Thursday, January 24, 2013

Hurdles for women in physics

Time Magazine's Person of the Year in 2012 was Barack Obama, the dullest choice they could possibly have made. I would have cast my vote for Malala Yousafzai who made it on the list of runners-up. Among the runners-up one could also find particle physicist Fabiola Gianotti ("The Discoverer") who had the eyes of the world on her when she announced the discovery of the Higgs last year. That, I thought, was pretty cool to find a particle physicist on that list.

Alas, the article, if you read it, is somewhat funny. To begin with you might get the impression she was selected for heroically fighting a toothache. And then there is this remark:
“Physics is a male-dominated field, and the assumption is that a woman has to overcome hurdles and face down biases that men don’t. But that just isn’t so. Women in physics are familiar with this misconception and acknowledge it mostly with jokes.”
This pissed me off enough to write a letter to the editor. I only learned coincidentally the other day that it appeared in the Jan 21 issue of the US edition. (Needless to say, we get the European edition.) Below is the full comment I wrote and the shortened version that appeared. There are many other things one could have mentioned, but I wanted to keep it brief.
“As a particle physicist, it was exhilarating for me to see Fabiola Gianotti on your list of runners-up, but I was very dismayed by Kluger's statement it is a "misconception" that women in physics face hurdles men don't.

Yes, instances in which I have been mistaken by my male colleagues for the secretary or catering personnel can be "acknowledge[d] mostly with jokes", though these incidences arguably reveal biases and not everybody finds them amusing. But the assertion that women in physics do not "have to overcome hurdles... that men don't" speaks past the reality of academia and is no laughing matter.

In this field the competition for tenure usually plays out in the mid to late thirties, and is not only accompanied by hard work but also frequently by international moves. Men can postpone their family planing until after they have secured positions. Women can't. I am very lucky to live in a country with generous parental leave and family benefits. But I do have female colleagues in other countries who faced severe problems because of unrealistic expectations on their work-performance and lack of governmental support while raising small children.

Both genders face the tension between having a family and securing tenure, but the timing is markedly more difficult for women. You have done a great disservice to female physicists by denying this "hurdle" exists.”

41 comments:

Greg Sivco said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Giotis said...

So what do you propose Bee? That women especially should be granted tenure at a much younger age?

Bee said...

As I was trying to express in what I wrote, I think decent maternity leave and family benefits can go a long way to level the playing field. It also wouldn't hurt if employers would think of offering childcare solutions, esp for employees who have moved recently it might not be easy to find something. Things like this. I'm not a big fan of the whole tenure process. As I have said many times before, I don't understand why academia basically doesn't have the normal middle ground of average-pay permanent contracts.

Bee said...

Sorry, I meant parental leave, not maternity leave.

Phillip Helbig said...

"Men can postpone their family planing until after they have secured positions. Women can't."

The only thing this can possibly mean is: Dudes, wait until you get tenure, then find a young woman if you want to have children. Yes, I know some men who have done this, but I don't think that this is what you had in mind.

I got my physics degree in 1993. I was almost 29 (I started late to university, for various reasons, something I have never regretted.) My girlfriend at the time was 38. Our son was born a couple of weeks before she turned 39. Even if I had had a normal career in academia (which I didn't, mainly because of having to support a family of 4), there is simply no way I could have waited until getting tenure. So the choice, for me, was have a child and risk the career (which is what happened) or not have a child at all or wait until I get tenure and find a woman 10 or 20 years younger. Which should I have chosen? (Actually, I married my then girlfriend, but that marriage ended in divorce, and my current wife is 9 years younger than I am. In neither case was the difference in age a factor in deciding to fall in love.) Even in the "normal" case of roughly equal ages, considering that tenure comes at around 40, this is quite late for a first (or even not a first) child.

In general, I think it is important to separate the issues a) women in physics and b) combining career and family. We have come a long way since Max Planck told Lise Meitner that she couldn't work with him because there were no women's toilets at the institute. These days, if a woman has children early on, she can often expect some understanding for not having as many papers as her competition consisting of single and/or gay men. I think you'll find that it is more difficult for a man in academia to expect any sort of understanding for having fewer papers but more children.

