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Is Progress Taboo? Media Not Too Excited about Giant Study That Finds Little Evidence of Gender Pay Gap
Treatment of women in the academic sciences has “dramatically improved”
Imagine a giant meta analysis that examined two decade’s-worth of research on the hot-button issue of gender pay disparities. Imagine that its findings challenged conventional wisdom and also gave the next generation reason to be a bit more optimistic about the future.
That’s what we have with a new study by academics from Cornell (Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams) and Boston University (Shulamit Kahn), but don’t expect their big findings to become big news.
The topic of gender pay gaps is a different story.
That receives massive attention in the media and among academic researchers, but here the authors found little evidence that women in the academic sciences get paid less than their male counterparts for the same work.
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The authors note that “it is common to read that women earn only 82 cents for every dollar that men earn.”
Disparities often look worse when you compare apples to oranges. Too often gender pay watchers fail to account for potentially confounding factors, factors that are often driven by choices workers make—like which fields to pursue or how many hours to work.
After accounting for various potential confounders, the authors' apples-to-apples analysis didn’t find an 18 percent salary gap. A gap remained, but it was smaller—just under 4 percent.
What accounts for the remaining disparity?
Even this 4% unexplained gender salary gap may be due to factors such as career discontinuities, less-aggressive salary negotiations, gender differences in seeking competing offers, and grant awards—and, importantly, may also be due to women’s lower overall productivity—rather than to overt gender bias.
In other words, young women who aspire to work in the academic sciences can be reasonably sure they’ll be paid fairly.
It’s encouraging news, but, as of this writing, I have found no major mainstream print outlet that covered the study as news.
The study authors seem to know why their work might be a tough sell in many newsrooms.
Perhaps in an attempt to preempt any PR problems, they break from the usual robotic academic style to connect with readers in a rather personal preface, which begins:
The two female authors of this article share personal histories rife with egregious examples of gender bias in academic science and beyond. Born in 1950 and 1960, respectively, they endured substantial sexism and were victims of cruelty during the earliest decades of their careers. Despite these experiences, today they share the belief—rooted in empirical data—that although the situation in academia was often deeply unfair to women in the past, it has dramatically improved over recent decades.
As the preface continues, the authors point out something that anyone concerned with any kind of bias should have burnt into their brains:
Just as there are negative consequences of not acknowledging bias, there are also costs of believing that sexism in academic science is pervasive when it is not—key among them that women will be discouraged from choosing academic careers in science...
Yes, a thousand times, yes!
It’s widely acknowledged that it’s wrong to understate bias. Why then, is it so hard to admit that it’s also wrong to overstate bias?
Why try if the system will crush your efforts?
Telling girls and young women that conditions are worse than they actually are is a kind of oppression of despair, but nobody will revoke your ally card for engaging in it. Whether you’re on an industry panel or at a dinner party, you’ll probably get more affirming nods if you paint an overly bleak picture.
That’s probably why the authors do something unusual. They ask readers to not reflexively reject their findings: “the two female authors of this article request that readers approach the topic with an open mind.”
Those rooting for doom and gloom will have an even harder time keeping an open mind, because things look even better for women in the sciences.
In addition to salaries, the study examined five other domains.
Women in the sciences have it worse than men in one domain (teaching ratings), they are at parity with men in three domains (grant funding, journal acceptances, and recommendation letters), and women have it better than men in one domain (hiring).
Take an even wider view, and you’ll see that women have been earning more doctoral degrees than men for over a decade and the gap is growing bigger and bigger.
One more wrinkle makes the meta analysis especially compelling and laudable.
Note the end of the title: “Exploring Gender Bias in Six Key Domains of Academic Science: An Adversarial Collaboration”
The work of one author (Kahn) has long focused on revealing gender inequities in economics, and her work runs counter to the other authors’ (Ceci and Williams) claims of gender fairness.
But the three duked it out the way truth-seeking academics are supposed to duke it out:
[W]e are collegial adversaries who, during the 4.5 years that we worked on this article, continually challenged each other, modified or deleted text that we disagreed with, and often pushed the article in different directions … Fortunately, our viewpoint diversity did not prevent us from completing this project on amicable terms. Throughout the years spent working on it, we tempered each other’s statements and abandoned irreconcilable points, so that what survived is a consensus document …
Spirited debate, friendliness, and viewpoint diversity—mix it all together, and what do you get? An important finding that makes the world a little brighter.
Excuse me if I get a little misty eyed, but maybe these three should be put in charge of all academia!
At the very least journalists across America should familiarize themselves with the authors’ backstory. Imagine the blindspots that might be removed, among journalists and their readers, if media outlets borrowed some of the Ceci, Khan, and Williams approach.
Whether on the left or right, unchallenged beliefs might be less likely to harden into sacred dogma. And reporters may feel emboldened to give readers more of what they need and less of what they want.
Ted Balaker is a filmmaker, and former network newser and think tanker. His recent work includes “Little Pink House”starring Catherine Keener and Jeanne Tripplehorn, “Can We Take a Joke?” featuring Gilbert Gottfried and Penn Jillette, and a forthcoming feature documentary based on the bestselling book, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt.