Why do we tolerate gender bias favoring women?


Almost a month after University of California Berkeley economists presented evidence of gender discrimination at several leading scientific institutions, including the National Academy of Sciences, the implicated groups have yet to publicly apologize for and repudiate the bias, or to dispute the evidence. Their silence, and that of the broader scientific community, should be deafening. The fact that it isn’t speaks volumes about the tolerance of today’s gender discrimination — favoring females.  

The National Bureau of Economic Research working paper compares researchers of similar academic credentials, including publications and citations in top journals, and finds that women are up to twice as likely to receive honors and awards by the Econometric Society, a leading association in the economics field. They also enjoy considerably better odds than men at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences. As the study authors acknowledge, this bias likely extends to other scientific institutions and C-suites of many American companies.

The study shows the playing field was tilted against women from 1933-1980, but then this pattern reversed and selection increasingly has favored women over men for 40 years. The end of such discrimination against women in these professions is worthy of celebration. But as we cheer the end of bias against women, shouldn’t we as loudly repudiate the bias today against men? Is there any doubt that if the research showed that bias against women continued today we would hear widespread recriminations within the scientific community and on social media? Immediate redress would be demanded.

As a woman economist, I resent the direct implication of this latest research that I can only compete in the marketplace and in scientific pursuits if the bar is lowered for me. Why do so many women applaud gender preferences at the heights of our culture that favor them when they would so ardently object if the preferences went the other way? Joe Biden was cheered for announcing during the 2020 campaign that his top criterion in selecting a running mate was the presence of two X chromosomes, as if a search for the best vice president wouldn’t have identified a woman. And to signal its virtue, United Airlines has vowed to assertively select women for its aviation school, as though passengers wouldn’t be better comforted by having the most capable pilots in the cockpit, regardless of gender. The federal government is also prioritizing women-owned business for COVID-19 relief and federal contracts.

Beyond the insult of the clear double standard that pervades many of our elite institutions, women should object to this discrimination because whatever advantage they may gain comes at the expense of the men around them — their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons. I am blessed to be the mother of two young boys, and I am dedicated to giving them every opportunity for happy, purposeful lives. But I fear the opportunities they may lose because of an immutable characteristic.

As my grandmother worried 60 years ago whether her daughters would be denied opportunities because of their gender, I worry today that my sons’ goals and ambitions will be stultified by a society that discriminates against them because of the sins of their forefathers. We call this progress?

Some may say a half-century or more of discrimination against women warrants remediation by discriminating for them. The authors of the study acknowledge this potential rationale; however, the favoritism has been intensifying over the past 40 years, not abating, as would be expected if favoritism was only intended to level the playing field.

Statistics show women today are better situated than men to succeed in college and careers. Women have represented the majority of the college-educated adults in this country for decades, which recently has been reflected in their outnumbering of college educated men in the workforce. We aren’t trailing men, but the other way around.

It was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg who once said, “I ask no favor for my sex. … All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.” Thus, maybe it’s time to embrace the wisdom of Justice Ginsburg’s colleague, Chief Justice John Roberts. Paraphrasing him, the way to stop discrimination on the basis of gender is to stop discriminating on the basis of gender.

Alison Sexton Ward, Ph.D., is a research scientist and economist at the Leonard D. Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics, University of Southern California. 

Tags Discrimination Gender inequality Joe Biden Sexism Women in the workforce

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