Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Oh Mr. Tierney

I generally ignore this guy at the NY Times, because he clearly doesn't understand the data.

For example, the supposedly innate difference between women and men in math. He loves to cite the studies that say men are at either end of the bell curve for math, but rarely cites the accompanying evidence that on average men and women are equally good at math and science.

I'll admit, his last article on June 7th (linked above) was not that bad. I actually agree that legislating awareness workshops doesn't really fix anything. Although, who knows, they did help for drastically reducing sexual harassment (he doesn't mention that).

Yesterday's column by Mr. Tierney, on the other hand, was downright offensive.

Mr. Tierney deliberately mis-cites this National Academy study that came out last year as claiming that women and men "enjoy comparable opportunities" in grants and promotion at universities.

One of the things that infuriates me about that study and this article is basically the point of this blog: the problems are in publishing and hiring. The reason those are still the two biggest problems is because they're entirely "confidential" which means THERE ARE NO STUDIES EXAMINING WHETHER THEY ARE FAIR OR NOT.

Of course, he also cites the most anti-feminist female writer Christina Hoff Sommers.

However, we can't just ignore these people, because too many readers get their only information about science from places like the New York Times, and they don't know that Sommers and Tierney are far from representative, and far from being scientists themselves.

Tierney cites the famous Wenneras and Wold paper from 1997 castigating a Swedish postdoctoral grant review panel for being sexist. And then promptly dismisses it as an aberration.

(note that the same newspaper has an article today entitled Oil Executives Tell Committee That BP Spill Is an Aberration.)

Seriously though, I've been thinking long and hard about how to get gray-haired white guys like Mr. Tierney, and crazy anti-feminists like Sommers (okay let's face it, I'd have an easier time with Tierney) to understand how I feel after experiencing gender bias in all its subtle crazymaking persistence on a daily basis for years as a scientist.

Tierney clearly doesn't get it. But he is smart enough to tap into the growing furor over women in science, and he's right that the workshops won't solve our problems. And the controversial style he uses also brings more attention to our cause, even if he's defending Larry Summers while he does it. I'm beginning to think Larry Summers is one of the more open-minded folks out there, if people like Mr. Tierney are any indication.

Tierney is defensive and scared now that women outnumber men in college (an issue that Sommers loves to write about), while again emphasizing that women and men struggle with having children as as academic tenure-track faculty.

It's true that there are more women than men applying to and qualifying for college, but it's not true that they're all admitted. In fact, most colleges actively discriminate against women now, in an effort to maintain near-gender parity and avoid the disdain they would receive upon becoming a "hen house".

Tierney is also completely missing the point that women of child-bearing age routinely experience hiring and discrimination at the postdoc level on the basis of the assumptions that women

a) all want children
b) all lie about wanting children
c) won't do as much work after having children as men do.

At least, that's the type of discrimination I experienced. Repeatedly. Despite my vocal reminders that I don't want children, and that what I wanted was a career in the science field for which I have spent my entire adult life training.

But Mr. Tierney couldn't possibly understand what it's been like to be me.

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At 10:45 AM, Anonymous female former postdoc said...

Don't forget men like T doesn't want to increase their own involvement in "chores" at the house like taking care of children, cooking, cleaning etc... nope, they're happy being the "bread winner" and having "thier own life" not hampered by silly things as children deciding what they should do etc.

It pisses me off since they clearly assume that all women want children and to be mothers a la 50ies. Not the same for being a father since you can be a good father without actually doing much.

And the idea that there is no disparity between the treatment of men and women? silly.

It just pisses me off so much. We clearly need more of the 60ies and hrd core "FU look at this"

At 11:44 AM, Anonymous FrauTech said...

Wow your a/b/c points are spot on. That's definitely how it is around here. Plenty of women have decided "no kids" and yet the men folk love to tell us how we'll change our minds later or but your husband will want kids. I know someone personally who did not get what would have been a promotion because she was pregnant and the manager assumed she wouldn't be coming back to work (after a few months off she did, and is still here a year later).

We hired 25 interns this month, four of whom will be women. That's probably close to the national % of women studying engineering. So if everything is fine and dandy, why the disparity? Tierney's 99.9% SAT score does not explain as we are just talking engineers here, not PhDs competing for a handful of jobs and elite grants. He uses the word "engineering" a few times but mentions only biological science as a specific field (where of course the number disparity is not as bad as most other STEM fields, to say nothing of the pay).

It definitely is annoying to see this kind of thing plastered on the NY Times. Maybe if he has kids he can tell us what it's like to give birth too, since apparently being a man and not working in STEM is enough license for him to tell us women what it's really like.

