Science Inequality in the News: Avoiding Dangerous Gender Narratives in STEM
By Zuleyka Zevallos, Ph.D.
Throughout 2014, there were a couple of notable media controversies involving the reporting of social science research on gender. There have also been a range of other science publishing problems that have demonstrated the gender problems within science. These two trends are linked to media narratives and public confusion about issues of gender and science. One of the most recent media wrangles arises from The New York Times Op-Ed by psychologists Professor Wendy Williams and Professor Stephen Ceci (Williams & Ceci 2014). I have covered the methodological flaws of the study on which the Op-Ed was based (Zevallos 2014a). The study is headed by Ceci and, in addition to Williams, their research team also includes two economists. In this three-part series of articles for DiverseScholar, I provide supplementary analysis challenging the gender assumptions of their study. Specifically, I show how the study’s conclusions conflict with broader social science research on inequality within Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).
In this first article, I will show how social science research can be used to serve an agenda that undermines gender diversity. I use sociology to show the issues arising when the media and some researchers, such as Ceci and William’s team, draw on an individual narrative to explain gender inequality. In the second article, I will discuss why the media and the public enjoy discussing studies on “sex differences,” and how the appetite for simplistic explanations of gender entrench pre-existing gender biases. In the final article, I discuss why social scientists have to be extra careful when we write about gender in popular press, and how we can better support gender diversity in science.
I am focusing my analysis on cultural discussions of cisgender, as this was the (problematic) de facto focus of Ceci and colleagues, given that they only talked about “men” and “women.” Cisgender describes men and women whose gender identity aligns with their ascribed sex (the biology and bodies they were born into). This means I am not predominantly writing about transgender, intersex and other genders; but, I signal here that this is a narrow conception of gender.
The concept of sex is distinct from gender. Sex describes biological differences between men and women; but, gender looks at how culture influences the myriad of ways that these differences are perceived. Gender is more fluid than two binary categories of male and female (Zevallos 2014b). Explanations that draw on sex rather than gender, such as Ceci and colleagues’ study, implicitly rely on a biological narrative, by saying girls and boys are “naturally” attracted to different tasks and that they make different choices because they’re male or female. Herein lays the biggest problem with the communication of gender to the masses, especially via the media. Simplistic explanations win out, while the complexity of gender inequality is swept under a narrative of individual women’s choices. Let’s explore these issues by delving deeper into the biases in the study by Ceci and his team.
Narrative of Individual Choice
Ceci and colleagues believe that the existing literature does not support the idea that sexism is a problem in academia. I’ve already shown that the findings they draw on do, in fact, show evidence of sexism (Zevallos 2014a). The researchers do not see sexism because they are using individual explanations for the disparity in men and women’s outcomes in academia. Using a sociological approach, which places individual experiences in broader social context, I show how institutional forces impact on gender outcomes.
tell[ing] a simple story about the science of gender is dangerous
Ceci and colleagues claim that women are “opting out” of academia, and that if they were willing to work harder, and if their interest in STEM were stronger, women would flourish. I want to tease out why they draw these conclusions given their disciplinary perspectives.
While Ceci and colleagues’ research shows the social sciences have a higher number of women graduates, there are historical and structural reasons that inequality persists along multiple socio-economic factors such as gender, race, sexuality, disability and class. It is important to understand why this distinction influences the various media miscommunications of social science research on gender.
In a video for Cornell University, Williams and Ceci explain that as long-time collaborators, they decided it was time to tackle the literature on sexism in academia, perceiving that the prevailing argument on sexism was incorrect (Williams & Ceci 2014b). Why they would think this in the first place should set off alarm bells about bias. The researchers describe wanting to form a multidisciplinary team, and so they elected to work with economists. Both disciplines are broadly concerned with individual patterns. There are sub-fields within each discipline that examine social phenomena using a group or social perspective. For example, social psychology is concerned with culture and group-level dynamics, while economists focused on social justice reject economic rationalist theories. Nevertheless, both social sciences are dominated by the study of individual influences on “rational choice.”
