Does Gender Bias Still Exist in Academic STEM Careers?

Photo credit: Jane Ades, NHGRI source: www.genome.gov/dmd

Issues related to inequality are often difficult to deal with. Depending on your demographics, you are probably pretty confident inequalities exist, but when these issues are discussed publicly, attempts are often made to explain them away. Those in the majority (e.g., white and/or male) tend to feel defensive in these conversations because our privilege can evoke guilt and shame, but also a feeling of insult; we worked our tails off to achieve the positions we’re in and how dare someone say we gained this position because of the privilege our phenotype grants us by society. This feeling is understandable, however, as scientists, we must put our feelings aside at times like these and rely on the data.

A recent study out of Jo Handelsman’s lab at Yale University (Moss-Racusin, et al, 2012) looks at the underrepresentation of women in academic science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Although the numbers of women studying and graduating with degrees in STEM fields is on the rise, the authors report that the number of women hired into faculty STEM roles is not increasing proportionally. They assert that this suggests that time will not solve this issue. To investigate whether or not gender bias actually exists in hiring practices, the authors conducted a double-blind, randomized survey of 127 faculty members in biology, chemistry and physics at research-intensive universities. The professors surveyed were given application materials of undergraduates applying for a lab manager position.  The application materials were identical, except that some were assigned a traditionally male name and others were assigned a traditionally female name. Professors participating in the study were asked to rate the applicant on competence and hireability and also comment on the salary they would offer the student as well as the amount of mentoring they would offer.

As you might expect from reading the introduction to this blog post, applicants identified as male were rated as more competent and were more likely to be hired. Professors also indicated that they would offer more mentoring to the male applicants and pay them a higher salary than the female applicant with identical qualifications. One interesting result is that female professors participating in the study showed similar bias towards male students as did male professors! The hypotheses proposed and discussed in the manuscript are well worth reading, and I will let you consider the data and discussion on your own.

In closing, I would like to point out a powerful statement the authors make in the introduction of the manuscript

“If faculty express gender biases, we are not suggesting that these biases are intentional or stem from a conscious desire to impede the progress of women in science. Past studies indicate that people’s behavior is shaped by implicit or unintended biases, stemming from repeated exposure to pervasive cultural stereotypes.”

If you find yourself getting defensive when inequality is discussed, I ask you to consider this sentence. In my opinion, it is impossible to live in any society without developing stereotypes and biases. It is in our nature to categorize things to make more sense of the word around us. We all hold biases and prejudices. The important question is, how do you handle these biases once you realize they exist?

Moss-Racusin, et al. (2012) Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. PNAS. Published online before print September 17, 2012. Accessed November 13, 2012 from http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/09/14/1211286109.

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Karen Reece

Senior Research Scientist at Promega Corporation
Karen is a Senior Research Scientist in Nucleic Acid Technologies at Promega. She has a BS in Biochemistry and MS and PhD in Physiology, all from University of Wisconsin-Madison. Karen was born and raised in Madison, WI and every time she would think of moving away something would come up, so she just decided to stay. When she’s not doing research and/or development, Karen enjoys the local music scene (particularly Hip-Hop), playing the cello and singing, and fighting for social justice.

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