At 12:53 PM, Blogger Cloud said...

I personally think it was the fear of expensive and embarrassing lawsuits- and the willingness of HR departments and management to fire people exhibiting behaviors that exposed the company to risk of such a lawsuit- that brought down the incidence of sexual harassment in industry. The workshops are just a way to teach people how not to get in trouble. On their own, they would do nothing. It is the fact that people actually get fired for violating this policy that makes the change.

However, given the general lack of HR and management in academia, I'm not sure why the incidence has gone down there. Maybe you're right, and the workshops alone actually do something.

The problem with discrimination based on the fact that you might have kids is a tough one. Women are a legally protected group (so discrimination against them is illegal and those mandated workshops cover what constitutes discrimination in this regard). Mothers generally are not, and the training lags in this area- so I suspect some people now transfer the views that they can't express about women in general to mothers. Or women they think might become mothers. I have personally heard some jawdroppingly discriminatory remarks made about mothers in the workplace. When appropriate, I refer these comments to HR. Otherwise, I point out that I'm meeting my performance criteria, and if I weren't, I'd expect my boss to call me out on it, not give me a pass because I have kids. No one ever says these things about fathers, so I consider it the anti-mother bias to be sexism, pure and simple. SOME people (men as well as women) decrease their workload upon having kids. But you know what? Some people decrease their workload for reasons having nothing to do with procreation. So that argument is just BS.

At 2:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you! I try and tune Tierney out but you're right in pointing out that others are listening and we need rebuttals to the fools. Thanks for being one of them and making it public.

At 2:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think his point was that, on average, men and women are equal but men have a broader bell curve (there are more geniuses and dunces relative to the average). So if only the best can make it in science, men may have a greater number of people on the high end of the bell curve.

He doesn't say that the 1997 paper is aberrant, but that it may not be representative of broader trends.

He then finishes up saying that more should be done to accommodate the careers of young scientists with families.

I didn't find the article to be offensive or disparaging or propagating stereotypes. I am a man though.

Although more men in science may be due to self-selection, it may also not be true. So the final conclusion that legislation won't help is a stretch.

At 5:37 PM, Blogger Kea said...

Mr Tierney will never, ever get it ... because he does not want to. At a very deep level, his world view hinges on the belief that he should have special privileges because he is a man. Few men of his generation, and probably the next few, will ever see outside the box that has been built for them over millenia.

At 7:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Grr, the worst thing about all of this is people have put out so many excellent studies documenting bias, stereotype threat, etc, but all a douchebag like Tierney has to do is find some random book, spit out some bilge, and the onus is on US to refute what he says. Just cuz he's a grey-bearded dood. And as you mentioned, he's not even a fucking scientist. It's just like when people put climate scientists up against random blowhards and frame it as a "debate" except even worse because his 'credibility' stems from the fact he is a dood.

At 10:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a male Ph.D. holder.
I understand your angst against the discrimination. But, it's a fact. When a female gets a nobel prize, it gets more celebration which is ridiculous because the system is not yet ready to recognize that men and women are equal at least in the cerebral level. During my years at Ph.D., I have seen a lot of women graduate students that outnumber men in biological sciences. What will these students do once they get their degree? The system is already overpopulated with Ph.Ds. So, my best guess in hiring process is that the Academic depts. wants somebody who can work 24 hrs 7 days a week, 365 days a year for cheap salary (supply greater than demand) ; the men Ph.Ds fit to the T in not having any physiological commitment for child bearing, or interruption related to child care.

Having said that, I think the women Ph.D. are less in mathematics, physics, or computer science for which there are great demands even in biological field. For a specific example, I went for a post doc interview (oneday interview) at a prestigious institute for genome research. The interview was really great. It started from 9 Am and end at 4 pm with half an hour interviews from each lab members and one hour seminar presented by me. After 2 weeks, I got the rejection letter. From an insider's view, they gave it to a person from India through phone interview. The guy did a Ph.D. in mathematics in India. So, my point is that it is easy to get an academic position in biological field if your ph.d. is from mathematics, physics, or computer science. I think if women are trained more in those fields, it would be easier for them to get biological science positions. I do understand that there are people with genuine interest in biological sciences but they get denied academic positions due to the competition from physical or mathematic sciences Ph.Ds for that position.

At 5:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

'It's true that there are more women than men applying to and qualifying for college, but it's not true that they're all admitted. In fact, most colleges actively discriminate against women now, in an effort to maintain near-gender parity and avoid the disdain they would receive upon becoming a "hen house".'

This is because men now face systematic discrimination before college. I support college admissions officers, and their affirmative action programs really need to go further.

