The year the Nobel Prize forgot to ignore women

Curt Rice. (Foto: Tom Benjaminsen)

Curt Rice. (Foto: Tom Benjaminsen)

Av Curt Rice, professor ved UiT og leder av Komité for kjønnsbalanse i forskning

Norwegian professor May-Britt Moser is literally a game changer. Today, she will receive the Nobel Prize in Medicine, and the game she is changing is about women in science.

Here’s how it goes. Ask anyone to name two famous women scientists. Most of them can name one — usually the same one. But for many of us, naming two is too hard.

Norwegians today are united in their hope that this game will now change, that the difficult challenge will be to name three, but that naming two will be easy since soon everyone will hit on Moser’s name as quickly as they can say “Madame Marie Curie.”

This game highlights how rare women scientists are. Recruiting women to science is one of our great challenges — and we have to solve it. We need more scientists and engineers, we need to draw from the whole population when filling those positions, and we need the powerful, quality-enhancing benefits of diversity in the workforce.

The face of excellence sports a beard

More women might be attracted to these fields if they could see the potential for success, perhaps in the form of a little better gender balance in prestigious prizes, so that the face of excellence doesn’t always seem to be wearing a beard. And while the Nobel prizes could have a colossal impact if the committees decided they cared to level things out, they’ve made it perfectly clear that they don’t.

Only 10% of the winners of Nobel Prize in Medicine have been women. In chemistry, there are only four women among 106 laureates and in physics, it’s just two of 199.

Perhaps the Nobel Committees have an overly rigid interpretation of the pronoun in the last sentence of Alfred Nobel’s will, where he writes, “It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be Scandinavian or not.”

The committees apparently don’t know that back then, in the olden days, there was something called generic third person pronouns.

Prizes with culture of ignoring women

The Nobel Prize in Medicine is awarded by the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, an institution which in other contexts also struggles to see the work of women. This fall, for example, they managed to give every single one of their myriad of internal prizes to men.

In their official public comment on this embarrassment, the Dean of Research at Karolinska notes that “The results [of the prize committees] with respect to gender balance have started an internal discussion about these processes.” I bet they have!

It is my express wish that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be Scandinavian or not. –Alfred Nobel

The apparent indifference of the Nobel Committees to the work of women gets amplified because of the prestige of the prizes. The Netherlands’ Ministry of Education, Culture and Science recently took a public thrashing because their much-anticipated Vision for research 2025: choices for the future was illustrated with pictures of 16 prominent Dutch researchers — every one a man.

These 16 were the Netherlands’ Nobel laureates, although the Ministry didn’t find it necessary to mention that anywhere in the document as an explanation for only using the pictures of men when talking about the future.

Perhaps that is because research careers in the Netherlands really are mostly for men. It’s just about the worst country in Europe when it comes to the number of female professors and the Dutch research council in a high profile event last year awarded millions to six of the country’s best researchers — no women allowed!

Prizes and role models

Even in seemingly more enlightened countries, such as Norway, prize committees struggle to see the work of women. The Abel Prize in Mathematics is awarded by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters and now has 14 laureates, none of whom are women.

The Norwegians are in good company: the Fields Medal of the International Mathematical Union added this year the first woman to its list of 55 laureates; the French Academy of Science’s Jacques Herbrand Prize has been given to 11 mathematicians, only one of whom was a woman.

Maybe it’s true that there are few women doing research in mathematics; a bit under 10% of the members of the mathematics section of the French Academy of Sciences are women. Some other international academies have fewer, some have more.

The problem is not just that women receive prizes in lower numbers than we could expect given their presence in various fields — i.e., they are less likely to get a prize than a man. The problem is that committees hide behind ideas of excellence and objectivity and fail to sieze the opportunity to show social — and scientific! — responsibility.

Changing the face of science

Prizes can be a tool to change the face of science, to make it more inclusive and thereby more successful. No one is suggesting that excellence should not be the primary criterion.

But absolute excellence is not the only factor that matters in selecting winners. There are always more worthy candidates. And these winners become role models for early-career researchers and schoolchildren — who in turn might choose to take on the task of using science and research as tools to make life better for all of us.

