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Gender Bias and the Sciences: Facing Reality

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Empirical evidence of gender bias in higher education – and the sciences in particular – continues to stack up. For scientists, that data cannot be ignored. One might like to think that more educated people are somehow above discrimination, but the evidence suggests the contrary. That poses a challenge to America’s universities and colleges that must be faced head-on, and the challenge is not simply an academic problem. It’s crucial to America’s future leadership in science and technology, and to generating the jobs that they have historically produced.

A peer-reviewed report, published in September by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that science professors at American research universities demonstrated bias against women in hiring. As the abstract explains: “In a randomized double-blind study (n = 127), science faculty from research-intensive universities rated the application materials of a student—who was randomly assigned either a male or female name—for a laboratory manager position. Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant… The gender of the faculty participants did not affect responses, such that female and male faculty were equally likely to exhibit bias against the female student.”

A peer-reviewed study of top U.S. graduate programs in the sciences – titled “Gender Segregation in Elite Academic Science” – was funded by the National Academy of Sciences and published in the October issue of Gender and Society. Rice University, where the study’s lead author and principal investigator, Elaine Howard Ecklund, is Associate Professor of Sociology, explained the research as follows: “The study surveyed 2,500 biologists and physicists at elite institutions of higher education in the United States… The study’s key finding is that both male and female scientists view gender discrimination as a factor in women’s decision not to choose a science career at all or to choose biology over physics. However, the two sexes still have differences in opinion about when discrimination occurs.”

As Professor Ecklund elaborates, “During interviews, men almost never mentioned present-day discrimination, believing that any discrimination in physical science classes likely took place early in the educational history (primary school), which they believe explains women’s predisposition to biological sciences. However, female scientists believe that discrimination is still occurring in present-day universities and departments.”

The study in Proceedings clearly supports that latter perspective, as does a look at faculty salaries by gender. According to a report by the American Association of University Professors – titled “Persistent Inequity: Gender and Academic Employment”– “recent reports from the Modern Language Association (2009) and University of Massachusetts Amherst researchers (Misra, et al., 2011) confirm that women are less likely to be promoted than men, and when they are promoted, the process takes longer… Women earn less than men, on average, at each faculty rank and at all types of institutions… Because women are overrepresented at the lowest ranks and at the lowest-paying institutions, women’s overall average salary has remained at around 80 percent of the average for men since the mid-1970s.”

It’s easy for science faculty members, convinced of their own high ethical standards, to assume that gender discrimination lies outside of their actions: earlier in the pipeline; in other fields; at other types of institutions. I found myself, as a former dean of natural sciences at a liberal arts college, reacting to these studies in just that way. My initial reaction was: that may be true of universities, but it wasn’t my experience at a liberal arts college.

I asked some colleagues to analyze the percentage of women with professorships (assistant, associate, visiting, or full professors) at the 30 highest-ranked liberal arts colleges, according to U.S. News & World Report. The analysis reveals great disparity in the percentage of women professors (of all ranks) among fields – with biology at 45%, chemistry at 35%, astronomy at 33%, and physics at 25%.

The total for physics is interestingly below the national average (28%, according to the U.S. Department of Education) for full professors at all U.S. postsecondary institutions across all fields – not just the sciences. And the physics percentage reflects all ranks – not just full professors.

Gender bias must be ended, and the disparities across fields offer a clue to how to do it. Those disparities are quite pronounced in some cases and more subtle in others. As The Chronicle of Higher Education reports, “Engineering and teaching are among the most lopsided disciplines in academe’s gender split. In 2010, women received 80 percent of the undergraduate degrees awarded in education, the U.S. Education Department reports. And they earned 77 percent of the master’s and 67 percent of the doctoral degrees in that field. In engineering, by contrast, women earned just 18 percent of undergraduate, 22 percent of master’s, and 23 percent of doctoral degrees… Perhaps nowhere has the gender gap been more pronounced … than in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—the STEM fields. Women are still a minority in those fields… Not surprisingly, the gender distribution of professors in the STEM disciplines is similarly skewed.”

Gender bias should be tackled not only by institutions of higher education but by fields, and within those fields by individual departments. Every department chair should assess the department’s role in gender bias and how it can be changed – in hiring, salary, and promotion decisions for the faculty but also in numbers of students, summer job opportunities, and scholarships. Department chairs are key to solving the problem, and they should lead the effort within their own departments, while also working with deans and provosts to ensure that this persistent problem is discussed on campuses with faculty and students.

