mostly about female preference and motherhood. Read the full article

The Gender Equation: Zeroing in on why women avoid math-intensive fields

The Mathematics of Sex: How Biology and Society Conspire to Limit Talented Women and Girls, by Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams, has shifted the debate on the dearth of women in math-intensive fields. Published last September by Oxford University Press, it reaches a surprising conclusion: the reason why so few women hold tenure-track positions in engineering, physics, and mathematics departments is simply because they choose not to enter those fields—and if they do, they tend to leave them in large numbers.  Read more

The Mathematics of Sex: How Biology and Society Conspire to Limit Talented Women & Girls

By Susan Lang
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle October 27, 2009

Almost half of all recent M.D.s and Ph.D.s in biology are women, and so are the majority of new psychologists (67 percent), veterinarians (75 percent) and dentists (70 percent). But why the lack of women mathematicians, engineers, chemists and physicists?

Book cover

In the top 100 U.S. universities, only 9-15 percent of tenure-track academic positions (and less than 10 percent of full professors) in math-intensive fields are held by women, report Cornell professors Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams.

Yet, more than one-third of the professors in the social sciences and humanities (except in economics with 16 percent) are women.

In their new book, “The Mathematics of Sex: How Biology and Society Conspire to Limit Talented Women and Girls” (Oxford University Press), Ceci and Williams examine evidence from around the world in endocrinology, economics, sociology, education, genetics and psychology about why such fields as mathematics, computer science, physics, engineering and chemistry are so lopsidedly male. They examine three classes of explanations: ability differences in mathematics and spatial ability, biases and barriers, and career/lifestyle preferences.

Their general conclusion: The imbalance in mathematically oriented careers is not due to the sex differences in mathematical and spatial ability that have been reported, or to current biases.

“Though past cohort discrepancies may be explained in such terms, because women are hired for tenure-track positions at rates roughly comparable to their proportions in the Ph.D. pools — and more often than not, slightly above their proportions,” said Ceci, the Helen L. Carr Professor of Developmental Psychology at Cornell.

Rather, he added, the single biggest reason why so few women work in these fields is because they opt out of such careers at a fairly young age.

“In surveys,” Ceci said, “very few adolescent girls say they desire to be an engineer or physicist, preferring instead to be medical doctors, veterinarians and lawyers.”

Although females earn a large portion of bachelor’s degrees in all fields of science, including math-intensive fields (46 percent of mathematics majors are females), disproportionately fewer women enter graduate school in these fields, and fewer women who earn Ph.D.s apply for academic jobs.

Women want some job flexibility to raise children, and “the timing of child rearing coincides with the most demanding periods of their career, such as trying to get tenure or working exorbitant hours to get promoted,” Ceci said.

For the same reasons, women drop out of scientific fields after entering them — especially math and physical sciences — at significantly higher rates than men, particularly as they advance, added co-author Williams, professor of human development.

Even in such fields as medicine, where women now make up half of graduating classes, those entering academic medicine drop out at higher rates than do their male counterparts.

“The tenure structure in academe demands that women who have children make their greatest intellectual achievements contemporaneously with their greatest physical and emotional achievements — a feat fathers are never expected to accomplish,” Williams said. “When women opt out of careers — or segue to part-time work in them — to have children, this is a choice men are not required to make.”

The book builds on a study that Ceci, Williams and colleague Susan Barnett published earlier this year in the American Psychological Association’s Psychological Bulletin (135:2), which analyzed more than 400 articles and book chapters published over 35 years on sex differences in math.

Ceci and Williams, a couple with three daughters, including one with a graduate degree in engineering, both teach in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology.

Why tenure doesn’t necessarily confer moxie, and other findings from the frontlines of academic freedom

Chronicle OnLine May 10, 2007

Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci are Cornell professors of human development and the editors of “Why Aren’t More Women in Science? Top Researchers Debate the Evidence” (2007). This article was excerpted from the authors’ previously published article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Submissions are invited for the Chronicle’s regular column of ideas and opinion.