Yes, I know, many people on the web will read this and assume I am some sort of MRA. I can live with that, because any objective assessment will demonstrate their stupidity, not mine. Often, one hears the argument that men should cool it because women were disadvantaged in the past, but I think that this sort of (reverse) discrimination creates more problems than it solves.

I agree that, in general, it should be easier to combine career and children. From what I here, Sweden is reasonably OK in this area. (I have spent maybe 10 months in Sweden over the last 30 years and speak Swedish but have never actually lived there.) I think the questions about tenure are largely orthogonal to this. In many countries, it doesn't exist anymore anyway, and even where it does, there are many people in academia with permanent jobs but no formal tenure. Also, in practice, the main thing is a permanent job, not tenure.


"Sorry, I meant parental leave, not maternity leave." Your bias is showing. :-)

Tommaso Dorigo said...

Hi Bee,

I believe one should distinguish between the hurdles posed to women by a biological difference with men with the hurdles caused by prejudice, misconceptions, and gender bias. If you don't do that, you end up facing the rejoinder: "If the competition for an academic position is unfair to women because women in their thirties want/need to have maternity leaves, it is at least in part due to their own life choices."

In reality, I think the most disturbing aspect of the different chances of men and women in our field is still due to the biases and the prejudice, which are omnipresent - while as you note the maternity leaves are easier somewhere and harder somewhere else.

So I would not place the accent there...

[This comment, with links to your piece, will be added to my own blog as well, since I think it can foster an interesting discussion, and since I have not much else to post today ;-) ]

Cheers,
T.

Bee said...

Hi Tommaso,

Yes, I agree, one should distinguish these hurdles. I just focused on one to keep it brief. It is also the more tangible of both, so I find discussing it often more fruitful. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Phillip,

No, that's not what I mean. It was an implicitly statistical statement. On the average women are younger or at least not older than their partners. On the average men are older than women when the first child is born. And, to state the obvious, men don't get pregnant so their time investment starts later. Yes, combining family life with academia is difficult for both men and women. I have many male colleagues who face or have faced exactly the same problems. But for reasons that have nothing to do with qualification and all to do with biological differences women on the average encounter these problems earlier. I guess I would recommend every woman who thinks of a career in academia to have kids already in highschool ;) Best,

B.

Phillip Helbig said...

"On the average women are younger or at least not older than their partners. On the average men are older than women when the first child is born. And, to state the obvious, men don't get pregnant so their time investment starts later."

All these are true but these are also due, mainly, to prejudice and outdated gender roles. So, if one wants real equality, both the age difference and the fact that women spend more time with small children will disappear with time, meaning that men are just as disadvantaged. One is left with the last few weeks of pregnancy and the first few months where intervals between nursing are short, in all less than a year which is essentially in the noise.

Even so, however, the average age difference is probably just 2 or 3 years, with the man older. Thus, if one waits for tenure to have children, the man is 40 and the woman 37, also quite late, especially if they want more than one child.

Also, even if most men are older, not all are. Saying that most are so there is no problem is like saying that most people aren't in wheelchairs so we don't need any ramps.

Phillip Helbig said...

I also know a few women---sometimes with no children and none planned for the future---who have permanent jobs in academia but are obviously under-qualified. Usually, their husband is a senior academic at the same institute, or the woman is/was the mistress of a senior academic at the same (or maybe a different) institute. In other words, it is obvious that they got the job for non-academic reasons. Any man protesting against this would automatically be accused of being sexist ("Hey, we don't have enough women in academia, so shut up!"), so women need to protest against this. These people take away jobs from better qualified people, both better qualified men and better qualified women. They also create a wrong impression about women in academia. Do you know any such people?

I am not talking about the fact that one finds members of a couple at the same institute more often than one would expect from pure chance. This can be due to the fact that one (either the trailing spouse or the leading spouse) applies for and/or accepts the job where the other one is, rather than a job somewhere else (even if the latter job is more prestigious). No problem, as long as they are better qualified than any other candidate who wants the job.

