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An interview with Wendy M. Williams

Anna Lena Phillips

"Why aren't more women in science?" This question, which serves as the title of a new book edited by Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams, has inspired intense debate in the media and among scientists and the general public.  Responses range from the polemical to the well-considered; Williams and Ceci hope to refocus the debate with evidence-based ideas. In their new book, subtitled Top Researchers Debate the Evidence, they present essays from contributors including Simon Baron-Cohen, Janet Shibley Hyde, Doreen Kimura and Elizabeth S. Spelke, among others. The result is a thought-provoking, challenging collection that covers topics ranging from neural substrates for sex differences in cognition to cultural bias against women and other sociocultural forces. The book won a bronze medal in the 2007 IPPY (Independent Publisher) Book Awards.Wendy M. WilliamsClick to Enlarge Image

Williams, a professor in the Department of Human Development at Cornell University whose academic background includes psychology, anthropology and biology, has devoted great effort to these issues. She heads "Thinking Like a Scientist," a national education-outreach program designed to encourage traditionally underrepresented groups to pursue science education and careers. Here she discusses her hopes for the book, ways to involve more women in science and potential changes to the tenure system.

American Scientist assistant book review editor Anna Lena Phillips interviewed Williams by e-mail in September 2007.

 How did you and Stephen J. Ceci decide to begin this project? What personally motivated you to work on it?

Several factors motivated us to do this book. We have three daughters and wanted to understand the issues they would face should they pursue scientific careers. We also work with many female graduate students and observe firsthand how some of them are derailed from their original academic and professional goals. We wanted to understand why this happens so that we could better advise future women students and junior colleagues. In addition, we both have longstanding interests in group differences in intelligence and achievement, and the focus on gender is one potentially important source of these differences. Thus the topic seemed a natural one for us to pursue.

How hard was it, in soliciting and editing these essays, to put your own research and opinions aside?

Not hard at all, since we have not worked in this area before. We had no published, stated views or deeply held opinions on the topic. In fact, we discovered in the course of working on this book that some of our hunches were wrong. We went into the project with some expectations that simply were not borne out by the research. As relative outsiders to this debate, we found it pretty easy to give up our preliminary hunches as data disconfirmed them.

In your conclusion, you mention the importance of framing public presentation of such study in ways that don't discourage young women and their teachers and parents or make differences self-fulfilling. How would you like to see the debate framed in such a way as to produce the greatest positive effects?

The debate should be framed in terms of the choices women make, both willingly due to personal preference (such as choosing veterinary medicine over engineering) and less willingly due to the dilemmas women (as opposed to men) face as a consequence of their biological sex (such as opting out of high-powered 60-hour-per-week jobs because of the desire to have children, which conflicts with tenure or partnership timetables in many cases). There are choices women make that represent choosing freely, and other choices they are compelled to make that men need never face.

As a former teacher, I was surprised by Carol S. Dweck's research showing that praising students' ability can actually have negative effects. I imagine some teachers and professors will have a similar reaction. How can researchers who have made discoveries about teaching methods convey them in a way that encourages professors to integrate them into their own teaching?

When we praise people for work that is not really good, it undermines the value of that praise as a motivator, which is one reason why many "feel-good" programs targeting increases in "self esteem" do not work. If praise is tied to meaningful accomplishment, it works much better! Researchers communicate in varying degrees of accessibility for the educational community. Dweck is a remarkably good communicator, and her message is one that educators and parents can heed. Her work suggests that girls achieve more if they are inculcated in an atmosphere that emphasizes how hard we strive for something rather than how gifted we are. Many researchers do not write for a nonspecialist audience, and do not write in terms understandable to those outside of their primary field. That is a loss for us all.

Of the research discussed in the essays in this book, what was the most surprising finding to you?

The single most surprising finding was how much better women in some countries perform on math tests as compared to men in the United States and Canada! For Steve Ceci, the most surprising finding was that countries not known for their egalitarian attitudes toward women (for example, Turkey) produce more women computer scientists than do countries thought to be more modern and egalitarian (for example, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom).

Elizabeth Spelke and Ariel Grace provide alarming data about people's differing perceptions of male and female scientists with equivalent skills and experience. They and others stress the importance of changing societal perceptions of women's ability, but few offer concrete suggestions. Having worked with all of the essayists, have you thought of any actions that professors, students and other people who are concerned about this issue can take?

