Monday, March 17, 2014

Do Women Have an Advantage in Faculty Searches?


Ahh, we are halfway through the month of March. There is more sunlight. The Kepler field is rising. And, the faculty search season begins to bear fruit, and we learn (often through the Job Rumor Mill) who has received a faculty offer.

The faculty search process is enormously stressful to the postdoctoral fellow community, who are competing in a very oversubscribed market. Every March I hear this frustration boil over (expressed perhaps as an off-hand remark over coffee, or in a snippet of conversation I catch in the hallways) with that most poisonous of analyses: Dr. So-and-so received the job offer because she is a woman.

It would be wrong for me to imply that I hear this only from postdocs: Certainly in my travels I have heard senior scientists and graduate students imply this as well.

The fact that anyone remotely familiar with the statistics could assert that it is somehow a net advantage, from an advancement perspective, to be a woman in astrophysics seems ludicrous to me, yet I do hear advocates for this idea without fail each year. So, let's take a moment to remind ourselves of the data.

Recently, Prof. A. Meredith Hughes (Wesleyan University) led the Committee of the Status of Women in Astronomy on its third demographics survey. The CSWA had conducted previous surveys in 2003 and 1999, and a similar survey had been first conducted by astronomers at the Space Telescope Science Institute in 1992. So, that means the baseline is just over 20 years long, and importantly the participation rate is nearly 100%. The CSWA survey is unique in that it is an attempt to survey all professional astronomers in the US, both those in academic departments and those at research institutes. (Note the AAS has also just published its very informative survey, but the CSWA survey is distinctive since it does not require AAS membership.) The CSWA survey data are fascinating, so if you haven't yet read the previous post about the results, I encourage you to take a moment right now. Here I wanted to look at what the survey data have to say about the question of whether being a women is, in itself, a net advantage in moving from the graduate student level to an assistant professorship.

The analysis of the survey data compared the fraction of assistant professorships held by women with  the fraction of the graduate student pool who are women, separated by ten years. (The duration of each career stage is roughly comparable at 5-7 years, and the elapsed time to move from graduate school to a junior faculty spot is also roughly 10 years.)

OK, so first let's look at the 1992 graduate student and 2003 assistant professorship cohorts. Between 1992 and 2003, 30 +/- 3 % of graduate students who were men advanced to the junior faculty level, whereas 18 +/- 3 % of graduate students who were women advanced similarly. Hmm, I do see an advantage there, but not for the women! Keep in mind that for at least 20 years the fraction of prize fellowships awarded to women has held roughly constant at 30% (Schmelz et al. 2010). Now, let's turn to the most recent decade: Doing so, we find that the large difference between men and women has vanished, with advancement rates of 19 +/- 2 % for men and 16 +/-3 % for women (statistically indistinguishable) between the 2003 graduate students and the 2013 assistant professors.

So, the summary of the data is that:
  1. In the past, your chances of advancing from graduate school to a junior faculty job were much worse if you were a women.
  2. In the past decade, this disadvantage has disappeared, but there is no evidence that women have a net advantage or experience a higher rate of retention or advancement.
(Of course the third conclusion is that the overall rate of advancement has declined for both men and women. As Prof. Hughes wrote in her summary, the job market is bad for everyone.)

Now, I have served on many search committees, both inside and outside of my department, and in most cases there is, at some point, a direct discussion about the desire in increase the participation by women. And largely (but certainly not uniformly!) I have been impressed by the thoughtfulness of my colleagues on this issue. Why do I mention this? Because perhaps it is during those discussions that this perception of tilting the playing field to the advantage of women finds its footing. Or perhaps it also occurs when an former advisor sees his or her male graduate student lose out in a faculty competition. Or perhaps it occurs when applicants themselves see short lists with a gender breakdown very different than that of the senior faculty itself. Regardless, the data are very clear: For the past decade, faculty searches have largely hired women and men with relative rates that match their availability in the graduate student pool a decade earlier. This didn't used to be the case, but that mistake has now been corrected.

I am writing to ask that we all take care to avoid unfounded speculations about the reasons why a particular individual was selected for a particular job offer, and that we be meticulous about not attributing the hard-won success of applicants to their gender. I also invite you not just to avoid such speculations, but to correct such statements when they are presented to you. Claims that an individual won a competition based not on his or her achievements but rather on his or her innate characteristics are poison to our community. They are particularly toxic to the new faculty members themselves, who would rather not like to begin their jobs having to disprove such unfounded rumors.