Let's face it: much so-called help for dual-career couples gives some people a job who would never have got one otherwise. And, let's face it, one professorial salary in the family is enough---it's not like they would otherwise face the choice of starvation or leaving academia. (There is nothing wrong with two, as long as both got their positions fairly.) People whose spouses have no chance of working in the country where the academic is employed, at least not right away, are in a much worse position, which is ignored by the dual-career couples with their crocodile tears. Any non-qualified academic spouse who wants to continue academic work can do so as a guest, with both living off the one professorial salary. That's a better position than most people in the world have. Even in the cases where the salary is negotiable and someone says "instead of giving me more salary, employ my spouse in a low-level position for the same total money" this is wrong because this person can then put "permanent job at prestigious institute" on the CV without actually having earned said job.

Of course, this does not mean that one should not help women who are genuinely disadvantaged, but in practice it makes it more difficult to do so. It is also simply morally wrong to award on job based on non-academic "qualifications".

Bee said...

Hi Philipp,

"not all are. Saying that most are so there is no problem"

That's exactly what I was explaining I did *not* say. Yes, not all are. Yes, family life is difficult to combine with academia regardless of gender. I was saying statistically ("not all") the problem is more pronounced for women.

That having been said, do you really believe that the age difference is due "to prejudice and outdated gender roles"? I frankly think it's mostly hardwired, but I don't know what research says about it, never cared to look into this. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Philipp,

Regarding your question: No, I don't know any such people. I've heard of it but mostly in the humanities. Best,

B.

Phillip Helbig said...

That having been said, do you really believe that the age difference is due "to prejudice and outdated gender roles"? I frankly think it's mostly hardwired, but I don't know what research says about it, never cared to look into this.

It is pretty obvious from evolutionary psychology that it is hard-wired. That is what I mean by "prejudice and outdated gender roles". :-) Again, check out Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate. (Interestingly, Pinker works in a field which is dominated by women and is voluntarily childless, both of which he comments on in his books.) The preference of young women for old, but successful, men is at least as strong as that of men (of any age or degree of success) for young women. Just look at how the attractiveness of Sean Connery ("sexiest man alive" at 70), Sky DuMont and Mario Adorf has increased with time.) It is complete rubbish to believe, as some feminists do, that this is some strategy invented by the patriarchy to preserver the status quo or whatever.

However, many things are hard-wired because they used to be essential for survival but now are no longer needed or, in some cases, even harmful. A partial list: distrust of strangers (including racism), jumping to conclusions from invalid data, trust in authority, dislike of homosexuality in others, polygamy. (Again, see Pinker for discussion and references.) However, just because something is hard-wired doesn't mean that it can't be changed, nor that it shouldn't be changed.

Most of the things in the list above are now frowned upon by "enlightened" societies. Thus, I see no reason why this should not apply to the fact that husbands are usually older than wives, i.e. this might one day be seen as so outdated as, say, having homosexuality be illegal. (It is usually "enlightened" men and women who have a relationship where the woman is older, if I do say so myself. Of my 8 girlfriends, 3 have been older, two of them much older, and of the younger ones, only one, my current wife, is much younger.)

Sometimes, the pendulum swings too far in the opposite direction. Yes, racism is bad, but cultural relativism, i.e. all traditions and cultures are equally valid, including barbaric practices such as circumcision and wearing the burqa, is not the answer. Similarly, polygamy is now frowned upon, though as long as most men are not polygamous, it presents no harm to society. In fact, since there are more homosexual men than homosexual women (probably also hard-wired, but no reason to change it), such men could be perceived as just taking up the slack. (Contrary to what most people believe, polygamy disappeared---after, for a while, having been disguised by rich men having way more female servants than they actually needed, even with a large estate and much work to do---because it, on average, disadvantaged men, not because it disadvantaged women: a society in which a few men have most of the women and most men have none is not very stable. (A related problem is that now in Asia where there are many more men than women because of selective abortion.) Most women would rather be the third wife of JFK than the only wife of Bozo the clown. (OK, maybe they would want to be the only wife of JFK, but that is not an option.) Marilyn Monroe probably could have chosen from a wide variety of suitors, yet preferred to be the mistress of JFK.)

Phillip Helbig said...

"No, I don't know any such people."

OK, you are forgiven for not protesting. The degree to which this happens probably varies quite a bit from field to field.

