Sexism in Academic Hiring — A Myth? (updated)


A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences produced findings that appear to show that hiring practices in certain fields are not biased against women. Here is the paper’s “significance” summary:

The underrepresentation of women in academic science is typically attributed, both in scientific literature and in the media, to sexist hiring. Here we report five hiring experiments in which faculty evaluated hypothetical female and male applicants, using systematically varied profiles disguising identical scholarship, for assistant professorships in biology, engineering, economics, and psychology. Contrary to prevailing assumptions, men and women faculty members from all four fields preferred female applicants 2:1 over identically qualified males with matching lifestyles (single, married, divorced), with the exception of male economists, who showed no gender preference. Comparing different lifestyles revealed that women preferred divorced mothers to married fathers and that men preferred mothers who took parental leaves to mothers who did not. Our findings, supported by real-world academic hiring data, suggest advantages for women launching academic science careers.

The study, “National hiring experiments reveal 2:1 faculty preference for women on STEM tenure track,” by Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci (both of Cornell) made use of

National randomized experiments and validation studies… conducted on 873 tenure-track faculty (439 male, 434 female) from biology, engineering, economics, and psychology at 371 universities/colleges from 50 US states and the District of Columbia. In the main experiment, 363 faculty members evaluated narrative summaries describing hypothetical female and male applicants for tenure-track assistant professorships who shared the same lifestyle (e.g., single without children, married with children). Applicants’ profiles were systematically varied to disguise identically rated scholarship; profiles were counterbalanced by gender across faculty to enable between-faculty comparisons of hiring preferences for identically qualified women versus men. 

The researchers did not look at hiring in philosophy, though it does not seem unreasonable to assume that they would come up with similar findings if they did. What should we do in light of these findings? In the abstract of the paper, the authors write:

These results suggest it is a propitious time for women launching careers in academic science. Messages to the contrary may discourage women from applying for STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) tenure-track assistant professorships.

And in the paper (p.6) they write:

Research on actual hiring shows female Ph.D.s are disproportionately less likely to apply for tenure-track positions, but if they do apply, they are more likely to be hired… We hope the discovery of an overall 2:1 preference for hiring women over otherwise identical men will help counter self-handicapping and opting-out by talented women at the point of entry to the STEM professoriate, and suggest that female underrepresentation can be addressed in part by increasing the number of women applying for tenure-track positions

While that claim about “messages to the contrary” being discouraging is not, strictly speaking, supported by the experimental data the authors produce, it does seem reasonable. It may indeed be that  if there is a concern with the underrepresentation of women in philosophy, one strategy that might help would be to broadcast findings like these, so as to provide encouragement to would-be woman philosophers. Note that it doesn’t follow from the authors’ study and recommendations that, if we want to increase the number of women in philosophy, we ought also to stop drawing attention to various problems regarding the treatment of women in philosophy. That would be quite an extension of the authors’ recommendation, and seems an unwarranted conclusion to draw, as paying attention to such problems may ultimately lead to changes that make the profession more likely to be of interest to women.

The study is also discussed today at Inside Higher Ed.

UPDATE (4/15/15): Helen De Cruz (VU Amsterdam) comments on the study in a post entitled “Assessing inductive risk in the Williams and Ceci studies” at New APPS. There’s also a discussion of the study at Feminist Philosophers.

UPDATE 2 (4/15/15): Michael Brownstein (CUNY / John Jay) has some extensive comments on the study here.

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