Talking about the issue (through debate and discussions such as this one) helps. Also, as the older cohort of relatively more sexist adults retires, it is being replaced by younger folks with more progressive attitudes. One way to change attitudes is to make sure we offer female role models in books and lessons taught to young people and ensure that we devote time to discussing women scientists with older students. The most recent econometric analyses seem to indicate that progress is being made in terms of hiring and salary.

What would you say to people who persist in believing that women's abilities, talents or interests are more suited for the helping professions than for the sciences?

Some extremely competent women and men may prefer the helping professions. We should not stigmatize these professions, nor should we belittle people who choose them. (For example, many men now teach elementary school, something unusual when I was a child.) On the other hand, these choices should not be forced by perceptions that some professions are too demanding for women. The fact that women now outnumber men 3 to 1 among veterinary medicine graduates suggests that these women like the emphasis on "helping" but have not devalued their abilities—this is an ideal situation. Women are not underrepresented in all fields of science, just the mathematically intensive ones (computer science, engineering, physics, chemistry, mathematics). Women are doing well in biological sciences, medicine, social sciences and law.

Several of these essays criticize the tenure system, which was created in a time when one-earner, one-caretaker households were the norm, for not adapting to the realities of juggling home and work that women face. What is one of the best examples you have seen of institutions using policy to model a balanced career/family workload for men and women?

Certainly institutions are aware of the problem and are struggling to confront it. Solutions take real creativity and a willingness to think outside of the box. Recently I was asked to comment on a practice of allowing some Cornell women scientists to bring their babies to work every day for several months following birth. That is very progressive!

The tenure system as it stands is definitely harsh for women wishing to have children. It represents critical evaluation at precisely the time at which these women must choose to procreate if they ever wish to. These women are expected to have their greatest intellectual productivity contemporaneously with their greatest physical and emotional productivity. Many very talented women opt out. If given somewhat longer to accrue a portfolio at, say, half time, these women might not opt out—if their half-time jobs could segue into full-time tenure-track positions. This is not presently the case, however. Why should we lose these women to science forever because of the special needs of a particular six-year period of time in their lives?

What would an ideal tenure system look like to you?

Big question. One thing an ideal tenure system would contain is more time for women having children to amass the portfolio of work submitted for tenure review. Perhaps women should be able to choose half-time positions for several years, then convert back to full-time. Women should not have to choose between having children and having a career they are well suited and well trained for. Men do not have to make this choice; they simply choose as partners women who are willing to stay home for a period of time and have children, as the data clearly show. Women are far less likely in our society to find male partners willing to make the sacrifice of staying home, and even if they do, it is the women who must undergo the strident physical experiences of childbearing, nursing and so on.

In the book's conclusion, you outline some of the differences of interpretation between those who view the issue through a biological lens and those who view it through social/environmental lenses. Do you feel that any consensus emerges from this collection of essays and viewpoints? If so, what is it?

I believe many people who have worked in the area for decades feel absolutely sure of their views. The consensus we hope for is one among readers, not really contributors. This consensus involves a broad appreciation of the complexity of the system and its inputs. We wanted readers to see that at least some of the current system is not optimally designed if our goal is getting the best, most brilliant and most creative people (regardless of sex) into scientific careers.

One of this book's most useful points may be that an awareness of our own perspectives is essential to accurate interpretation of data. How, other than reading such collections of essays, do you think scientists can retain an active awareness of their biases and assumptions?

By deliberately challenging themselves, by reading and speaking with others with opposite views, and by working hard to understand the opposing views and those who hold them, rather than simply dismissing these people as ignorant or stupid.

Has editing this book given you any insight into the direction of your own future research?

Absolutely. I am completing a national empirical study of authorship as a function of gender across the natural and social sciences, examining who gets more credit for identical contributions, women or men. I have planned a national empirical study of mentorship, looking at how we mentor women versus men as graduate students, and the consequences of this mentorship for later career decisions. I also have a coauthored book in the works—on the topic of women in science, and also written with Steve Ceci—which is being published by Harvard University Press.

What is the most important concept you hope people will take from this collection?

That whatever they thought they knew for sure probably represents only a limited understanding at best.

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