(Of course, the opposite sometimes happens. I once heard a student express complete surprise at the fact that Dr X and Dr Y were married, even though they were about the same age and had the same (although relatively common) last name.)

Arun said...


In general, I think it is important to separate the issues a) women in physics and b) combining career and family


Perhaps. On the other hand, there are a lot of possible accommodations good for both parents, such as, e.g., having a child care center on campus; having a child care center with more than the usual hours.

Tom Weidig said...

Lubos makes an excellent comment about Fabiola Gianotti who is being paraded around in the media and given prices, while the CMS spokesperson is not because Joe Incandela is an older white male physicist. Is that fair? I would be seriously pissed off if I were him.

Why is she a person of the year? What exactly has she intellectually discovered? She is a good physicist and a good manager. But who has she moved the field? Tens (if not hundreds) of people could have done the same at CERN.

Phillip Helbig said...

I have to agree with Tom here. Especially having the Atlas speaker as a runner-up and the CMS speaker not. I have to agree even with Lubos if he tells the truth.

Dan Gr said...

It's a shame they cut your letter the way they did. I should think the comment about bias (being mistaken for a secretary) is more important for describing the hurdles than the maternity issue. That editing itself shows a bit of a bias.

Bee said...

Tom, Phillip,

I agree with you, why Gianotti from among all the people who worked hard for the discovery of the Higgs? Why not Higgs to begin with? I don't know, maybe looking good in a dress had something to do with it, but that really wasn't what I was commenting on. And be that as it may, I still think it's cool to see a particle physicist on the list. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Phillip,

Regarding your earlier comment. I'm not a big fan of evolutionary psychology. That is to say I do not think that every behavior humans display today can be explained by natural selection. Culture is a very complex system and there are many niches where natural selection just doesn't have very much influence and/or timespans aren't sufficient for it to play a role. Instead there's social learning, traditions, history and just plainly personal experience (together with poor statistical inference skills, which are to some extent hardwired) that contributes to biases and prejudices.

That having been said, I think there are certainly biases whose origin is evolutionary hardwired, but others are cultural artifacts. That women are usually younger than their partners very likely is a relic of evolution. If it's going to change, it will probably take a long time. That people mistake me for the secretary is very unlikely hardwired, it's an expectation they have learned from cultural norms and experience. Most prejudices and biases probably have parts of both, for example the thorny question why so few women study mechanical engineering. Best,

B.

Zephir said...

/*..Men can postpone their family planing until after they have secured positions. Women can't...*/

Is it really so? You got children in your 35 years - so you're itself an example of the opposite.

Bee said...

Zephir: I'm not tenured. Best,

B.

Unknown said...

What is the sense of this post? Feminists want to get tenure in place of more competent males?

Bee said...

I'll leave this sickening comment by "Unknown" standing because it documents another problem. If you do as much as point out that women are presently at a disadvantage due to lacking family support, which affects them more than their male colleagues, you get accused of being a "feminist" and women who have kids while holding a job in acadmia are "incompetent." Thank you very much, "Unknown" - now go back to the cave where you came from.

Giotis said...

When you say 'go back to the caves', you mean the caves of 20th century?
Don't forget that a few decades ago women didn't even have the right to vote. Generation after generation, men were raised with the bilieve that women are inferior and it is very hard for a man to admit to himself that a woman is more capable than him. The progress in the last few decades regarding womam's position in society was cataclysmic and not all people can adjust so fast to the new reality. In public they all wear the convinient mask of political correctness but in reality they are not mature enough to accept women as equals. Embedding new norms in society is a long proccess and requires a lot of patience from all parties.
So try walking on our shoes:-)

Unknown said...

Insulting is typical of feminism, but you are a scientist. So: you complain about tenure age which you consider too high for women. If you don't want tenure earlier than men or other privileges, please propose a realistic solution.

PS sorry if am too direct, but after seeing how allegations of women destroyed the life of Assange thanks to feminist laws in Sweden, I am disgusted by that system. Outside the ivory tower there more serious problems than tenure age.

Bee said...