In the 21st century, America will not compete successfully with the rest of the world in the STEM fields if we do not take full advantage of the intellectual powers of more than half of our population.

 

James M. Gentile About the Author: James M. Gentile is President and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement (www.rescorp.org), which celebrates its Centennial – 100 years of science advancement – this year.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 15 Comments

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  1. 1. stonehat 9:43 am 12/4/2012

    6 year old boys are behind 6 year old girls in reading tests.
    Where are the feminazis campaining to right this wrong, which must be due to sexist women teachers – because we’re all equal, right ?

    Link to this
  2. 2. RDH 10:13 am 12/4/2012

    Well if such a high percentage of women are getting degrees in teaching (and I assume other fields of study where this occurs exist), it makes sense that there are less women getting degrees in, for example, physics.

    So why do women like teaching so much? Could it be that women, for some odd reason, like children? My wife has decided not to work in order to take care of our toddler grandson as opposed to letting him go to day care. Her career is suffering (MIS & Finance degrees) in the meantime. She plans five years of this. The result is that she will almost assuredly make less than someone she graduated with, who didn’t take five years off, when she reenters the work force.

    Perhaps L. Summers should have asked, “Why do women seem to have a predisposition to taking care of a child.”

    Link to this
  3. 3. drdave944@aol.com 10:48 am 12/4/2012

    All that is proved is that there are statistical differences along the measured variable, namely the percentage of two classes of people,men vs women and how they differ according to what ever variable that is being measured. In order to see if this is due to gender based discrimination we need to go deeper. Merely pointing out differences and declaring them to be evidence of discrimination is circular and not very scientific.

    This just seems to cast doubt on the scientific rigor of gender studies. If women social scientists are behind these studies and this is how women do science, maybe this is why women are not in the higher levels of physical sciences and engineering.

    I know this is not true because I have seen some real good women scientists. The reported studies don’t ever seem to break any new ground,only parrot the results of similar studies.

    Link to this
  4. 4. JayMan 10:50 am 12/4/2012

    I’ve already tackled this, you may want to read it:

    The Leaks in the Pipeline Found? | JayMan’s Blog

    Link to this
  5. 5. Argentee 11:01 am 12/4/2012

    Or maybe after getting a bachelor’s in physics and being the only female in the program and enduring 4 years of not being called on, 4 years of not having people want to partner with you in labs, 4 years of being treated like you were invisible, female students go on to other fields.

    I know I did.

    Link to this
  6. 6. scicurious 12:37 pm 12/4/2012

    Stonehat: I guess this explains why so very few boys grow up to be writers or readers or…oh wait.

    RDH: I guess men must NOT want to care for children then? As their careers do not suffer when they have children, because the mother usually provides the majority of childcare. I suppose this must be an evolutionary drive and not at ALL the result of a society which strongly pressures women to stay at home with children and men to never take off work. And why, exactly, should a woman’s career suffer because she has to take time for a child? Why is there no infrastructure in place to help women succeed in their careers along with being parents?

    Link to this
  7. 7. BioGuy553 1:44 pm 12/4/2012

    Let me make sure I’m understanding this correctly: when fields are more heavily favored by women, such as education, biology, and psychology, we just assume it’s because those fields interest them more. But when fields are more heavily favored by men, such as computer science and physics, it’s because of gender bias. Am I understanding this double-standard correctly?

    Look, I’m about as much of an open-minded, equal rights supporting liberal as you’re going to find most of the time, but there comes a time when making such excuses stops being convincing. My biology classes in college generally had more women than men, but I would never consider complaining about that, or claiming there was a gender bias. Bottom line, if a woman pursues engineering or computer science, she’ll be taking the same college courses with the same tests and same professors as men. The hyperbole in this article is not something I would expect on a science website.

    Some fields are more popular with women, and some with men. Maybe it’s about time we just accept that this is due more to differing general interests between the genders, rather than sexism.

    Link to this
  8. 8. BioGuy553 1:52 pm 12/4/2012

    @Argentee

    If going into physics was your dream, and you gave up on it because you couldn’t make friends in your physics classes, I have no sympathy for you. That’s blunt, but it’s also life.