Universities save money by offering tenure to fewer professors: Today less than 40 percent of U.S. faculty members are on tenure track. In all the research and debate, one unexamined aspect of tenure is whether it fulfills its original justification, espoused by the American Association of University Professors since 1915, which is to ensure academic freedom — professors’ freedom to teach, conduct research and perform other duties without fear of job loss or censure. But does it?

One assistant professor was afraid to study a topic because senior colleagues with a contrasting view of the field did not want to see rival positions bolstered. Even now, as a tenured associate professor, she does not feel comfortable undertaking the research. She reasons that once promoted to full professor, she will finally pursue the topic without fear. Whatever happened to tenure’s ensuring academic freedom — wasn’t tenure supposed to liberate professors to pursue controversial ideas?

Empirical data were absent, so we conducted a survey (with Katrin Mueller-Johnson, published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences). After e-mailing a random sample of 2,700 professors of all ranks and varied disciplines from top-rated colleges and universities across the country, 36 percent (961) agreed to participate. We also telephoned a random sample of 48 nonresponders; 43 responded, and their attitudes matched the original 961 responders.

We asked these 1,004 professors to react to real-world dilemmas involving colleagues wishing to teach courses unpopular with their peers, investigate unpopular topics and publish controversial findings; e.g., “Assistant Professor B is considering teaching a new course that several of B’s senior colleagues frown upon. What would the typical assistant professor in B’s position do?” For one-third of the professors, the question referred to an assistant professor; for another third, an associate professor; and for the final third, a full professor. Equal numbers of assistant, associate and full professors got each version of the question.

We compared how professors of a given rank believed colleagues of their own versus other ranks would behave. Our large sample enabled us to see how actual full professors said their peers would behave, for example, compared with how people at that rank were perceived as behaving by more junior colleagues.

Because we wondered if the lure of tenure and promotion impeded ethical behavior, we also asked our participants how colleagues act when confronted with such dilemmas as a colleague misappropriating grant funds or having a sexual relationship with an undergraduate.

Academic freedom should mean that professors with tenure act without fear of reprisal in these real-life situations, pursuing research that interests them, reporting unethical conduct by colleagues, etc. Sadly, tenure does not appear to confer such freedom.

Professors in our study were more timid than we expected, rarely confronting departmental colleagues who disagreed with the content of their research and teaching. Interestingly, everyone thought that everyone else would behave more boldly than they themselves would.

Having tenure was not associated with a greater willingness to speak one’s mind or publish controversial findings. Comparing tenured associate professors with untenured assistant professors and tenured full professors revealed that the associates behaved more like their junior colleagues than like their senior ones.

The biggest increase in the tendency to engage in the academic freedoms mentioned above came upon promotion to full professor. That point usually comes 12-20 years after the Ph.D., during which time academic freedom is stifled, or at least muted.

One happy finding was that the idea of the renegade tenured professor — often invoked during tenure reviews to block a candidate by instilling fear of the person’s future selfish or irresponsible behavior — turned out to be a myth. Most professors lack the moxie or desire to become renegades.

All the professors in our sample assumed that the colleague down the hall would be more likely than they themselves were to report another professor for misappropriating grant funds or having an inappropriate relationship with a student. (Interestingly, our survey revealed few disciplinary or gender differences.) In fact, some professors appear more concerned with remaining in their colleagues’ good graces than they are with maintaining ethical standards.

One could argue that tenure helps attract a talented workforce, results in higher graduation rates at colleges and universities with higher proportions of tenure-track faculty members, and protects the few who most need it. But is tenure the most efficient way to achieve those goals? Some nations that do not offer tenure still protect academic freedom, through legislation or union contracts (e.g., Britain and New Zealand).

We conclude that tenure is not living up to its original promise: It does not liberate professors to exercise the freedoms of speech, writing and action. The muzzling effect of the current system of promotion in higher education must be weighed against tenure’s virtues, such as higher graduation rates and the recruitment of a talented workforce.

The truth is, most of us walk on eggshells until we become full professors. To quote one 45-year-old friend, newly promoted to that rank, “It’s great to finally be able to speak my mind at work.”