Scientists, Your Gender Bias Is Showing

Nobody who is familiar with the literature on this will be surprised, but it’s good to accumulate new evidence and also to keep the issue in the public eye: academic scientists are, on average, biased against women. I know it’s fun to change the subject and talk about bell curves and intrinsic ability, but hopefully we can all agree that people with the same ability should be treated equally. And they are not.

That’s the conclusion of a new study in PNAS by Corinne Moss-Racusin and collaborators at Yale. (Hat tip Dan Vergano.) To test scientist’s reactions to men and women with precisely equal qualifications, the researchers did a randomized double-blind study in which academic scientists were given application materials from a student applying for a lab manager position. The substance of the applications were all identical, but sometimes a male name was attached, and sometimes a female name.

Results: female applicants were rated lower than men on the measured scales of competence, hireability, and mentoring (whether the scientist would be willing to mentor this student). Both male and female scientists rated the female applicants lower.

This lurking bias has clear real-world implications. When asked what kind of starting salaries they might be willing to offer the applicants, the ones offered to women were lower.

I have no reason to think that scientists are more sexist than people in other professions in the US, but this is my profession, and I’d like to see it do better. Admitting that the problem exists is a good start.

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235 Responses to Scientists, Your Gender Bias Is Showing

  1. OMF says:

    I suspect quite a lot of academics would shrivel up and die inside if they were ever faced with a competent, articulate, and capable young woman in their offices. Egos are very important to some.

  2. Wow, thanks for sharing this. It’s alarming that men and women both rated female students lower, and those salary numbers are really depressing. Sometimes it seems like we’re making progress, but then I see things like this and wonder what it takes to overcome seemingly pervasive implicit biases?

  3. Pingback: Scientists, Your Gender Bias Is Showing | Science Actuality

  4. Joey says:

    Sadly, gender bias still lurks amongst conference organizers:
    http://www.aas.org/cswa/percent.html

  5. ccpetersen says:

    Joey, very true. And, among conference organizers in science media as well.

  6. Kris says:

    Instead of outsourcing to another country, have any businesses cut their labour costs by firing all of their male employees in order to replace them with women?

  7. Zen Faulkes says:

    Jacquelyn: ” I see things like this and wonder what it takes to overcome seemingly pervasive implicit biases?”

    Simple in theory: double blind hiring. All identifying information on applications is removed, so applications are only judged by the content of their material.

    Orchestras did it: http://ideas.repec.org/p/nbr/nberwo/5903.html

  8. Chemjobber says:

    I don’t doubt the results of the survey, sad as they may be. We have a lot of work to do.

    I find the second figure’s y-axis misleading. It makes a 15% lower salary difference (still bad!) look like a 200% difference.

  9. onlyforlulz says:

    Re: Fig 2. Your y-axis makes my math itch.

  10. Similar biases exist across professions and also for race. Some of this research is summarized in this brochure: http://mickteaching.wordpress.com/2012/09/19/women-in-science/.

    That brochure also mentions ways to help reduce the effects of these biases. One thing that helps is making people aware that these biases exist, so posts like this help.

    My group also encourages discussions among our students and lab members (http://mickteaching.wordpress.com/2012/09/19/women-in-science/). These discussions can be very personal, so they need to be done in the right sort of environment.

  11. Adam says:

    I like how there isn’t any mention regarding whether those reviewing the applications were looking for specific qualifications. You can’t just report that they turn down the women if they’re also turning down men, and then later- after the review process is done and they’ve chosen someone- focus only on the percentage of men. This poll seems partially flawed. What if (in the spirit of speeding up the hiring process) those reviewers just went with the first qualified resumé? Sometimes it’s men, sometimes it isn’t.

  12. Jdrok says:

    It would be interesting to see a comparable experiment about hiring into a non-leadership research position, as opposed to lab manager. My guess is that the bias would be somewhat less, but I am not confident in this prediction.

  13. Julia says:

    @ Adam:
    Read the last sentence of the second paragraph

  14. May says:

    Why are your y-axes not labelled?

  15. Chris says:

    #11: “I like how there isn’t any mention regarding whether those reviewing the applications were looking for specific qualifications.”

    Did you miss this part?

    “The substance of the applications were all identical…”

  16. Anon says:

    @Adam: “Results: female applicants were rated lower than men on the measured scales of competence, hireability, and mentoring (whether the scientist would be willing to mentor this student). Both male and female scientists rated the female applicants lower.”

    What part of that quote was not clear to you? They didn’t just go with the “1st one”; everyone was rated. Or did you not read the post all the way through?!

    @May: y-axes are explained in the figure captions.

    Seriously people, read much?

  17. Jodi says:

    This study would suggest a similar bias also exists against female authors. Double blind peer review would even the playing field

  18. G says:

    Since I know similar same resume/differently gendered names studies have been done in business hiring and other contexts. I’d like to have seen the researchers at least attempt to compare gender bias within academic science to gender bias outside academia. I have suspicions that, while the bias exists everywhere, it might be greater in magnitude outside of academia than it is within — but that’s just a suspicion, and I’d like evidence one way or t’other.

  19. Fergal says:

    What’s most interesting is that female faculty were more biased than male faculty were (at least in terms of salary offered; Table 1 of the paper). It’s not a statistically significant difference, but it’s consistent with my anecdotal experience.

  20. Also on the same topic – http://www.hunter.cuny.edu/gendertutorial/
    It’s a series of tutorials examining the gender gap in STEM. She descibes two key concepts: gender schemas and the accumulation of advantage. The brief summary is that gender schemas (hypotheses about what it means to be male or female, which assign different psychological traits to males and females) cause us to underrate women and overrate men in professional settings. Many small effects of these schemas add up, with the result that men accumulate more advantage than women do.

  21. ac says:

    I’m honestly super surprised by this, though maybe that’s because I’m in a bio lab? All our lab managers are women, basically, and my (admittedly sexist!) bias is that women tend to be more conscientious and organized. I would have thought that for an equally skilled man or woman, I would prefer the woman…?

  22. R Long says:

    BS. Females have gotten Every Affirmative action in the last 30 years. This is PC BS propaganda!

  23. wendy says:

    Adam-I like how you missed that the applicants were IDENTICAL, other than some having male names attached, and some female. So……now what?

  24. wendy says:

    R long–Affirmative action? Do you even know what that is? Only government jobs are actually REQUIRED to abide by it. Private sector jobs, the vast majority of jobs available, are not required to follow any kind of affirmative action laws at all. In other words, affirmative action has nothing to do with this, or even the real world. So I guess every study that contradicts your deep-seated biases is just “propaganda?” Convenient.

  25. Moz says:

    Kris: no, but I have preferentially hired recent immigrants to the same effect. It’s funny when a skilled civil engineer is thrilled to get a job as a building manager (custodian in the US?), and I’m thrilled to have him (or her) because they’re good, dedicated and will work for lower wages than similarly competent locals. Of course, they do leave after a year or two but they all have a list of replacements organised well before then. Two years working locally plus a good reference from a native speaker makes a huge difference to employability.