It is actually a bit surprising to me. Maybe I was naive, but I thought/hoped that eventually sexism would die away, and men and women would be treated equally. Instead, what is happening is that men and women are now both facing sexism, in different ways.

At 11:03 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


I agree except for this part "you can be a good father without actually doing much" - but I think you were being sarcastic anyway, right?


The person who didn't get a promotion because she was pregnant- that's illegal, isn't it? I thought that was why some of those women at Novartis sued (and won)?

I love your last sentence "Maybe if he has kids he can tell us what it's like to give birth too, since apparently being a man and not working in STEM is enough license for him to tell us women what it's really like." So true.


Good point. I don't know enough about behavioral management, whether fear of lawsuits is really the deterrent and the classes are just bandaids, like traffic schools help you learn how to not get caught speeding again?

Interesting point about women vs. mothers and assumptions about decreased workload. Actually I've seen a LOT of preferential treatment for fathers who had to work certain hours so they could pick up their kids, or who needed extra money "because he has kids". Haven't seen that for mothers. At all.

Anon 2:08,

Thanks for noticing. I try.

Anon 2:18,

I think the point is that the bell curve has nothing to do with success in science. If you look at IQ and science, the smartest people opt out of academic careers. The successful ones got there by politics, not by being "smarter" than anyone else.

I agree that the more men in science thing is NOT due to self-selection. In that sense maybe legislation is always helpful, but it's also always SLOW to have any impact, even when it does make a difference.

Kea, I tend to agree that this is someone who can't see outside his box. I just wish he would stay in there and shut up. ;-)

Anon 7:58, I always wonder how these doods get any credibility in the first place, though. He's not a terrible writer, but he's no Malcolm Gladwell, either. So how did he get a job at NYT?

Anon 10:39, see above. Nobel prizes are NOT about cerebral accomplishment, they're about politics. Same as everything else in science.

When we're talking about academic positions on this blog, we're talking about faculty positions. Yes, postdoctoral positions are getting more competitive, especially with so many PhDs willing to come from India and China to work in the US for reduced pay and higher abuse than Americans or Europeans would accept. But a postdoctoral position is only temporary. And so far as I know, women are doing okay at getting postdoctoral positions in all fields once they get their PhDs. But we're not doing as well at obtaining faculty positions as we should be.

Anon 5:56 wrote: "This is because men now face systematic discrimination before college."

They do? Link please?

At 1:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you know anyone with young sons in K-12?


At 2:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Anon 5:56 wrote: "This is because men now face systematic discrimination before college."

They do? Link please?"

What do you mean? You say yourself, "It's true that there are more women than men applying to and qualifying for college," so how can you not be aware of this?? The numbers I have seen are roughly 60/40 women/men. I can furnish anecdotes and stories, but they don't matter. The only reasonable explanation for this wide disparity is discrimination. (The *unreasonable* explanation is that men are inherently inferior, which would be an interesting argument for you to be making. :))

At 12:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Yes, postdoctoral positions are getting more competitive, especially with so many PhDs willing to come from India and China to work in the US for reduced pay and higher abuse than Americans or Europeans would accept"

You didn't have to stereotype Ind and China's PhDs here. Not learning anything from getting stereotyped yourself?

At 11:46 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

@anon 12:08,

I don't think that's a stereotype? If you check the numbers, there are an awful lot of PhDs coming from China and India. That's just a statistic.

And at least on my campus, when we checked who had negotiated salary and hours, we noticed a distinct trend that the Chinese postdocs had not negotiated: they didn't know that they could. They were, to put it plainly, being abused, for a lot less pay, than most American and European postdocs on the same campus.

re: stereotypes of taking abuse, someone on another post just commented that French women are more likely to complain than Indian women. Does that seem fair? No. Is it true? Probably. But it depends on how you interpret that piece of information.

I suspect that it's true and that it's cultural. The French complain vociferously, even more than Americans, in my experience, unless we're talking about New Yorkers, in which case all bets are off.

Get it? Gotta have a sense of humor about stereotypes. And the reason they're funny? Because they're partly true.

I'm not saying my Indian friends don't complain, because they do.

Truthfully, most foreign postdocs will put up with more abuse because THEY HAVE TO, because of visa issues. And if you want to hate me for saying that, go right ahead. I'm sympathetic to people being worried about getting deported or having to scramble to find another job just so they don't have to go home and live with their parents or god knows what else.

And that's been a long, possibly pointless argument I've had before with commenters on previous blog posts. So you can feel free to go read those, hate my guts, and possibly start your own blog saying how wrong I am. That would be great, actually, because these kinds of anonymous comments frankly bore me.


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