Prize committees could have a tremendous impact on society by providing more role models for under-represented groups.

The various Nobel committees must do their part to attract more women to science. They generally don’t. Let’s hope that this year they simply didn’t forget; let’s hope that the Nobel Prize committees are now starting to work harder to remind us that science benefits from diversity.

May-Britt Moser is a world-class role model and she is changing the game. But she shouldn’t have to do it alone.

This article was originally published on Curt Rice – Science in Balance. Read the original article.

2 ways quotas for women raise quality

Curt Rice. (Foto: Tom Benjaminsen)

Curt Rice. (Foto: Tom Benjaminsen)

Av Curt Rice, professor ved UiT og leder av Komité for kjønnsbalanse i forskning

Quotas, it is said, inevitably lower quality. Quotas lead to hiring a person who otherwise wouldn’t get hired. It’s obvious, isn’t it, that if she were good enough, she would get the job on her own? Quotas take situations that are fair — tough, sure, but fair nonetheless — and make them unfair. Surely you don’t think sex makes a difference in how well you do your work!

Those are the attitudes I bump into when I talk about quotas — the most extreme form of intervention in hiring processes. Those attitudes, however, fly in the face of recent research. It turns out that there are good reasons to think quotas actually do the opposite: they raise quality.

The impediments to fair and quality-based hiring processes are many. An increasing literature shows that we have implicit biases which keep us from making objective evaluations of the work done by men and women; we inevitably consider sex when we evaluate individuals. In the essay Quotas, microaggression and meritocracy, I put it like this:

«Academics hold tightly to the view that progress in our system is meritocratic. Hiring, decisions about article publication, citation of the work of our peers, the awarding of research funds, raises, promotions and more are determined rationally, we believe, as a result of the objective evaluation of clearly stated requirements for advancement. An increasing body of research, however, makes it clear that equally qualified men and women are viewed differently when hiring, that women have less access than men to positions of prominence in article authorship, that citation patterns reflect the sex of the author, that prestigious funding agencies have systems which set the bar lower for men than for women, and that the CVs of men and women are evaluated differently for promotion (Vernos, 2012; Donald, 2013; European Research Council, 2012; Maliniak, Powers and Walter, 2013; West, Jacquet, King, Correll and Bergstrom, 2013; Ministry of Science and Innovation, 2011; Wenneras and Wold, 1997).»

Can you really recognize quality?
A newly published article, Elite male faculty in the life sciences employ fewer women, shows that part of the problem with increasing the number of women faculty in the natural sciences is found in the employment patterns in the very most prestigious labs.

This article shows a difference between the behavior of male and female heads of labs. Earlier simulation studies could not distinguish between the behavior of men and women; the new paper is a study of actual data gathered after the fact and as such is messier with more variables that cannot be controlled for. Its results are an invitation to more research: The absence of a difference between men and women when it comes to implicit bias is clearly a topic that we are not yet done studying.

Independent of that, what is clear from any of these studies is our commitment to quality: We intensely want to believe that we are capable of recognizing quality when we see it. But study after study shows us that it’s not so simple. In many situations, we are simply not up to the task. We need to acknowledge this and to imagine processes which in fact do not leave us on our own. We need processes that support our quest for selecting the best. This is part of a conceptualization of human capital and many such processes are available to us.

I’d like to take the most controversial one, however, and put it on the table with what I hope will be a fresh perspective.

How quotas raise quality
Quotas can take the form of insisting that a particular position go to a member of an under-represented group, or that a particular percentage of a group must be made up of members of particular sub-groups.

One common objection to quotas is that they are unfair. But quotas do not get introduced in situations that already are fair. They are a tool to pursue fairness — to correct unfairness.

The other common objection is that quotas necessarily lead to a reduction in quality. If you use a quota, it is said, you will hire someone who isn’t otherwise good enough. If you insist that companies put women on their boards, we used to hear in Norway, you’ll lower the overall quality. That’s the stereotype.

But research suggests that this is exactly wrong. Research shows us that quotas can raise quality. Everyone who is a friend of gender balance work needs to learn these arguments.

