In their series that could be titled "Academic sexism is a myth", Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci have a newest installment: on the basis of fictive scenarios, faculty members in STEM disciplines had to make decisions about hiring particular male or female candidates. I'm not going to talk in detail about the methodology - which involved presenting faculty members fictitious scenarios about the on campus interviews of female and male candidates - but about the problem of inductive risk whenever we investigate biases against women and other underrepresented groups, such as African Americans, people with disabilities, etc.
Inductive risk is the chance that one is wrong accepting or rejecting a scientific hypothesis. For instance, a food additive that poses a serious health risk is wrongly concluded to be safe, or conversely, a food additive that has no health risk is wrongly concluded to be carcinogenic. Both false negatives and false positives can potentially pose inductive risks. Heather Douglas has argued that inductive risk is one way to let values play a role in science. Because scientists are in an epistemic position to assess the risks and benefits of their work, they should assess the non-epistemic consequences (in policy, public perception, health hazards etc) of publishing particular research findings. How does this concept apply to the research by Williams and Ceci?
When we investigate sexist biases against women in academia, there are two types of inductive risk: (1) There are no biases against women (indeed women are now being preferred as candidates for some positions in some fields). (2) There are in fact biases against women, but Williams and Ceci failed to detect it.
Looking at their most recent paper, published in PNAS, it is clear that Williams and Ceci talk mostly about the inductive risk posed by (1). In their conclusion, they state "We hope the discovery of an overall 2:1 preference for hiring women over otherwise identical men will help counter self-handicapping and opting-out by talented women at the point of entry to the STEM professoriate, and suggest that female underrepresentation can be addressed in part by increasing the number of women applying for tenure-track positions". I find this phrase "self-handicapping" quite revealing, almost sounding like blaming the victim. On the Daily Nous, it is phrased in a more friendly way: "It may indeed be that if there is a concern with the underrepresentation of women in philosophy, one strategy that might help would be to broadcast findings like these, so as to provide encouragement to would-be woman philosophers." If the fact of underrepresentation itself indeed deters women, or perceptions of a hostile environment, it's important we get all the facts right so that this itself will not form a deterrent.
But what about (2)? I think there are risks associated with (2) too. If there is indeed still sexism toward women in academia (as most other studies suggest), then Williams and Ceci are lulling us in a false sense of complacency, and might even give reason to stop serious attempts to redress gender imbalance (something like "Well women are already preferred 2:1 for hiring decisions, why should we bother doing any more things to help them get into academia? If they don't it's their personal decision, after all)."
A problem with Ceci and Williams' research (not just this paper, but their project as a whole) is their too-narrow focus on what counts as personal choices by women. To give an example, someone close to me, whom I've known since childhood, has a PhD in physics. She is a woman, and also a member of an ethnic minority. She did her PhD in 4 years, and left academia immediately upon graduating, in spite of having been offered a prestigious postdoc. She's one of those people who left early, in a STEM field, so in Williams and Ceci's views, one of those women in STEM who don't apply for permanent and other academic positions. One important reason she left is that many of her lab co-workers were saying, even to the extent she learned about it, that she had only gotten her position because she was a woman and her lab director wanted to improve gender balance. When she was about to defend her PhD, many of her colleagues said she didn't have enough to show for, (although her track record was similar to that of the majority of her male colleagues), but she would get something anyway, because, you know, affirmative action.
Now this person is someone who works hard, is gifted (she was a mathlete, straight-A student, etc), did all the right things, but this continued doubting of her capacities because she was a woman, the continued suspicion of affirmative action (which is illegal in that country, by the way), made her decide to leave academia and not accept the postdoc offer. She is now happy in a non-academic environment (which is also intellectually stimulating, and much more gender-balanced), where, she told me recently, "no-one has ever questioned my credentials because I'm a woman".
Is hers a personal choice? I am not sure, but I believe that the Williams and Ceci project does little to alter this sort of personal choices. In fact, I feel that their continued narrow focus on what counts as personal choices and project to blame those choices as the sole reason for women's underrepresentation in STEM (and by extension in other fields) poses a serious inductive risk. Few people are comfortable with being an affirmative action hire, certainly if the odds are 2:1 in your favor.