Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Do Science Faculty Favor Male Students?

Scientists are supposed to be unbiased.  So it was perhaps a shock to some when a paper was published a few weeks ago in PNAS called, "Science Faculty's Subtle Gender Biases Favor Male Students".  In this study, the researchers gave faculty members (both male and female) fake applications of undergraduate students who were thinking about going to graduate school and who would be applying for a lab manager position.  The application packages were exactly the same...except for the gender of the applicant (John or Jennifer).  What were the results?  According to the authors, the faculty members "rated the male applicants significantly more competent and hirable than the (identical) female applicant." The male applicants were also thought to deserve a significantly higher salary (about 14% higher) than the female student applicants.  The other surprise was that both male and female faculty exhibited similar levels of bias.

Although some critics have questioned the findings, I was impressed with how thorough the authors were and with the insights their study revealed about stereotypical thinking.  If you read the paper and the supplementary information, you see that the authors went to great lengths to ensure their methods were solid.  Although the differences between the male and female student evaluations were not huge percentage-wise, they were nonetheless significant.  The presence of a small but significant bias suggests that the lower percentages of women achieving faculty or other senior science positions could be partly due to subtle bias as well as to other factors such as work-family issues (child-bearing/rearing) and related personal choices affecting success in STEM fields (see references at the end for several reports that discuss these different influences).

I know that the work-life balance explanation would not apply to my experience because I never had children (or work vs. family choices) that interfered with my science career. Yet I always struggled to gain recognition in my field, was consistently underpaid in relation to male counterparts, and had to achieve several times more than male colleagues for the same level of acceptance, salary, and advancement opportunities.  My experience, of course, does not preclude the possibility that the main obstacle for some women is related to the work-life balance issue.  Similarly, the results of this study do not suggest that bias is the only reason for a disproportionately low number of women faculty in STEM fields.  The point is that it could have an effect, which on top of other obstacles, may tip the balance.

A single instance of bias...a negative comment, a less enthusiastic mentor, or a luke-warm letter of recommendation will not kill someone's career.  However, when someone is treated to subtle bias on a regular basis throughout their training and career, it has an effect, not only directly on the opportunities offered to that person, but on their confidence.  Perhaps the latter is the most important effect because it quickly becomes a feedback loop.  If faculty advisers treat female students with slightly less enthusiasm than male counterparts, this may cause the student to question themselves (or to view themselves as being slightly less worthy of attention), which makes them more tentative in their interactions with superiors and colleagues, which makes people question their capabilities, which leads to fewer job offers, lower salary offers, fewer nominations for awards, and fewer opportunities for advancement.

The authors discuss how this subtle bias may be rooted in stereotypical thinking about the social roles of men and women. I should note here that the authors of this paper do not propose that the bias they measured in the science faculty participants was conscious....they did not think that the faculty participants were deliberately rating the female applicants as inferior.  Their interpretation was that this bias is subconscious and that we all suffer from it to one degree or another.  You can check out your gender objectivity, subconscious and otherwise, at Project Implicit.

An article written by Meg Urry (a professor of physics) about her impressions of this gender study and bias, made an interesting observation along these lines.  She noted that those people who swear they are not biased are the most likely to make biased judgements; conversely, those who are aware of their subconscious biases are less likely to succumb to that internal bias.  Urry's observation reminds me of the Dunning-Kruger personality type, which causes someone to overestimate their abilities:  the more incompetent they are, the higher their confidence.  This seemingly paradoxical effect occurs because the mental skills required to be competent at most tasks are the same skills needed to accurately evaluate one's own abilities in relation to others.  I speculated in a series of previous posts (starting here) that such people fall back on stereotypes to gauge other people's competence because they lack the mental skills to assess them based on more objective evidence.  Perhaps also, when busy people are faced with a complex set of materials and are asked to make a recommendation, they are more susceptible to subconscious biases or may rely more on them to make a decision.

Whatever the reason for the difference in how male and female student applicants were assessed by science faculty members, the results of this study should make everyone more conscious of the possibility that we may be biased, especially when we think we are not.

Some Additional Reading:

Beade, D. et al. 2011.  Women in STEM:  A gender gap to innovation.  ESA Issue Brief 04-11. [Link]

Hill, C. et al. Why So Few?  American Association of University Women.  [Link]

Ivey, E. 2005. Gender differences among contingent faculty: a literature review. Association for Women in Science. [Link]

NAS.  2007.  Beyond bias and barriers: Fulfilling the role of women in academic science and engineering.  National Academies Press [Link]

National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics, Gender Differences in the Careers of Academic Scientists and Engineers, NSF 04-323, Project Officer, Alan I. Rapoport (Arlington, VA, 2004). [Link]

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