Inside Higher Education reports about a disturbing new study that suggests strong gender bias in the hard sciences. It’s the first study that I’m aware of that looks directly at faculty bias as a factor in women’s underrepresentation in the sciences.
Here’s the study’s methodology: a group of researchers from Yale submitted applications for a lab manager position to faculty members in the biology, chemistry, and physics departments at a number of research universities. The application materials were identical, except that half were assigned a female name, and the other half assigned a male name. Science faculty were asked to evaluate the applicants’ competence, hireability, and mentoring potential (how deserving they were of mentoring), and also to recommend a starting salary.
The results were dismaying, to say the least: the researcher report that
Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant
Surprisingly, there were no significant differences in the male and female scientists’ evaluations of the applicants. Women scientists were just as likely as their male counterparts to show bias against the female applicants, and indeed, there was a larger gender gap in the salaries the women scientists recommended than the ones the men recommended. Also alarming is the fact that bias against female applicants was independent of the evaluators’ age, with younger scientists as likely to be biased against women as the older ones. Faculty members’ tenure status and academic discipline didn’t seem to make a difference, either. A separate assessment suggested that the faculty members harbored pre-existing biases against women, albeit largely unconscious ones.
Sadly, the basic findings of the Yale study are not anything new. There is an overwhelming body of social science evidence that suggests strong sexist bias against women in a variety of occupations, and in many other aspects of life as well. You can find some of the more interesting studies here, here, here, and here; see also Echidne of the Snakes’ excellent primer on the gender wage gap. That’s why it was so troubling, a number of years back, when Larry Summers, who is after all a social scientist by training and by all accounts a brilliant one, dismissed out of hand the possibility that bias was impeding women’s progress on the sciences, and focused instead on the theory that our teeny tiny ladybrains made us biologically incapable of the big, manly job of excelling in science.
What the Yale findings demonstrate is that bias against women in the sciences is deep and widespread, and that female scientists and younger scientists are just as likely to be biased as their old dude counterparts. Ridding the discipline of biases that are this deep-rooted will be tough. That’s why educating scientists about the pervasiveness of gender bias and how it works is so important — how can they possibly overcome their own biases if they don’t learn to recognize them, and don’t take proactive steps to act against them?
Larry Summers’ head-in-the-sand attitude about sexism in the sciences infuriated many women because we know that if we remain in denial and continue to make excuses about the problem, it will never go away. An abundance of research demonstrates that even well-meaning people and supposedly objective people can harbor biases that will cause them to discriminate. Educating people about bias and instituting strong affirmative action programs are crucial if we are to have any pretensions whatsoever about creating a society that truly provides equal opportunities for all. Larry Summers style do-nothingism will get us nowhere.