Unknown:

First, you are misunderstanding the intent of my letter. It was to explain that the comment that there are no hurdles is wrong, not to propose a solution. Second, read my reply to Giotis above: I am not a big fan of tenure one way or the other. If I have anything to propose, it's that families with small children should be able to rely on support, so that the drop in productivity that inevitably comes along does not have to be carried by the employer. What I am saying is that if this support is lacking, it puts women at a greater disadvantage than men. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Giotis,

I actually agree with you, changing social norms takes a lot of time.

Trying to walk in "Unknown"s shoes, it looks like lacking maternity leaves and paid parental leaves, difficulty of finding or high cost of childcare - which is unfortunate reality in many countries, though luckily not in Sweden - are tactics of incapable males trying to prevent more capable women from getting tenure in their place.
Best,

B.

Uncle Al said...

Case 1: Scientist. Age 17 after public education, 4 yrs undergrad, 5 yrs graduate, 2 yrs post doc, then assistant prof at age 28. Large debt then low salary and small benefits.

Case 2: STOP sign holder at construction site. Age 17 after public education, married, has first child. No education debts. Gets nice salary, benefits, and job security on the first day. Starts accumulating seniority.

First ten minutes of the (otherwise terrible) movie Idiocracy (2006) are illustrative. Society sucessfully doubles and redoubles its efforts to end intelligence.

Unknown said...

The "high cost of childcare" arises because somebody else needs a salary. So, what you really want is that your salary is enough bigger than a childcare salary such that it is convenient for you to work leaving children to childcare.
Is quantum gravity more valuable for society than childcare?

Zephir said...

/* Zephir: I'm not tenured. Best */

And who of your male colleague is in your research group at Nordita?

/* decent parental leave and family benefits can go a long way to level the playing field */

This is the same problem for males as for females - or not? My employer will not give me the parental leave and family benefit as well.

That is to say, I don't understand, where exactly IS your problem in comparison with the male colleagues in the exactly the same life situation.

Zephir said...

/* .. Men can postpone their family planing until after they have secured positions. Women can't...*/

IMO you're not pointing to/asking for the equality of women and men, but you're pointing to the fact, that the delayed parenting brings more health risks for women than for men, so you're asking for certain social advantages for women. Which may sound well from your perspective, but try to have look at it from wider socioeconomic perspective of stable family.

The men are already handicapped in their parenting, because they cannot get a child without assistance of women. The giving the women such an advantages will bring the risk, they will raise the children without social/economical help of men, which will result in higher number of incomplete families. For society is therefore advantageous to maintain certain economical disbalance between men and women, as it leads into more stable families. It's principle of spontaneous symmetry breaking: if you cool the system, then the Cooper pairs are formed, which can overcome the obstacles of life easier as a team. With compare to men, the women have womb - so they must be handicapped economically, or they would lose a reason to raise children in complete families at all.

It may sound cruel for female scientists like you - but it's economical reality.

Candidblog said...

Bee wrote: "As I have said many times before, I don't understand why academia basically doesn't have the normal middle ground of average-pay permanent contracts."

A main problem in this whole discussion seems to be the question: "How do I deal with "unproductivity"*? (due to pregnancy, sickness, age, care for others etc.)"

That is the tenure was sought on one hand as a mean to give "good" researchers more freedom for (in terms of possible profitable outcome: high risk) research (however if the teaching load is exorbitant high then "being tenured" doesn't help much), on the other hand tenure is a kind of social insurance (mostly against unemployment, old age or sickness unproductivity and old age poverty). So if one focuses on the aspect of social insurance the "getting tenured" process is with respect to this aspect a big gamble on getting a good social security (or not) within a certain time slot. And if women want to have children then those women clearly have less chances to compete in this "gamble", since they more or less need to get pregnant within this time slot. It is also clear that if people should get "unproductive" (like by being pregnant, by having to care for small children, by having long term sicknesses etc.) then it is easier to get rid of them with short term contracts.

Without an exeption, all women I have talked to and who have succeeded in math/physics academia either managed to get a permanent or social secure position (Sabine how likely is getting tenure at your place?) before getting pregnant (rather rare) or had a partner with enough social security (i.e. a good job). I think this should also be statistically visible.

