A recent Cornell study found that the comparably low number of women in math and science related fields is caused by the structure of these career paths and the choices women are forced to make — not employment discrimination, as commonly believed.
The husband and wife team of Prof. Stephen Ceci, human development, and Prof. Wendy Williams, human development, said that women do not face discrimination in hiring, interviewing, and grant and manuscript reviewing at the university level.
According to the study, women often find it difficult to earn tenure at universities and raise children at the same time, with many women choosing one option over the other.
“It has to do with timing. It’s really biased against women,” said Williams, who is also the director of the Cornell Institute for Women in Science. “Women have to have all their kids and do all their best work, and it all has to happen in the same six to eight years.”
According to the duo, the idea that few women work in math and science because of discrimination goes back several decades. After finding that this is no longer true, Ceci and Williams set out to determine what is the actual cause of the skewed ratio of men to women in math and science.
“It might have been true in the 1970s, but it’s not true today,” Williams said. “We did [this] study to reframe the question” of what the lack of females in science and math is due to.
Williams explained that women often want to take time off from their jobs while their children are young, but this can derail their careers.
“If you drop off of the tenure line, you don’t ever get there again,” Williams said. “You’ve shot yourself in the foot.”
According to Williams, universities around the country are attempting to combat discrimination in the hiring process. However, the results of this study mean their efforts do not properly address the problem of under-representation of women in math-intensive fields, Williams said.
“One implication is there is a ton of time, effort, energy and money put into gender sensitivity workshops,” Williams said. Universities spend a lot of time and money trying to prevent discrimination, but those resources could be put to better uses, she said.
In the study, Ceci and Williams propose alternatives that would allow women to gain tenure while simultaneously raising their children. The professors’ suggestions include part-time positions that are still on the tenure track, which would extend the period of time for women to make tenure and allow them to take leaves of absence to raise their kids.
“The society and the way that our universities are designed are based on an out-of-date model where men would work and women would stay home,” Williams said. “When you hired an assistant professor in the old days, it was a man who had a wife who stayed home. And this model is disadvantageous for women.”