    Link to this
  9. 9. cc.petersen 3:05 pm 12/4/2012

    BioGuy,

    Go back and read Argentee’s comment more carefully. This posted did not make it about “friendship” but about the fact that she was ignored, not called on, and people refused to partner on projects. This is significant and goes way beyond simply “making friends.” Think about how you would feel if you experienced the same issues. Science these days is about partnering on projects and team issues, and if a person is ignored and not invited to work on projects, it affects their ability to get work, do work, and do it well.

    So, don’t belittle someone’s comment without having applied that experience to yourself to see how it might affect you.

    It makes YOU look like a thoughtless idiot. Which you probably aren’t, but your words are all we have to go by in judging your commentary.

    Link to this
  10. 10. caedocyon 5:47 pm 12/4/2012

    DrDave,

    What part of “randomized, double blind study” do you not understand? Your knee-jerk reaction that “of course academia isn’t biased, it’s just that those nurturing womenfolk aren’t interested in Man Things like science!” is a MAJOR part of the problem. The hiring bias against “female” names exists—it’s science. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to women in STEM fields, as Argentee’s comment points out.

    What you said: “All that is proved is that there are statistical differences along the measured variable, namely the percentage of two classes of people,men vs women and how they differ according to what ever variable that is being measured. In order to see if this is due to gender based discrimination we need to go deeper.”

    Link to this
  11. 11. JayMan 8:48 pm 12/4/2012

    @caedocyon:

    Academia may be biased, but there may be some good reasons for this. See my post above.

    Link to this
  12. 12. HansenJC 1:14 am 12/5/2012

    Would the last sentence of this post be better phrased: “America will not compete successfully with the rest of the world in the STEM fields if we do not take full advantage of the intellectual powers of 100% of our population.”

    I feel that the statistics given in this blog post would support me when I say that we currently do take full advantage of the intellectual powers of well over half of our population, but decidedly not yet 100% of the female population.

    Link to this
  13. 13. Karen Poole 5:46 pm 12/5/2012

    RDH says: “Well if such a high percentage of women are getting degrees in teaching (and I assume other fields of study where this occurs exist), it makes sense that there are less women getting degrees in, for example, physics.”

    You could look at it that way. You could also ask the question, “Why are so few men getting degrees in teaching?” And I’d say that a large part of that is because most K-12 teaching jobs pay pretty poorly, and men in our society are under pressure to get jobs that can provide for a family. So men who might be interested in teaching end up going into some other field where they can get better pay. Gender biases don’t just hurt women.

    Link to this
  14. 14. Karen Poole 5:54 pm 12/5/2012

    drdave says: “In order to see if this is due to gender based discrimination we need to go deeper.”

    Um, yeah. That’s exactly what the first study discussed did. The made some fake resumes to give to faculty, asking who they would hire for lab assistant jobs. They randomly assigned male and female names to their fake resumes. Guess what? The resumes with the male names were disproportionately favored by both male and female faculty members. Sure, we should do some more studies like this, but this clearly points to a systemic (and perhaps unconcious) bias in hiring practices. Link to the PNAS paper: http://www.pnas.org/content/109/41/16474.full?sid=286cc3b3-dc41-48ba-a474-7751c0089db1

    Link to this
  15. 15. Karen Poole 6:06 pm 12/5/2012

    Bioguy says: “Look, I’m about as much of an open-minded, equal rights supporting liberal as you’re going to find most of the time, but there comes a time when making such excuses stops being convincing. My biology classes in college generally had more women than men, but I would never consider complaining about that, or claiming there was a gender bias.”

    Way to miss the whole point of the article. This isn’t about the percentage of people in college classes (where anyone accepted into the college can enroll in the class). This is about percentages of faculty members teaching those classes, and therefore about the hiring practices of colleges and universities. So you’ve already made a false comparison.

    Secondly, right there in the original post, it says that 45% of faculty in Biological Sciences are women. So even in a field supposedly favored by women, they still make up less than half of the faculty. The complaint isn’t “boo hoo, I’m surrounded by men!”; it’s about that leaky pipe in between getting an undergraduate degree and getting hired as a faculty member. And as the PNAS study mentioned (and linked in my previous comment) shows, there is systematic bias here.

    Link to this

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