So clearly there is a "hurdle" (as Sabine calls it) which affects women more than men, because on average up to now there are more women getting pregnant than men :).
There are of course also other aspects, but I leave these out for the moment.

In my case one of my short term academic contracts ended right after the birth of my second child, so the corresponding department didn't need to deal with a possible "unproductivity" on my side, like due to child care. Problem solved :).

I would though be cautious with "the normal middle ground of average-pay permanent contracts". These are country-wise VERY different. I have a girl-friend who was recently "fired" after many years of work on such an "average-pay permanent contract". (The reason for the firing seems to have been a "restructuring" within the company, that is she was not the only one who was fired but a whole section of that company was "fired" including parts in Britain and Germany). She was fired in the sense that she was escorted out and wasn't even allowed to get her lunch packet from her office. The corresponding fired people of that section in Germany however were back in their office after 3 hours due to the current german employment/firing regulations which the mangement seemed to had somewhat forgotten about :)) .


I actually also got the feeling that since the overall job market got fiercer and since the social nets are more and more eroding that there were/are more people - who might be less suitable for the respective academic tasks - who have been trying to take part in that "tenure social insurance gamble".


* I had made the quotation marks, because "hard work" and "productivity" are quite debateable terms.

Kaleberg said...

Zephir seems to be arguing that the problem is that only women need children and so should pay a cost for that need, while men have no such need and should be rewarded for it. Just you try living in a world without children. You'd be hard pressed to be there what with never having been born or raised.

Since children are a necessity for everyone in every society, both men and women, society has to make allowances for them. If this means restructuring career paths to allow both the production of children and tenure, then that is what needs to be done.

Yes, we could give up on children, or put the burdens or producing them and raising them exclusively on women, but the former idea is not very forward looking, and the latter seems even less so.

Phillip Helbig said...

"it looks like lacking maternity leaves and paid parental leaves, difficulty of finding or high cost of childcare - which is unfortunate reality in many countries, though luckily not in Sweden - are tactics of incapable males trying to prevent more capable women from getting tenure in their place"

Not sure if this was tongue-in-cheek; I didn't see any sort of smiley. In any case, if you look at which political parties have which plans in this area, and who votes for them (men or women), you will not find that the things you and I think should exist are primarily wanted by women and that it is men holding them back. The only way out of this is an Alice-Schwarzer type solution: men are always wrong, and if women are wrong it's not their fault because they have been indoctrinated by the patriarchy. (It is more difficult to argue against this than against the anthropic principle!)

Phillip Helbig said...

"I'm not a big fan of evolutionary psychology. That is to say I do not think that every behavior humans display today can be explained by natural selection. Culture is a very complex system and there are many niches where natural selection just doesn't have very much influence and/or timespans aren't sufficient for it to play a role. Instead there's social learning, traditions, history and just plainly personal experience (together with poor statistical inference skills, which are to some extent hardwired) that contributes to biases and prejudices."

Your explanation sounds like you are not a fan of "cardboard" evolutionary psychology. No-one seriously claims that it explains all behaviour, but it can explain some behaviour for which there is no other obvious explanation. Again, read Pinker.

Yes, mistaking you for a secretary is probably mainly cultural. However, the fact that women used to, and in some cases still do, work in less skilled jobs is tied in with the fact that, until recently, they spent much more time at home with children. This is partially cultural, of course, but until recently in order to have two children live to adulthood one had to have a dozen or so; most died while babies and others died while children.

Today, I saw a newspaper headline announcing the fact that Mercedes boss Dieter Zetsche and Desiree Nosbusch are now a couple. Discuss. :-)

Bee said...

Phillip:

Sorry if that wasn't clear, it was meant to be sarcastic, saying if I'd apply the logic that the commenter with pseudonym "Unknown" puts forward, that's how my argument would go. Best,

B.

Andrea Giammanco said...

