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Response to Olkin

1 April 2014 No Comment
Jean D. Gibbons

    Ingram Olkin posed a disturbing and provocative question in “Where Have All the Tenured Women Gone?” He reported that tenured women comprised only 5/83 = 6% of the faculty at eight private universities in 1995 (Carnegie-Mellon, Chicago, Duke, Harvard, Penn, Rice, Southern Methodist, Stanford). Further, women accounted for only 20/243 = 8.2% of statistics faculty at 21 public universities that offered doctorates in statistics. The survey by the Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences revealed women comprised only 79/525 = 15% of faculty in doctoral statistics departments in 2005 and 95/560 = 17% in 2010.

    Since the proportion of graduate students and the number of PhDs in statistics who are female has increased drastically over the last 30 years, the question posed in the title of Olkin’s article is perplexing. We all know statistics faculty at major universities are required to publish to become tenured. Can it be that these females do not publish in sufficient numbers? This has indeed been the case for female PhDs in the field of economics.

    Mary Fish and Jean Gibbons, in their 1989 Journal of Economic Education paper titled “A Comparison of the Publications of Male and Female Economists,” compared the publication records of female and male PhD economists on the basis of a random sample of 960 persons over the period from 1969–1984. Thirty men and 30 women for each year were matched with respect to the year the PhD was granted from a comparable university in the United States and one of 10 primary topics of dissertation research (e.g., monetary and fiscal theory, international economics, economic statistics, etc.) for each year. Publication records were obtained from the quarterly Journal of Economic Literature, which indexes 260 economics journals. Of the respondents in academic careers, only 32% of the women had at least one publication, while the corresponding percentage for men was 60%. The male economists in the sample had an average of 1.76 publications, while the females averaged 1.01 publications for all the journals indexed—a difference of 74%.

    In their 1988 Business Horizons paper, “The Strange Case of the Female PhD Economist,” Gibbons, John S. Fielden, and Fish reported a study that attempted to determine why PhD female economists are publishing so much less than their male counterparts. They sent questionnaires to 54 of the women in the original group. Sixty-one percent completed the questionnaire; all but two were currently employed in academia. Respondents were asked to rank five categories of possible hindrances to achieving a more prolific publication record. These classifications were described as Domestic Situation, Value Choices, Environmental Influences, Sex Discrimination, and Career Interruptions. There was a significant consensus of opinion with environmental influences the most important, followed by value choices, domestic situation, career interruptions, and last, sex discrimination. Only the first three ranked together as important factors.

    The comments about value choices were the most illuminating. Half of the respondents indicated that children’s and/or domestic partners’ needs were placed before publication activities. Many indicated they preferred to spend time on teaching activities and nurturing students.

    Environmental influences include lack of assistance for research and lack of opportunity to co-author. One could argue that identical environmental factors should also affect men equally. The only difference that emerged clearly is the additional pressure on women for service activities. If every oral examination committee, say, needs a token female and there are few females on the faculty, each female will have an excess of committee responsibilities that take time away from publishing.

    While sex discrimination did not turn out to be an important factor, the individual comments were revealing. One respondent said, “My impression is that economics is still a male-dominated profession, and a ‘jealous’ one.” Another claimed, “There is more an indifference to women than there is discrimination.”

    The range of comments was so diverse that we found it impossible to come up with any definitive reasons to explain the large difference in publication output. We did conjecture that women may regard publications as a game that must be played and they simply refuse to compete. Instead, they choose to teach at institutions where refereed journal publications in prestigious journals are held to be less important than other, more practically useful publications. Women may prefer teaching and counseling students, activities regarded by psychologists as more nurturing and caring, to competing for the publications necessary to be successful at the major institutions of higher learning. These same institutions generally also regard teaching and service more favorably. We also concluded that women are reluctant to offer a gender-based excuse, even though the prime childbearing years coincide with the prime tenure-granting years. While female PhD economists are not the same as PhD statisticians, these conclusions sound reasonable enough to be attributed to other PhD women in academia today. The typical PhD woman has chosen to teach at an institution where she can make her own choices about her contributions to society and not feel pressured to engage in activities required by other, more prestigious institutions.

    Olkin suggests a possible cause of the shortage of tenured female faculty is bias against women in both hiring and granting tenure, and he recommends suitable programs be introduced to enable women who are isolated and may encounter difficulty finding co-authors to do more collaborative research and thereby improve their publication records. My personal experience as the lone woman in two doctorate-granting statistics departments for more than 35 years (Penn and Alabama) is that my male colleagues enthusiastically welcomed my collaboration because I had established a reputation as an extremely capable writer who was always willing to do more than her fair share in collaboration. The sense of isolation among my colleagues actually worked to my advantage in obtaining co-authors for research and publications. Further, potential co-authors were never limited to colleagues in my own department, even before the advent of email and other modern methods of instant communication.

    Jean D. Gibbons is Russell Professor Emerita of Applied Statistics at the University of Alabama. She retired in 1995 and resides in Vero Beach, Florida.

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