When anecdotes become anecdata
The stereotype is a classic case of basing conclusions on something other than research. It bases conclusions on logic – bad logic, it turns out – and stories. These stories  – “we had a woman president at our university once, but it didn’t really work out” – get repeated so often.

In fact, they are anecdotes that with sufficient repetition start to get treated as data. We might call them anecdata. (See also Anecdata: How McKinsey’s story become Sheryl Sandberg’s fact.)

Anecdata are not useful as we try to build our knowledge. Three studies on quotas show something different.

A simulation published in Science in 2012 shows that affirmative action attracts more highly qualified women. The use of affirmative action measures in this study – including, but not limited to quotas – leads to a change in the applicant pool. In fact, the inclusion of some affirmative action measure in the announcement of conditions had the effect of attracting more highly qualified women to the extent that it was almost never necessary to actually use the affirmative action measure to get the desired gender balance.

Up with zippers
In 2013, Sweden’s Research Institute of Industrial Economics published a study called Gender quotas and the crisis of the mediocre man: Theory and evidence from Sweden.

This paper examines the effects of quotas on the lists of political parties. Lists of candidates for elections alternative between men and women, so that there is a “zipper quota” on the group giving 50% men and 50% women.

The authors evaluate group competency and demonstrate that the zipper quota raises the overall competency of the groups and, in particular, it raises the competency of the group of men on the list.

Think about that.

Adding a zipper quota raises the competency of the group overall and of the group of men. What does that mean?

It means that mediocre men are being replaced by more highly qualified women. The overall compentency is raised because more highly qualified people replace lower qualified people.

And for the group of men, lower qualified men are no longer present.

In this case, research shows that a quota on the composition of a group increases the quality of that group. This is a realization of the classic argument that we need to make use of all of societies resources. And it shows that exactly the opposite of the stereotype about quotas is what actually happens. (Watch the European Gender Summit speech related to this blog entry!)

Getting the most out of human capital
Now in 2014, a new study called Socially gainful gender quotas argues from a human capital perspective the following:

«We study the impact of gender quotas on the acquisition of human capital. In the absence of quotas, women consider their chances of getting top positions to be lower than men’s. The lure of top positions induces even men of relatively low ability to engage in human capital formation, whereas women of relatively high ability do not expect to get top positions and do not therefore engage in human capital formation. Gender quotas discourage men who are less efficient in forming human capital, and encourage women who are more efficient in forming human capital. We provide a condition under which the net result of the institution of gender quotas is an increase in human capital in the economy as a whole.»

We know that we stumble in our attempts to select the best, and the obvious response to stumbling is to carry a crutch. We need help. We need interventions. And those can take many forms. But no matter what interventions we consider, it’s important to identify them based on research, and not on anecdotes, and not even on anecdata. Research is the route to knowledge.

And when we look at the research on quotas, it turns out that what we thought we knew — that they necessarily lower quality — is exactly wrong.

Both in terms of attracting stronger applicants and in terms of their impacts on groups, quotas increase quality. Period. That’s what the research tells us. What should we do with this knowledge? Quotas are the most extreme measure. And they carry other challenges — not least of all stigma for the target group. Whatever we may decide to do, however, let’s set the stereotypes aside and see what research shows about the positive effects quotas can bring for everyone.

A hat trick full of sex – 3 recent publications on gender equality

Curt Rice. (Foto: Tom Benjaminsen)

Curt Rice. (Foto: Tom Benjaminsen)

Av Curt Rice, professor ved UiT og leder av Komité for kjønnsbalanse i forskning

I have recently published three different articles on three different sites: the Guardian, The Conversation, and DiscovHer.

After a quarter of a century living among taciturn Vikings, it isn’t easy to say this aloud. Indeed, it’s almost embarrassing. But I’m trying to get past that.

All three articles reflect my interest in gender balance in the workplace, each in different ways.

Cloning in the Guardian

‘Cloning’ does not explain the lack of women at the top discusses the low number of women who lead universities. In the United Kingdom, only 17% of institutions of higher education are led by women. Some recently discussed interviews formulate one hypothesis. As I wrote in the Guardian:

Those women raised the possibility of «cloning» as an explanation for hiring disproportionately many men. «One pointed out that: ‘many of the selections are made by white-haired, ageing, middle-class men’.»