Hi Bee, I mostly agree with you on this issue.
Although gender bias and other psychological factors may play an important role, probably practical life constraints are a crucial factor in answering the question "why are women under-represented in tenured positions?"
It is important, to prevent accusations of blind feminism (to you; I am a man, so I cannot be accused of that!), to point out that the issue is not only about women, but about whomever desires to invest a decent time with children. The fact that there is more pressure on the woman (even, or mostly, by other women!) to be the child-carer is a feature of current culture, but exactly the same considerations apply to the men who are willing to have an equal (or more than equal) share of child-care.
It is important IMHO to point out that there is a benefit to society if society puts people (not only women) in the best conditions to have children if they wish.
I agree with you that an earlier tenure would be benefical. I am myself an example of somebody who waited until tenure before having a child, despite being a man. I felt that it would have been simply suicide for my career to decrease my productivity before getting the security of having a permanent job. Even the most open-minded employers, when it comes to hiring somebody for a postdoc position (typically 2 years), having to choose between two equally qualifies candidates will choose the one whose productivity is guaranteed to be higher -> bias against those with children, unless they are male and play the old-style guys who delegate every practical issue to their wife while they work around the clock.
This kind of systemic bias is necessarily less severe when talking about hirings for permanent positions, because in that case one integrates the expectation of productivity over 30+ years. (There, of course, other kinds of gender biases may enter; but at least, open-minded employers are not confronted with a moral dilemma between their convenience and doing the right thing.)

Phillip Helbig said...

Yes, women are under-represented in tenured positions, but the "problem" of children is probably only a small part of the reason. What about other fields? There are fields where most tenured people are women.

Andrea Giammanco said...

Hi Phil, I am a physicist, therefore any time I use the words "overrepresented" or "underrepresented" it is with respect to a denominator. In the disciplines where women outnumber men in high-level position, they outnumber them also in the low-level positions. The problem is that the ratio of women who pass from one layer to the next is lower than for men. This hints at the fact that there is some bias somewhere.
(In order to avoid the opposite mistake, which is often made: of course the fact that in the past there were less women already at the student's level means that it is normal, to some degree, to have more men than women at the highest echelon: passing from one level to the next takes time, and people who are full professors today must have been students more than 20-30 years ago, a time when all faculties had a larger representation of men. So one must compare the rate of promotions in the present, and not the current gender composition of the faculties, which is a misleading proxy.)

There may be other factors with an important role.
Apart from possible biases of the selection committees, I know that a popular argument is that some male-dominated fields continue to be male-dominated because a culture of macho achievement became dominant, with the consequence that the entire field became an unpleasant job environment for the average woman (or at least more unpleasant than for the average man).
I am in no position to judge that (I can only say that I have seen some anecdotal evidence myself, but I give no weight to such small statistics), but I find this argument somewhat similar to the child-care argument: by itself, it has nothing to do with women, but with unpleasant job environments. So, if this turns out to be a significant factor, it is not only driving too many women out of those fields, but also some men. And the men and women who are driven out are not necessarily incompetent, and actually may be the kind of people that one would like to have around in the job environment!

Phillip Helbig said...

I basically agree with Andrea (a man, readers should note). I think it is interesting that there are several fields where there is gender imbalance, not just physics: chess players, high-class chefs, criminals, mentally retarded, rock musicians, garbage collectors. I think there are two reasons for this. One, even if average abilities are equal, men tend to have a larger variation (maybe due to the asymmetry of the XY chromosome pair), thus for example a higher percentage of men are mentally retarded, but there is also a higher percentage of geniuses. Many people argue such that if their group has an advantage, it is due to innate ability, whereas in the case of a disadvantage, it is due to prejudice, oppression etc. Not necessarily true. Society tends to notice the extremes, usually the positive extremes. The second fact, probably a vestige of evolution but of course, also as a result of that, a pressure from society as well is that success in any field gives the typical man more benefits he wants (young women) whereas successful women aren't interested in men (of any age) as a benefit from their success. (Just read any autobiography of a groupie if you don't believe me.)

Why does the male heart surgeon marry the female nurse and not vice versa, keeping in mind that such a decision is made by both parties? At least part of the reason is that the female heart surgeon wants someone at least as successful as she (there is even a name for the opposite behaviour, "dating down") whereas the male isn't interested in success. Such behaviour still plays a role even if there is no danger of not being able to support oneself, even if no children are involved etc. (Hey, contraception hasn't reduced men's appetite for sex, even though the "sowing the wild oats" behaviour originally evolved to maximize the number of children.)