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At a time when 26 percent of women scientists report being sexually assaulted in the field, the authors of a new study boldly claim that “times have changed” and women’s “claims of mistreatment” in academic science are “largely anecdotal.”

As much as I’d like for this to be true, the claim is founded more on the authors’ fundamental misunderstanding of sex discrimination and oversimplification of gender than on any version of reality.

The authors of “Women in Academic Science: A Changing Landscape”, published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, examine the career trajectories of women and men in math-intensive fields, finding that women fare as well as men when it comes to invitations to interview for tenure-track faculty positions, job offers, and promotions.

They interpret these findings as follows:

“We conclude by suggesting that although in the past, gender discrimination was an important cause of women’s underrepresentation in scientific academic careers, this claim has continued to be invoked after it has ceased being a valid cause of women’s underrepresentation in math-intensive fields.”

Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci, two of the study’s authors, wrote about their findings in an October 31st New York Times op-ed. The response on Twitter was swift and skeptical. Critiques of the study have rightly focused on the author’s “wide-sweeping statements” and “self-contradictory observations and internal inconsistencies.”

Sex, Discrimination, and Oversimplification

Adding to these critiques, the authors’ claims that sex-based discrimination is a thing of the past reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of sex discrimination in the United States and an oversimplified understanding of gender.

Under the law, sex discrimination is not just about hiring and promotion; it includes sexual harassment, a form of sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Research shows that workplace sexual harassment of women scientists is an ongoing and fundamental problem. Yet Ceci and colleagues completely ignore this reality and its consequences for the recruitment, retention, and advancement of women scientists.

Another problem is the Psychological Science in the Public Interest study’s confounding of sex with gender. While Ceci and colleagues cite male and females’ comparable rates of hiring and promotion to support their assertion that sexism in science is a thing of the past, they don’t seem to understand that gender is a fundamental dimension of power that shapes all social interactions. If women scientists are being harassed in the workplace because they are women, and we know that they are, then science surely has a sexism problem.gender quoteAs sociologist Zulyeka Zevallos notes in her cogent critique of the study, “An analysis of sexism in academia needs to seriously address gender as a social system, not simply document superficial differences between men and women.”

Understanding gender as a social system means recognizing sexual harassment as a gendered expression of power that privileges a singular version of masculinity above all forms of femininity and above alternative forms of masculinity. All women, particularly those who challenge the gender hierarchy, and any men who do not adhere to the privileged version of masculinity may be at risk for becoming targets of harassment simply by virtue of their placement in the hierarchical gender system.

In a study published in American Sociological Review in 2004, Chris Uggen and I found that women were across the board more likely to experience harassment than men. Women are targeted simply because they are women. We also found a correlation between men’s likelihood of experiencing harassment and the amount of housework they reported doing — one of our measures of egalitarian gender relationships. Our interviews with harassed workers revealed that men who challenge the gender hierarchy are targeted for doing so.

The hostile climate that women in STEM face was most recently documented by Kathryn Clancy and colleagues but their work builds from a long line of research documenting harassment in the academy and other fields and its harmful consequences for employee well-being, mental health, and other health and job-related outcomes.

Further, while Ceci and colleagues may have evidence that some women in STEM are being promoted despite the persistence of a chilly climate, my own collaborative research on the harassment of women in positions of power suggests that as women are promoted, they may be even more likely to face harassment. What better way, after all, to put women who challenge the gender hierarchy “in their place”?

To ignore that hostile workplace climates have a real, significant, and negative impact on women in academic science is not only irresponsible, it is wrong.

The tragedy is that the Psychological Science in the Public Interest study actually does offer some encouraging news: some women in some STEM fields are as likely as men to be interviewed, hired, and promoted. But its message is totally lost in the cacophony of voices rightly objecting to the authors’ claim that “academic science isn’t sexist.”

As much as I wish for them to be right, there’s too much evidence to the contrary to believe it. And they’ve done those who have experienced harassment and who fight every day to achieve gender equality in the workplace a disservice by purporting it.