My argument is that this may be a spurious correlation, based on the research on implicit bias showing that men and women alike favor men:

On the one hand, it is likely that the men making decisions are favouring men. On the other hand, women would do the same.
Cloning is not the explanation, even if the results of hiring processes will spuriously have that appearance when men are responsible. Rather, the explanation is pure and unadulterated favouritism towards men, regardless of who does the hiring.

The glass wall in tennis on The Conversation

Twitter and the tennis world have been abuzz with the news that tennis pro Andy Murray has hired a woman as his coach.
That reminded me of a piece I wrote on my blog a while back called The glass wall: a lesson from coaches for women in academia. So, I whipped up a revised version of that for The Conversation, pointing out the imbalance in career possibilities for male and female coaches. It got the title Amelie Mauresmo and Andy Murray smash the sports coaching glass wall.

Glass walls obstruct lateral movement and they are ubiquitous in the gender-imbalanced world of athletic coaching. Glass walls prevent women from coaching men in sports, but allow men to coach women.

It’s a well-documented phenomenon, and probably another example of implicit bias making career paths different for men and women.

A little more than 40% of women’s athletics teams are coached by women, while about 3% of men’s teams are coached by women. Do the maths: that means men are coaching 60% of women’s teams and 97% of mens teams.

Sex makes your research better at L’Oreal

The L’Oreal Foundation makes profound investments to advance women in science, including the development of the DiscovHer site. My publication there is about the importance of including sex in the formulation of research questions, and it’s called Sex is making research better.

The way scientists formulate research questions and the methods they use directly affect their potential relevance. And questions and methods often overlook females. Why should all of society fund research that benefits only half of us?

I describe in this piece how research gets better with these perspectives, how funding organizations are getting engaged, and how journals are beginning to require more information of this type about research they publish.

This triumvirate of pressures — the promise of enhanced quality, the demands of funding organizations, and new requirements from journals — is bringing much more attention to gendered perspectives in science.

I’m working through my leadership of Norway’s Committee on Gender Balance in Research — in a partnership with the Research Council of Norway — to organize a conference on gendered perspectives in science, that will probably be held in January in Oslo. Watch this space for more information, and then join us.

Now that I’m completely over-exposed, I should probably shut-up for a while. I am trying to write a book on implicit bias, after all.

A fresh policy on gender balance and gendered research

Curt Rice. (Foto: Tom Benjaminsen)

Curt Rice. (Foto: Tom Benjaminsen)

Av Curt Rice, professor ved UiT og leder av Komité for kjønnsbalanse i forskning 2014-2017

Innovation at universities starts among the grass roots. New teaching programs are most often developed at the initiative of those who teach and new research projects usually are triggered by those who do research. This is how the system is set up; it’s the nature of academic freedom. And there’s no doubt that this leads to creative and important developments.

In my work on gender balance and gender equality, however, I have become convinced that changes in these areas must be supported and perhaps even initiated at the top if they are to have any hope of success. This seems to be true in the private sector, too, as suggested in McKinsey’s Women matter reports.

An inspiring example of top-down leadership on gender balance and gender perspectives in research has just been released in Norway, and it shows what kind of influence policy makers can have. The Research Council of Norway has issued its new policy, Gender balance and gender perspectives in research and innovation.

The Director General, Arvid Hallén, clarifies the Research Council’s goals:
With regard to gender balance, we are especially concerned with accelerating the pace at which change is taking place in senior-level academic positions and research management.

Given the current state of affairs, this means that we should have more women professors and more women running research projects, and we should see that change happen faster.

The Research Council has also added a requirement that all grant applications address the potential relevance of sex and gender for the project:
All of our programmes and initiatives must specifically assess what the gender dimension means for their particular knowledge field. If we are to succeed, we must raise the level of expertise among everyone involved.

Examples of gendered perspectives in research are found in increasing abundance, for example at Gendered Innovations and genderSTE. Some examples are described in Your heart and my back: 2 examples of gender-enhanced science and Seatbelts for pregnant crash test dummies. I also presented a new project with this perspective in Gendered innovations: making research better.