Sociology is set up to do the opposite: we connect individual biography to history and culture. Still, sociology is not immune to critique. Criticism about White-centred knowledge is precisely what has inspired studies of otherness (studies that critically examine the social construction of difference; Zevallos 2011) and intersectional feminism (the study of how inequalities intersect for minority women, including sexism, racism, homophobia, disability discrimination and other issues; Davis 2008). These critiques arose to question the dominant perspective in Western scholarship, by showing that inequality is not experienced similarly across social lines. White feminist traditions, for example, have failed to address racism and class. As I noted in my previous post (Zevallos 2014a), these critiques have a bearing on the study headed by Ceci, presumably a White, male tenured academic.
The New York Times Op-Ed is especially problematic because it presents sexism as an issue that is of inconsequential importance in STEM fields. Directed at a lay audience, this appeals to unexplored biases in the reader, rather than inviting critical thinking about a very serious issue. New York Times readers unfamiliar with social science will not have the knowledge and skills to read the original study and recognise its conceptual and methodological flaws. When social scientists communicate with the public, especially via the media, we need to be especially careful not to play into pre-existing gender narratives and stereotypes.
The sensationalist headline that proclaims the end of sexism doesn’t help. The hyperbole headline may well have been an editorial decision. Yet the content of the Op Ed also presents an overly simplistic picture of gender. Why does this happen?
Sexism in Academia
The decision to tell a simple story about the science of gender is dangerous. It reflects an issue often faced by scientists, where writing for the media means paring back the details of a study, and writing only a bird’s eye view of our findings. Perhaps this plagues social scientists more so given our analyses are already dense with words. The study which Ceci and colleagues published is over 46,300 words, including various appendices (Ceci et al 2014). This is an extraordinarily long study (the average size for an academic social science paper is 7,000 to 10,000 words). The New York Times Op-Ed is a little over 900 words. That’s a significant edit. Nevertheless, using words frugally means being extra careful about what we say.
Social scientists should not write things like: “As children, girls tend to show more interest in living things (such as people and animals), while boys tend to prefer playing with machines and building things,” as Ceci and Williams did in their Op Ed. This is one of the lazy gender stereotypes I mentioned in my previous article (Zevallos 2014a). This stereotype of gendered play evokes a well-worn trope that many people may recognise as a “sex difference” (something that is determined by biology in the public’s eye). It does nothing to bring forth the dense literature showing that, actually, girls and boys don’t have an innate preference to play with people over machines. My STEM Women colleagues and I have shown that interests in STEM are socially shaped, and even still, girls and boys perform similarly well in STEM subjects until stereotypes kick in full-force in the second grade (Zevallos, Samarasinghe, & Rao 2014). Again, media is partly to blame for over-emphasising gender stereotypes that children absorb; but, research also shows that teachers, parents, and other institutions recreate inequality through conscious and unconscious biases.
Ceci and colleagues try to end their New York Times article on an upbeat note. This is a staple of Western storytelling. They dismiss the established literature on sexism as nothing more than “testimonials and overgeneralised findings.” They note there are now more women than ever in STEM. This is a positive trend, for sure, but this conclusion is used to argue that gender inequality has been eradicated. This obscures the discrimination women currently face within STEM, as well as the issues faced by up-and-coming girls who are fighting gender inequality throughout their education and training. The studies and data that Ceci’s team presents actually show that women are not making it very far past their STEM Bachelor degree, and to a much lesser extent, the Assistant Professor level. Very few women are found in senior ranks of academia, and the rest are not renumerated, promoted and supported to the same esteem as their male counterparts.
Nevertheless, Ceci and colleagues emphasize the rewards and flexibility in academia, even though the evidence they review show that women are not able to enjoy these perks relative to men. They end by saying, “We are not your father’s academy anymore.” Case closed!
