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Is science finally becoming friendlier to women?

Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci think so. As the co-directors of the Cornell Institute for Women in Science, they have spent much of the past six years researching sexism in STEM fields. And according to their latest study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, women are no longer at a disadvantage when applying for tenure-track positions in university science departments. In fact, the bias has now flipped: Female candidates are now twice as likely to be chosen as equally qualified men.

“It is a propitious time for women launching careers in academic science,” the researchers declared.

The finding is based on a survey of nearly 900 faculty members from 371 schools across the country. In a series of experiments, evaluators were presented with profiles of fictional job candidates and asked to rank them according to who was most qualified for an assistant professorship in biology, engineering, economics and psychology. In nearly every case, the female candidates were more likely to be ranked higher, regardless of their lifestyle, area of expertise and the evaluators’ field of research. The one exception was with male economists, who showed no gender bias one way or the other.

“At one point we turned to each other while we were coding email responses from faculty across the U.S. and said we hoped that the large preference for women applicants over identically qualified men applicants would slow down because it seemed too large to be believed!” Williams wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed. “It never did slow down, and the final tally was roughly a 2 to 1 preference. So, we were surprised.”

She and Ceci also found that despite the belief that women’s life choices — like taking time off to have children — can put them at a disadvantage, men actually favored women who took extended maternity leave over those who went right back to work at a ratio of 2-to-1 (women slightly preferred female candidates who didn’t take extended leave). Female evaluators also preferred divorced women over married fathers, and both genders favored a single, female candidate over a man with children.

“Anti-female bias in academic hiring has ended,” Williams and Ceci wrote in an opinion piece for CNN on Monday. “Changing cultural values, gender-awareness training and trends such as the retirement of older faculty members have brought us to a time when women in academic science are seen as more desirable hires than equally competent men.”

This is the latest in a series of studies by the Cornell researchers, many of which have concluded that the scarcity of female faculty in science departments (about 20 percent in most fields) can’t be blamed on innate sexism. In a study published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, they found that young and mid-career women are more likely to receive job offers than male candidates, are paid roughly the same amount, are granted tenure and promoted at the same rate (except in economics), remain in their fields for the same amount of time, and are about as satisfied with their jobs. The study attributes the lack of female scientists to early educational choices — like opting not to take Advanced Placement calculus and physics in high school or choosing not to declare a math-intensive major in college — rather than discrimination later on.

In their most recent report, Williams and Ceci also argue that the belief that science is unwelcoming to women may be what keeps so many women out of the field.

“The perception that STEM fields continue to be inhospitable male bastions can become self-reinforcing by discouraging female applicants, thus contributing to continued underrepresentation,” they wrote.

Though the conclusion should be heartening news for proponents of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), who have long argued that hiring bias is holding female scientists back, it contradicts other prominent studies of the issue — a fact that has subjected it to skepticism from other researchers.

Joan C. Williams (no relation to Wendy), a distinguished professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law and co-principal investigator for the Tools for Change project, which tries to level the playing field for women in STEM, told Inside Higher Ed that the Cornell study is “seriously flawed” in its conclusion that science is now a welcoming place for women. She argued that hiring has never really been the main source of discrimination against women.

Joan Williams and others noted that the fictional female candidates in the Cornell study were exceptionally well-qualified, a factor that may have mitigated gender bias. A similar 2012 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which looked at more moderately qualified graduate student candidates for a job in a lab, found that male applicants were much more likely to be hired, given better salaries and offered mentorship.

“I think it’s too soon to say, ‘Okay, problem solved,’” Virginia Valian, who researches gender equity at New York’s Hunter College, told Science Magazine. “We haven’t solved the problem of underrepresentation of women in the sciences … and I wouldn’t want people to think that this paper demonstrates that we have solved it.”

Speaking to Reuters, Wendy Williams countered that criticism.

“We’re not saying women do not face discrimination” in academic science, she said. “But these data speak to a real change. People seem to have internalized the value of gender diversity, and are consciously or unconsciously upgrading women candidates.”