The Norwegian report makes it clear that the Research Council has decided to use its position to influence researchers and research institutions in Norway. It will encourage researchers to make plans for gender balance in their research teams as part of the process of submitting an application. It will require researchers to think about gender perspectives and it will train reviewers to be sensitive to these issues.

Through this policy, Norway continues to show leadership on gender issues and it does so for exactly one reason, according to Hallén:
Our aim is to enhance the overall quality of research.

I look forward to following the developments triggered by this policy. But I wonder what you think? Is this a good way to trigger innovation, even if the tradition in universities is to focus on bottom-up initiatives? If this isn’t the way to go, what is a better strategy? I suspect we agree that research and education are the keys to making a better future for society; where do gender balance and gendered research fit in to that program?

This blog originally appeared at curt-rice.com. Follow Curt Rice on Twitter @curtrice.

Moving universities forward

Curt Rice. (Foto: Tom Benjaminsen)

Curt Rice. (Foto: Tom Benjaminsen)

Curt Rice, Vice Rector of the University of Tromsø

Universities have the potential to answer many of the most basic challenges faced by modern societies. We answer them through research – making new discoveries. We answer them through education – conveying previous discoveries. Research and education together move societies forward.

Yet even though universities hold the key, those of us who work there don’t deliver results as well as we could. Sometimes we take too long, distracted by more pressing demands in the system. Sometimes we stop our work before it’s finished, without identifying the benefits to society that might be found in some new knowledge.

It’s not just our research that can be poorly delivered. Our approaches to education are sometimes so conservative that we lose those who are hungry to learn.

It is my belief that one of the most basic impediments to more effective delivery of research and education is the quality of the workplace at many universities. The academic staff could easily be equipped to better perform their research and teaching. Ask professors what they do that someone else should be doing – or ask them what they do that no one should be doing – and you’ll get an earful. The support staff, too, could be liberated to spend their time on tasks that improve the quality of research and education.

Making Universities Better

I have spent over half my academic career in leadership positions, first as the chair of my department, then as the founding director of the University of Tromsø’s first Norwegian Center of Excellence – the Center for Advanced Study in Theoretical Linguistics – and later as the elected Pro Rector for Research & Development. Through this leadership experience, I’ve developed a passion for working to make universities better.

I used to think that one inevitable side-effect of improving university workplaces would be the removal of some of the barriers to gender equality. But as I talked with more women at universities and as I read more research about bias, I came to realize that I had gotten it exactly backwards. It’s not that improving the quality of the university workplace generally will necessarily make it better for women. The truth is just the opposite: Making universities better workplaces for women will improve their quality for everyone.

Following my belief that research is the key to solving society’s challenges, I build my arguments for improving gender equality on exactly that – research. For example, I study and synthesize what scientists have discovered about how teams work or how hiring, promotion and publication evaluations are carried out. I read about the effects of role models and the perceptions young women and men have of academic careers. I get into the peer-reviewed literature and I analyze reports from think tanks, government agencies, NGOs and private industry.

Discussing Gender Balance

I blog on issues related to university leadership at http://curt-rice.com. The most prominent topic on my blog is gender – gender equality and gender balance. Although I sometimes am casual in switching between these terms, they do mean different things. Gender equality is achieved when individuals in any particular situation are treated equally, independent of their sex or gender. Gender balance is a property of groups, so that it is achieved when there are roughly equal numbers of men and women in that group.

When I speak on the importance of improving gender equality and gender balance, my talks often build comprehensive arguments that include various pieces taken from the research syntheses appearing on my blog.

My arguments are spiced with stories from my own work at the University of Tromsø, and in Norway and Europe more broadly, to improve research organizations by improving the plight of women at research organizations.

Like those talks, the book I mention below takes several blog entries and weaves them together to illustrate in one place a somewhat broader perspective than is possible in 1000 words. My goal is to offer something useful for those looking to explain or understand why it is essential for the success of universities that we commit to working explicitly and deliberately to improve gender equality.

This is an excerpt from the preface to my new eBook, 6 steps to gender equality and other essays about how every university can get more women to the top and why they should. You can download for free the pdf version of the book from my blog or the kindle version for a song from amazon.com.