Wednesday, February 09, 2011

A rose by any other name

Shortly after I hit submit on the post yesterday, I was made aware of a new study suggesting that choices, not discrimination, were currently causing the sex differential in the life sciences. The study is quite good, reanalyzing and summarizing much of the data on sex discrimination in manuscript review, interviewing processes, and hiring in the life sciences. It is heartening to see that many recent interventions in blinding reviews and mentoring female candidates, along with societal progress among other things, have reduced the discrimination that women have historically faced. What I take issue with, however, is the distinction the authors make between “discrimination,” which they seem to define as bias in some aspect of the peer review or hiring process, and “choices,” which encompasses every other element of a career trajectory, including decisions made in elementary and high school about the acceptableness of a career in math or science. While the authors acknowledge that many of the “choices” they identify are constrained by biology and society, I think that if they looked more closely this would more accurately be described as structural discrimination or bias. Although individuals may not be consciously holding women to a higher standard than men, or discounting female accomplishments, the fact that women cannot have children and meet tenure requirements, while men are able to do this because of the different societal expectations around child-rearing, to me represents an institutionalized level of discrimination that goes far beyond the personal biases that the authors of this study dismiss as noncontributory. The decision to leave, or not to seek out, a tenure-track position because it “demands that women having children make their greatest intellectual contributions contemporaneously with their greatest physical and emotional achievements, a feat not expected of men,” is in fact a choice, but the discrimination lies in the fact that it is a choice “that men are not required to make.”

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