Why So Few?”, found that although there have been gains, stereotypes and cultural biases continue to plague women in the sciences.
A few highlights from this report:
1. A study of postdoctoral applicants found that women had to publish 3 more papers in prestigious journals or 20 more in lesser journals to be judged equally productive as male applicants. [Edit added 3/26/2010: note that these extra papers represent what a female applicant would need to achieve the same "competence" score as a male--and is not what was typical of the productivity of applicants (for fellowships in the Swedish Medical Association). In other words, this is what it would take for female applicants to overcome the prejudice in this competition. See Comments for more information.]
2. Another study found systematic differences in letters of recommendation for academic faculty positions for female and male applicants. More often mentioned attributes for males: achievements, research, abilities; for females: compassion, teaching, effort. These were judged to be unconscious stereotyping as opposed to conscious bias.
3. Being discouraged from entering a science field was cited by female and minority chemists and chemical engineers as the leading contributor to underrepresentation in those fields. Many in this same survey specifically said that they had been actively deterred in college, most often by a professor.
4. The “double-bind”: being competent and well-liked. Studies indicate that likability and competence both matter for workplace success. One study found that when information about performance was not provided, the woman was rated much less competent than the man, whereas when prior success was made explicit, both men and women were rated equally competent. The opposite pattern held for likability. When success was unclear, men and women were judged similarly likable, but when success was clear, the man was judged more likable. This outcome was only true for “male-type” jobs (successful women in “female-type” jobs did not experience the same negativity). See the figure at left.
5. An experiment that tested “contrast sensitivity ability”, a skill made up by the investigators, showed that when men and women in a group were told there was no difference between the sexes in ability, rated their own ability equally. Not surprisingly, when the group was told that men were better, men rated themselves much higher than did women. They were tested by being asked to detect the proportion of white and black on a screen, which actually were equal or nearly so—so there was no real correct answer. However, they apparently did not test the outcome for the situation in which the group was told that women were more skilled. It would have been interesting to see if men still rated themselves higher. In any case, the upshot is that individual aspirations for a career are influenced by one’s perceived ability or potential ability in that field.
6. Some research indicates that even when individuals consciously reject gender stereotypes, they can still be biased at an unconscious level.
Some positive observations:
1. Small things can make a big difference: a course to acquire a special skill (such as the spatial skills course mentioned above); assurance that ability (in a particular field) is not fixed, but grows with experience.
2. Teaching girls about how stereotypes affect performance can diminish such effects.
3. Mentors are very influential.
4. Where there are clear criteria for judging individual performances, women are more likely to be judged competent and have a higher probability for success.
5. A highly successful, competent woman can improve her likeability by increasing her “communal” nature, e.g., being seen as a nurturing “mother” type. I don’t think this observation should alter one’s behavior, but it does provide some insight into sources of negativity (seeing women as competitors rather than nurturers).
In any case, the report is fascinating reading.