Gender Bias in the Sciences

So sometimes when I talk about gender bias and sexism in academia, some people seem surprised. I don’t know if they bought into the notion that academia is some sort of hippy-dippy haven for everyone or what, but the surprise surprises me. More surprising are the people who deny that any sort of sexism or gender bias exists within academia (even with all of Joan Roughgarden’s writing on the subject). Welp, in a study published just last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS ““ say that 5 times fast for a giggle), researchers at Yale University found that if men and women had the exact same resume, men are more likely to get hired and to receive a higher starting salary.

The experiment was done by showing faculty members in Biology, Chemistry, and Physics departments at three public and three private universities. Faculty members were shown one of two resumes and were told that the applicant was looking for a laboratory manager position. The only difference between the two resumes was the gender of the applicant, but the faculty members still rated the male candidate as significantly more competent and hirable. They also offered the male candidate a higher starting salary and were interested in offering the male candidate more career mentorship. This pattern was found regardless of the gender of the faculty member doing the evaluation.

While none of the faculty responders responded with overt sexism, the female candidate was considered overall less competent than a male candidate with literally the exact same resume. Using a test to measure pre-existing subtle gender bias, researchers found, though, that this pre-existing subtle bias did correspond to poorer evaluations of the female candidate. Basically, you don’t have to be a loud mouth woman hater to allow subtle sexism to influence your decisions.

The resume that the faculty members evaluated was one that was decent but not great – created that way by the research team to allow for some variability in the response. This suggests that maybe the very good resumes and the very bad resumes will be judged by their merits, but the resumes on the edge, the ones that need to have the most unbiased and fair review possible, the ones without the easy calls, those are the ones that could be influenced by this subtle, yet pervasive gender bias. Women on the cusp may be unfairly pushed away from pursuing science further because of their gender. The STEM fields really need greater representation of women and studies like this just illuminate all the hurdles to making that possible.

There’s a post over at Scientific American that explores some of the other ways in which this subtle sexism can keep women from pursuing science. I suggest you check it out if and when you have a chance. The only way that this issue will be resolved is if people acknowledge it and talk about it. Studies like this one keep showing us just how real the problem is and it won’t go away unless we find a way to address it head on.

6 thoughts on “Gender Bias in the Sciences”

  1. Ugh. As a woman in science who has to start looking for a new job (my lab is out of money and can’t afford to keep me on) this is kind of soul-crushing. I already seriously regret going into science because there are no jobs. And now I find out, even if there is a job, I’m less likely to get it because I have a vagina. Awesome.

  2. I hope something good comes of this study.  My 8 year old daughter is absolutely in love with science and soaks anything science relate up like a sponge.  I know she’s young yet, but since she started talking she’s insisted she is going to be a scientist.  She actually comes home from school and tells me what new thing she HAS to research today, just because she’s curious.  Yesterday it was mud daubers, today it was why salt makes ice “colder” (thank God for the internet!).  I hope by the time she enters academia she won’t have to battle as much gender bias, and instead spend her energy on researching bigger curiosities.

    1. I really hope that this pervasive idea that “women don’t do math and science” goes away. Although my natural abilities show up more in the humanities, I’m not a stupid person, but I was always influenced by the idea that math and science were a guy thing so I didn’t really bother rising to the challenge. I passed the minimum required classes and pursued other things instead. I kinda regret that.

      I hope your daughter continues to pursue this field that interests her! :)

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