The narrative presented is simple enough: there was a problem with gender inequality; it’s much better now; and we’re all free to enjoy academia if we’re willing to work hard. This narrative hits several fallacies that are popular in mainstream Western culture, but do not adequately reflect the issues women and minorities face.
First, yes, things are better, but we haven’t progressed as much as we should have given the laws that opened up education for women and people of color happened in the 1960s and 1970s.
Second, because things are better relative to the 1970s, Ceci and colleagues conclude that there’s not much work left to do. They suggest putting more effort in helping girls become interested in math early on and the rest will take care of itself. This feeds into the popular fairytale that we now live in a post-feminist, post-racial society. This leads the public to think that most inequalities have been eradicated in academia. This couldn’t be further from reality.
the idea of individual [career] choice is a fallacy
Third, the idea of individual choice is a fallacy. Some groups, especially White, heterosexual, cis-men from middle class backgrounds, have a much broader range of choices that will support them on a path to success. Choices are narrowed for women and minorities. The studies reviewed by Ceci and colleagues show that hard work invariably does not lead to greater success for women. As I’ve previously shown, academia is structured in such a way that men are freed up to work on research, while women are bogged down with extra childcare, teaching, admin and other duties (Zevallos 2014c). These are the institutional patterns that force women to do extra work to prove their worth but do not equally reward them. The same behavior and additional responsibilities are not expected of men.
Undoing Gender Narratives
Social scientists must be wary of feeding into dangerous gender narratives. The stories that the public hears about STEM are already very narrow. We need to tell more diverse stories about science; and, we need to tell these stories with honesty and a critical gaze. Stories about the triumph are good to share; but, we must not shy away from telling the tough truth about the challenges required to achieve positive change. The struggle against inequality is not over — not by a long shot. Pretending otherwise is a disservice to the women and minority trailblazers; and, it simply makes life even harder for these groups who remain disadvantaged today.
In my next DiverseScholar article, I describe several examples of sexist reporting of gender issues in science [Zevallos 2015]. I will show how science publishers and institutions contribute to counterproductive attitudes and behavior that undermine women’s status within STEM.
S.J. Ceci, D.K. Ginther, S. Kahn, and W.M. Williams (2014) Women in Academic Science: a Changing Landscape, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 15:75–141
K. Davis (2008) Intersectionality as Buzzword: a Sociology of Science Perspective on What Makes a Feminist Theory Successful, Feminist Theory, 9:67-85
W.M. Williams and S.J. Ceci (2014a) Academic Science Isn’t Sexist, The New York Times, October 31
W.M. Williams and S.J. Ceci (2014b) Women in Academic Science: a Changing Landscape (video), YouTube.com, October 31
Z. Zevallos (2011) What is Otherness?, The Other Sociologist
Z. Zevallos (2014a) Sexism in Academic Science: Analysis of The New York Times Op-Ed, STEM Women, November 6
Z. Zevallos (2014b) Sociology of Gender, The Other Sociologist
Z. Zevallos (2014c) Motherhood Penalty in Academia (on Google+), The Other Sociologist, September 7
Z. Zevallos (2015) Sexism in Science Reporting: a 2014 Timeline, DiverseScholar 6:4
Z. Zevallos, B. Samarasinghe, and R. Rao (2014) Nature vs Nurture: Girls and STEM, Soapbox Science, September 4
Zuleyka Zevallos, Ph.D. is a Research and Social Media Consultant with Social Science Insights and an Adjunct Research Fellow with Swinburne University in Australia. Any opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.
Photo credit: Z. Zevallos,
Figure credit: The Other Sociologist,
Video credit: Norton Sociology
The citation for this article is:
Z. Zevallos (2014) Science Inequality in the News: Avoiding Dangerous Gender Narratives in STEM.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a 3-part commissioned special series. DiverseScholar is now publishing original written works. Submit article ideas by contacting us at .
Last updated 22-Apr-2015,
First published 31-Dec-2014