In February of last year I reported on a study by Ceci and Williams showing that, at least according to the authors’ methodology, there was little evidence of gender bias against women in academia for getting grants, being hired as a faculty member, or getting papers published. Although women still occupy faculty positions disproportionately less often compared to their acquisition of degrees, I found this result heartening. It was, however, a meta-analysis of many other studies, and these can be problematic.
I was therefore disheartened to see a new study, by Corinne Moss-Racusin et al. in the same journal—the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (download free at link, I think; if you’re unable, email me for the pdf)—showing bias against women of a different kind: the hiring of students to be laboratory managers. This is not a meta-analysis, but a single sociological study, and—though I’m not an expert in the field—the results look sound to me.
The authors did a simple thing: they sent a group of application materials from a fictitious undergraduate looking a lab-manager job to 127 American biology, chemistry, and physics professors of both sexes. The applications were not for jobs in the professors’ own labs, but simply applications that the faculty were asked to evaluate for the student’s competence and hireability, as well as to decide what salary and how much mentoring the applicant could expect to get from them.
The applications were identical except for one thing: they had the name of either a male ( “John”, n = 63 applications) or a female (“Jennifer”, n = 64 applicants). As the study states, “Faculty participants believed that their feedback would be shared with the student they had rated . . ”
The applications were designed to be good but not perfect: that is, the applicant had a few flaws. This was done to ensure that there would be discernible variation in how the applications were judged. If the applicant was perfect in every respect, it would be harder to judge any bias on the part of the raters.
The results are disappointing, for they show a substantial disparity between males and females in all categories, with women at the bottom. Surprisingly, female faculty were as biased as male faculty. All of the male-female differences in perceived quality were statistically significant.
This graph tells the tale for perceived competence, hireability, and mentoring; women are lower on all counts:
Fig. 1. Competence, hireability, and mentoring by student gender condition (collapsed across faculty gender). All student gender differences are significant (P < 0.001). Scales range from 1 to 7, with higher numbers reflecting a greater extent of each variable. Error bars represent SEs. n(male student condition) = 63, n(female student condition) = 64.
And here are the means, grouped by sex, for perceived competence, hireability, mentoring, and the salary that was deemed appropriate for the candidate. Note that the gender of the faculty member evaluating the application is also given.
In the part of the table below, the categories—”competence” through “salary” are in the same order as above, but this time the applicant was Jennifer instead of John:
The caption from the paper: Scales for competence, hireability, and mentoring range from 1 to 7, with higher numbers reflecting a greater extent of each variable. The scale for salary conferral ranges from $15,000 to $50,000. Means with different subscripts within each row differ significantly (P < 0.05). Effect sizes (Cohen’s d) represent target student gender differences (no faculty gender differences were significant, all P > 0.14). Positive effect sizes favor male students. Conventional small, medium, and large effect sizes for d are 0.20, 0.50, and 0.80, respectively (51). n(male student condition) = 63, n(female student condition) = 64. ***P < 0.001.
Oy vey! The ratings of the female applicant were substantially lower than those of the male in every respect. Means with different subscripts between the tables (e.g., a vs. b) are significantly different, while those with identical subscripts don’t differ significantly.
The salient results:
- For competence hireability, and willingness to mentor the applicant, women were ranked roughly 25% lower then men.
- This ranking did not depend on whether the professor who did the rating was male or female, so whatever bias is reflected here is shown by faculty of both genders. To me that is surprising.
- Male faculty offered female applicants only 88% of the salary offered to males. The disparity was even greater for female professors, who were willing to offer the female applicants only 85% the salary of male applicants.
- When they did a path analysis, combining “competence” and “salary” into one “composite competence variable,” the authors found that the strongest cause for all the disparities was this: “the female student was less likely to be hired than the identical male because she was viewed as less competent overall.”
- A separate analysis of the faculty members’ views using something called the Modern Sexism Scale showed that the assessments of female (but not male) competence reflected “preexisting subtle bias” against women. This supported the authors’ a priori hypothesis that “subtle bias against women would be negatively related to evaluations of the female student, but unrelated to evaluations of the male student.”
- There is gender bias against women—and it’s pretty substantial—at this level of hiring. This is, of course, in conflict with the results of the Ceci and Williams study mentioned above. It’s possible that once women get past being hired as a faculty member, discrimination lessens substantially, but I am not sure the Ceci and Williams study, being a meta-analysis, is sound. In addition, every woman I know who is a faculty member in biology, and has discussed the issue with me, says she perceives sexism in the community at some level. Granted, those are anecdotes, but I know a lot of female faculty.
- Because the bias is evinced at the student rather than postdoc/faculty stage (if you accept the results of Ceci and Williams), interventions promoting female advancement in science should take place early in the academic career, while one is still an undergraduate. This could involve, among other things, education of undergraduate advisers about the problem. As the authors note, “Because most students depend on feedback from their environments to calibrate their own worth, faculty’s assessments of students’ competence likely contribute to students’ self-efficacy and goal setting as scientists. which may influence decisions much later in their careers.” This suggests that women may abandon careers in academic science not because of bias manifested after they’re hired, but bias they perceive early in their careers.
- The bias against women was manifested equally by both male and female faculty. This surprised me, but I’ve also been told by women that women are often harder on women than on men (again, anecdotes).
The authors’ conclusion is clear:
The dearth of women within academic science reflects a significant wasted opportunity to benefit from the capabilities of our best potential scientists, whether male or female. Although women have begun to enter some science fields in greater numbers, their mere increased presence is not evidence of the absence of bias. Rather, some women may persist in academic science despite the damaging effects of unintended gender bias on the part of faculty. Similarly, it is not yet possible to conclude that the preferences for other fields and lifestyle choices that lead many women to leave academic science (even after obtaining advanced degrees) are not themselves influenced by experiences of bias, at least to some degree. To the extent that faculty gender bias impedes women’s full participation in science, it may undercut not only academic meritocracy, but also the expansion of the scientific workforce needed for the next decade’s advancement of national competitiveness.
I have only one beef with this. I don’t give a hoot whether the USA beats all other nations in the quality and output of its scientists. That, to me, is a form of chauvinism, and science, being an international venture, should be promoted everywhere. A rising tide lifts all boats. We should try to eliminate gender bias not because it will make the U.S. more competitive, but simply because it’s the right thing to do.
Moss-Racusin, C. A., J. F. Dovidio, V. L. Brescoll, M. J. Graham, and J. Handelsman. 2012. Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA, published online before print September 17, 2012, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1211286109