I'm generally supportive of all these women's networks, especially those aiming at providing the all-important much talked about 'role models' for young girls - something that in today's overconnected world can be done without much effort - and groups dedicated to helping with issues that women are more likely to want to discuss (Breastfeeding in my office - do or don't?). I've on occasion participated in on or the other meeting and such, and I think most of these initiatives serve a good purpose in providing encouragement and connections to others in similar situations and can be very helpful indeed.
But thing is I get along well with my male colleagues and I have no reason to suspect any sort of systematic bias has conspired against me at any point. Of course one or the other guy is an asshole, but nothing surprising about that. Just that I know many of my female colleagues have made bad experiences and I don't want to do a disservice to them by saying I think much more important than gender bias is that the typical academic career is simply incompatible with many women's priorities. Do I have to spell it out? If you're lucky enough to get tenure, you'll on the average get there in the late thirties or early forties. If you're a man, you can then go marry a younger woman and start thinking about reproduction. If you're a woman, you better freeze some eggs in time if you want to wait that long.
Interestingly, I yesterday came across a paper examining the question if it's a bias against women causing their underrepresentation in science
- Understanding current causes of women's underrepresentation in science
Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams
PNAS February 7, 2011
In their paper the authors surveyed studies past the mid 80s on bias against women in manuscript and grant reviews and in hiring. They basically found that while there's the occasional outlying study claiming to have found a bias against women, these outlying results haven't been reproduced, and most studies found very little or no bias in either direction. (That is, one should add, after productivity has been corrected for by available resources since women are more likely to work in positions with limited resources which by itself is correlated with lower productivity.)
Now, as I said, I'm not an expert on these questions so it's hard for me to tell if their survey of available data is complete. But if it is, one should pay attention to their conclusions. They argue that looking at the evidence, or lack thereof, efforts to reduce gender bias are misdirected since there is already little or no bias to find. Instead, one should focus on making career options more friendly towards women's life plans so one doesn't unnecessarily lose them early. Quoting from a report on gender issues by the General Accounting Office and referring to the UC-Berkeley's "Family Friendly Edge" program, they suggest measures such as
"stopping tenure clocks for family formation and tenure-track positions seguing from part-time to full-time [...], adjusting the length of time to work on grants to accommodate child-rearing, no-cost grant extensions, supplements to hire postdocs to maintain momentum during family leave, reduction in teaching responsibilities for women with newborns, grants for retooling after leaves of absence, couples-hiring, and childcare to attend professional meetings [...], [Employer providing] high-quality childcare and emergency backup care, summer camps and school break care, [...] instruct[ions for] committees to ignore family-related gaps in CVs."
They kind of forgot to say that maybe most important is a decent maternity and parental leave to begin with, Sweden tells you how to.
Of course one should add it's not just women affected by this. Men who don't want to wait with having a family till they have job security and/or who have a partner not in the mood moving with them around the globe are in the present system also likely to drop out early. That's got nothing to do with hitting a glass ceiling. It's more like following the arrow that points to the open door.